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Tag Archives: alcoholic beverages

If you come in with a big group and are a totally hammered 55 year old woman…

…it won’t matter to anyone, especially my manager on duty, the hostess, or me (or even the rest of your party) when, after I tell you that I can’t serve you any alcohol, you yell, “I’m never coming back here again!” as you storm out from your party.  In fact, the rest of your party will be glad that you left and that I didn’t serve you anymore alcohol.

Just so you know, you never coming back here again is a big win for us.

I’m just sayin’…

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Cognac

Sometimes I do a post that I have every intention of following up on. But then, it falls through the cracks. Here is that very post:

https://teleburst.wordpress.com/2009/12/29/brandy-vs-cognac/

Last year, I wrote about brandy and cognac. I mentioned that I’d be getting a little deeper into the cognac thing, so, half a year later, here we are!

As I mentioned in that post, cognac is a subset of brandy. It’s named for a small mercantile town just north of the Bordeaux region of France. Cognac sits on the Charente River, which empties into the Bay of Biscayne at Rochefort , just north of the Gironde estuary, the site of the most fabled (if not the most “grand”) Chateaux in the world such as Margaux, Latour and Lafitte.

In the middle of the last millennium, the Charente was a somewhat significant river for shipping, sending barges laden with casks of brandy to the world and receiving spices and other exotica from around the globe. Cognac was a natural river port, but actually, the town further upstream, Jarmac, current home of Courvoisier, was on track to be the “home of cognac” that Cognac itself eventually became. According to Nicholas Faith’s great book on cognac, which, sadly, I can’t put my hands on at the moment, Jarmac was a more significant port, but a nobleman who had influence (perhaps it was Louis XIV) decided to show favor to Cognac over Jarmac (I’m going by memory here). Hence, most of the “houses”  ended up in Cognac proper, formerly a large salt distribution center. It’s quite possible that without noble intervention, we could all be drinking jarmac today.

Most people aren’t aware that cognac is like blended scotch in that most of the cognac that we consume is blended from many different barrels. Each “house” has its own flavor profile that it keeps standard through the use of the cellar master (Le Maitre de Chai – yes, it’s still very much a man’s game), but it is based on as many as a hundred different sources. There are a handful of producers that make a product similar to a single malt scotch, but they are very rare.

Cognac was designated a wine growing region on May 1, 1909. It took another 30 years for Cognac to be declared a Appellation d’origine contrôlée (AOC) or Controlled Appellation of Origin.

The region itself is broken down by zones  which roughly correspond to the geologic tendencies. there are six such “growing areas” ranked in order of quality and considered “crus” under the AOC –  Grande Champagne (GC), Petite Champagne (PG), Borderies, Fines Bois, Bons Bois, Bois Ordinaries. Finally, there’s an oddball designation, Fine Champagne, which is a blend of the top two crus.

Don’t be confused, the word champagne has nothing to do with the bubbly chardonnay drink that we pop on special occasions. In fact, cognac must be made from at least 90%  Ugni Blanc, Folle Blanché or Colombard. 

The four predominate soil characteristics of the region are chalk, clay, limestone and sand. Each of the regions has a specific composition that sets it apart from the others. This helps distinguish the flavor profiles as much as the blending does.

Here’s a map of the region. You’ll note that it looks roughly like a target:

Map courtesy of the Borderies distillers Domaine du Buisson and can be found here:

http://www.v-c.vc/tessendierusa/domainedubuisson/index.html

This is a small distillery that blends from their own vineyards, so they are closer to the spirit of the single malt scotch distiller, although they still blend from various casks. They just don’t buy from a variety of producers like the major houses do.

Anyway, getting back to the map, you can see that the highest designation, Grande Champagne, comes from a roughly round region that would be considered the “bulls-eye”. Some call it “The Golden Circle”. This is the home of the biggest distillers and the source of the highest quality raw stock. Its soil is mostly chalk, clay and limestone. It is this composition that gives the best cognac its renown for consistent quality. However, as in the case of Domaine du Buisson, excellent cognacs can be found outside of the region, although they can be hard to find in the US. Also, there are some blends that rely on grapes from outside this region, such as Martell’s Cordon Bleu, which relies on the nutty and floral characteristics of grapes grown in Borderies.

Now that we’ve briefly discussed the regions, lets delve into the various quality designators and the production of cognac. 

First of all, you should know that if there’s an age designate, the age refers to the youngest vintage used. the minimum age requirement is two years, but this is virtually never used. Distillers usually start at 12 years and go up from there. Until it’s blended, the wine is known as eau-de-vie (waters of life). Cognac is twice-distilled, normally in pot stills, also known as alembic stills. These are onion shaped copper pots.

http://blog.cognac-expert.com/distilling-cognac-pot-still-alembic-charentais-french-alambic/

The ratio of eau-de-vie to cognac is roughly 9 to 1.

The various initials that are supposed to designate quality are sometimes confusing to the novice. The lowest quality cognac is called VS, or “very special”. I don’t know what makes it “very special”, since there’s no S rating, but there ya go. Here they are in order from bottom to top:

VS – very special. This is the “youngest” of the cognacs. Minimum age of the eau-de-vie is 2 years old.  Technically, you could have 95% of the cognac being 50 years old and only 5% 2 years old, and it would still be considered VS. Theoretically, this could be far superior and pricier than a VSOP or XO.  Obviously, a distiller would be out of his or her mind to do this. VSes are generally made from the youngest of the usable vintages. The fact that it’s the lowest designation doesn’t mean that it’s bad, just that it won’t have the distinctive and rich flavor profiles of headier blends.

VSOP – very special old pale. Sounds very British, doesn’t it? I suspect that they are responsible for the designation, especially since the acronym refers to English words. This is the next step up in quality and price. The minimum age of the  eau-de-vie is 4 years old. Generally, you’ll see the average age of the eaux-de-vie ramp up as we go up the rungs.

XO – Extra old. Minimum age is 6 years old. Now we’re talking mostly old vintages, some of which can be a half a century or more old. This is going to change to 8 years in 2016, assuring an even more exclusivity.

You also have other qualifiers. Napoleon falls somewhere between VSOP and XO. It must be as old as an XO, but presumably, the average age will be lower, so it won’t be quite as expensive as an XO, but it demands a premium above VSOP.

Hors d’âge (beyond age) is basically a premium XO.  Louis XIII de Rémy Martin and Hennessey Richard (pronounce it ri-CARD) are examples of this. For example, Louis XIII uses 1200 different eaux-de-vie, some of which are 100 years old.

Extra – older than XO, you might think of this as an XXO. This can command a premium double that of an XO.  Rémy Martin even has an “Extra Perfect” that almost  doubles the price of Extra.

There are a couple of other more obscure designations that we’ll let slide.

There is one maker who is famous for ocean maturation – Kelt. They send barrels on a 3 month tour (as opposed to the three hour tour that Gilligan and his mates made). Unlike the Skipper and Maryanne, these barrels come back at the end of their voyage. This is done to pay homage to the origins of brandy and cognac as well as possibly introduce the variations in temperature and the influence of the salty sea air.

Cognac is traditionally served in a warmed brandy snifter, although Riedel and others have designed dedicated cognac glasses that look more like larger port glasses. Warming the glass allows the aromatics to be released, giving the taster a profound nose of rich scents. Whenever I serve a cognac, I give it a little swirl on the table to encourage this aroma. there are even nice devices that perform the function of warming that you are unlikely to see in most restaurants.

Cognac should be savored at the end of a meal and not drunk in conjunction with food, although any rule can certainly be broken. If you drink cognac with savory dishes, both will suffer. I really don’t even suggest serving cognac with sweets. That’s better left to sweet dessert wines. While some drink it with various juices, if you’re going to mix them, you should stick with cheaper brandies. It’s a waste of your money and the quality of the spirit.

Well, I hope that this very large thumbnail sketch gives you a better appreciation for this fine spirit. As a waiter, you should always keep cognac in your back pocket for those guests who clearly have an eye for quality. A little prompting could add another $10 – $300 to the check and provide the guest with a taste of luxury so often lacking in today’s dining.

http://blog.cognac-expert.com/farmers-resellers-players-structure-of-cognac-business/

Jack Daniels is not bourbon

Don’t ever forget that Jack Daniel’s, while tasting very similar to bourbon, is categorically not bourbon – it’s Tennessee whiskey. More precisely, “Tennessee sippin’ whiskey”.

First of all, it’s made in Tennessee, not Kentucky. Bourbon is named for a county in Kentucky where little bourbon is distilled today, but that doesn’t mean that bourbon can cross state lines. I mean, some try to do it and all, and legally it’s just a specific process with certain parameters, but is bourbon from Colorado really bourbon? C’mon people, let’s get real. If there is one state that could get away with it (and some of us have tried), it’s Tennessee. We are two states bound by a common heritage. If you look on a map, Kentucky looks similar to a pregnant Tennessee. Since we’ve been spooning since our births, this doesn’t seem out-of-place.

But Jack Daniel’s (and the other famous named-for-a-dead-guy Tennessee whiskey, George Dickel) is not, I repeat not bourbon, despite being made of sour mash just like bourbon. The key difference is that Tennessee whiskey is filtered through charcoal. Bourbon is not.

The last thing you want to do as a waiter is to upsell Jack Daniel’s products when someone asks for a bourbon drink. While some people think of it erroneously as a bourbon because, let’s face it folks, it does taste a lot like bourbon, there are some partisans who would cut out your heart and squeeze a few drops of blood out of it into a Manhattan if you lumped Jack Daniel’s in with bourbon (and this comes from both bourbon and Tennessee whiskey fans).

So, those of you young whippersnappers who are just getting started peddling the devil’s elixer, repeat after me -“Jack Daniel’s is Tennessee whiskey…Jack Daniel’s is Tennessee whiskey…Jack Daniel’s is Tennessee whiskey…”

I mean, you wouldn’t screw up and call Bushmill’s a scotch would you? I hope not.

Class dismissed.

jackfeet

Cookbook of the day – Malt Whisky

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Malt Whisky: A Comprehensive Guide for both Novice and Connoisseur

by Graham Nown

  • Publisher:Salamander Books Ltd (15 Sep 1997)
  • ISBN-10: 0861019628
  • ISBN-13: 978-0861019625
  • While Scotch whisky has a long and rather dramatic history, branding of single malt Scotches is a very 20th century phenomenon. Even the explosion of blended Scotches has happened in the past 100 years.

    This British book clearly outlines the trials and tribulations of Scotch producers from the time that they were bootleggers in far-flung areas of the British Isles.

    The book also has many beautiful photographs of the various well-known and lesser-known (at least here in the States) distilleries and the surrounding areas. It puts the distilleries in a geographical context beyond the simple “appellation” categories. For instance, many don’t realize that The Balvenie is the next door neighbor of Glenfiddich, and, even though they share the same water source and use the same barley, the characteristics of each distillery is quite different due to different production methods.

    Each distillery gets a comprehensive yet concise overview of the distillery itself and the characteristics of the product. Nown doesn’t attempt a numerical grading of the various scotches. For that, you’re better directed to the late Michael Jackson’s fine guides to Scotch whisky. However, you get a clear and unambiguous guide to the flavor of the Scotch.

    At the end of the book, there’s a brief overview of Japanese single malt whiskies and Irish whiskies (the Irish spell whisky with an “e”, i.e whiskey).

    This book isn’t easy to find, despite being a fairly recent book. However, it’s definitely worth seeking out, or buying if you happen to run across it in a used bookstore as I did. Every server who sells alcoholic beverages should have at least a passing familiarity with the various Scotch whisky styles (single malt and blended). People who drink them know about these things, so you can’t bluff them (don’t want to lose your credibility, do you)? and, it’s nice to be able to educated people curious about single malts. You might be able to sell them a $12 single malt rather than a $6 blended. And, if you do so, you’ll enhance their dining experience and perhaps put them on the path of further discovery.

    lagavulin