Cognac and “Carbinacion”

Take a large mouthful [of cognac], but don’t swallow it now,” read the instructions in the letter to legendary writer Ernest Hemingway. “Swish it around in your mouth half a minute or so. Hold it. Now exhale through your nose– completely deflate your lungs. That’s right. Then swallow the cognac to get it out of the way. Open your mouth. Quickly! Inhale as deeply as you can.”

This odd little tippling technique is called Carburation, or in Spanish, Carbinacion, and I learned about it while reading “To Have and Have Another:  A Hemingway Cocktail Companion,” a new book from cocktail historian Philip Greene coming this November. It’s an educational and thirst-provoking read that has had me making Papa Dobles all week long.

Although Hemingway clearly loved his rum (and his absinthe, and his gin — Papa travelled often, and drank locally), it was this technique for drinking cognac that stopped me cold. I’ve never heard of this before.

Greene sets the scene in 1930s Havana, where Hemingway received this advice from Grant Mason, “a wealthy executive with Pan American Airlines, which had capitalized upon Prohibition by opening air routes to Havana.”

Mason announced that he had “a new way to drink called carburetion…based on the principle of carburetion in good engines,” Greene explains. By following this technique, Mason insisted, the brandy “enters your lungs in a fine mist that way. Goes into your blood stream faster, like a caruretor that gives the best mixture for burning in an engine.”

Now, I don’t know much about engines, but I thought I knew a thing or two about drinking. For example, it’s common in wine and spirits tasting to take a sip, swallow (or spit) and then exhale gently, a technique that somehow amplifies the flavors still lingering on the tongue and palate. But the sip-exhale-swallow-inhale box step is a new one on me.

So I tried it.

Greene specifies that “good Cognac” should be used for Carburetion, so I broke out a pour of Ferrand’s Selection des Anges. Sip. Exhale. Swallow. Inhale. The book notes that as Hemingway and friends “embraced caruretion with gusto…soon the room was filled with exhaling sounds like those of dying porpoises.”

Perhaps I was too dainty — taking a tentative sip, and exhaling not at all like a dying porpoise– and I didn’t exactly achieve Cognac nirvana through Carburetion. However, it did accomplish a fantastic job of aerating the spirit in my mouth, enhancing the flavors and elongating the finish in an intriguing way. And certainly I can see how much fun the acoustics could become with a room full of friends all trying the same noisy experiment.

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