IACP finalist!

Exciting news to share – one of my articles, Cognac’s Sultry Side, was named as a finalist for the Bert Greene Award in the “Writing About Beverages” category. This prestigious award is given by the International Association of Culinary Professionals.

The full list of finalists is posted here – let’s just say I’m in VERY good company. The names on the list include some major culinary and literary talent, as well as friends and acquaintances I’m delighted to see receive some well-deserved recognition. I’m truly honored to be part of this group.

Here’s a look at my article, which appeared in Inspirato Magazine, a high-end travel publication.

Ready, set, grow! The cult world of “grower” spirits

Image courtesy Wine Enthusiast magazine

My article on grower Cognac (“Drink This Now: Grower Cognac“) is in the February issue of Wine Enthusiast, as well as the web site (and as I’m writing this, it’s one of the top most-read articles on the site, woo-hoo!).

It’s an exciting topic — and as usual, there’s so much more to say that I couldn’t shoehorn into the space of a 200-word article.

For starters, there’s so much more to the story than just Cognac. Grower Champagne (or as my editor cutely termed it:  “farmer fizz”)  — relatively small-batch bubbly produced, bottled, and sold by the same farmers that grow the grapes — already has its share of devotees.  In the spirits world, Cognac seems to be the next frontier on the grower front.

But keep in mind the growing interest in artisan and “indie” spirits that seems to be spreading like wildfire now.  Here in the U.S., that seems to extend mostly to American-made products. But why not imported products too? Going forward, keep an eye out for other spirits produced by farmers (in the U.S. and elsewhere), such as Armagnac, Calvados, applejack, and “single estate” whiskeys and vodkas.

Cognac has a good running head start because it has an advocate — notably, importer Nicolas Palazzi, who brings many grower Cognacs to the U.S.  (In the interest of full disclosure, Palazzi was the one who first tipped me off to the idea, when I interviewed him for a feature on Cognac last year).  He described the growers as “no brands,” small- to mid-size operations with no access to international distribution, no PR or marketing budget.

When I talked to sommelier John Mitchell of Stella in New Orleans, he described the grower products as “no frills, all quality.” He also described them as “very site-specific”:

“These people own the acreage they are sourcing from,” he explained. “They are walking the vineyards, picking grapes for maximum ripeness.” The distilling “gets away from the house styles that are blended all over the place.”

He’s especially enamored of Jacky Navarre’s Vieille Reserve Cognac bottling:

“This guy is insane,” Mitchell confided. “He must not be out to make any money. He lets the Cognac come down to 40% abv naturally, which takes around 45 years. Imagine reducing a chef’s sauce for 45 years, and how layered that would be. The depth and complexity you would have in the bottle. That’s why there’s only 60 bottles in the U.S.  It’s a labor of love and a passion.”

I may have to stop in to try a glassful the next time I’m in New Orleans.

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.

A trip to Pierre Ferrand Cognac house

After spending a few days conferring on how to persuade women to drink Cognac and touring the big Cognac houses, I was more than happy to spend some time at a smaller Cognac maker, getting down to the nitty-gritty of how the spirit is actually distilled.

I had met Alexandre Gabriel, president and owner of Cognac Ferrand, on one of his visits to New York, and liked a number of his products, so I was happy to learn that I’d been invited to spend a little quality time at his family’s distillery before heading back home.  Here are a few snaps from that visit.

imageIn the distillery, we sampled the Cognac in virtually every stage, including the relatively undesirable “heads” and “tails,” as well as the desirable “heart” (Coeur) of the spirit. It’s crystal clear at this point; barrel aging is what provides the amber color.


A view of the chateau from the outside.


Inside the warehouse where the Cognac ages. Note the colorful mold growing on the floor and the cobwebs and dust on top of the barrels; we didn’t see much of either in the larger Cognac houses. This was very old school.

This is bartender Willy Shine — it’s a little hard to see, but he’s holding an apparatus used to extract Cognac from the barrels for sampling. It’s akin to a large eyedropper; in whiskey language they call this a “whiskey thief” or a “valinch.” I’m sorry to say I don’t recall what the Cognac folks call this device.

My glass of Cognac, fresh from the barrel. I swear it tastes better this way; it was like liquid butterscotch.

After the Cognac barrels are emptied, Ferrand then re-fills those barrels with other spirits, a technique known as “cask-finishing.” Here, the barrel has been refilled with rum from Trinidad. This one also was particularly delicious.
imageBack inside the chateau. This is Alexandre Gabriel, treating Willy and me to a sampling of some of his extremely old and rare Cognac collection. Really, a remarkable way to end the visit to Cognac.

A peek inside “Big Cognac”

Continuing thoughts from my recent visit to Cognac, this trip gave me the opportunity to visit three large Cognac houses (what blogger DJ Hawaiianshirt has dubbed “Big Cognac“). We didn’t really get to see the inner workings of the distillation process — it was more of a heavily-guided marketing tour with better tastings than the tourists get, plus the Cognac is for chicks angle added in. But it was fascinating nevertheless. Here are my favorite and least-favorite moments:




At Courvoisier:

Favorite Moment:  Viewing the mini-museum. (image above, with the copious pretty pretty bottles.) They had one of Napoleon’s famous tri-cornered hats on display.

Least Favorite Moment: Experiencing “smell-o-vision.” We went through a sensory experience called   “La Nez” (‘the nose’), which was “designed for younger professionals, to help create a more engaging experience.”  We were blindfolded, then a fan blew fragrance essences around the room, along with music selected to accompany each. We each smelled crème brulee, iris, and orange.

A “smell-o-vision” movie (my wording, not theirs) also was available; I ducked out, but asked someone who just exited, “how was it?” She replied, waving her hands toward herself, “crème brulee, crème brulee, crème brulee.”

Cognac for Chicks: We were served Courvoisier Rose, a mix of Cognac and fortified red wine from the South of France, intended for a female audience. It’s the first Cognac ready-to-drink (RTD) though technically it’s considered a liqueur, and has 18% abv. Launched in June 2011.  Coming to the U.S. in spring (May) 2012.

Our group’s comment: “it’s like Sangria in a bottle.”  It was served with Indian tonic and lime wedges (“squeeze the lime in,” advised Dominique LaPorte, sommelier. He was right – it was much better that way. Refreshing and went down easy.)




At Remy-Martin: 

Favorite Moment: I just adored this monologue from our 60-something chic blonde tour guide, who I thought of as the embodiment of “Real Housewives of Cognac.”:

“Cognac is a coquette. Cognac is feminine in that it doesn’t give its age directly. ‘Hello, I’m VSOP.’ How old am I? Like Cognac, I have no age.”

Least Favorite Moment:  I have to stress – this is not Remy’s fault in the slightest. But something I’d eaten earlier in the day gave me food poisoning, so I spent the end of an otherwise lovely evening projectile-vomiting in Remy’s lovely ladies room.

Cognac for Chicks:  Our evening began with a degustation of Coeur de Cognac, billed as “an interpretation of femininity.”  It had a nice orange peel and vanilla aroma, with lingering honey and creme brulee flavors.

At Hennessy:

Note – photo above courtesy of Odd Bacchus. I’d forgotten my camera back at the hotel!

Favorite Moment: Spotting demi-johns (glass jugs holding  20-60 liters, inside straw baskets with straw tops – see the background of the photo above) containing Cognac dating back to 1860. 1860! “Do you know what America was doing when this was made?” I marvelled to Rob Frisch of Odd Bacchus. “We were building railroads. We were at the beginning of the industrial revolution.” He continued the thought: “We were preparing for Civil War.” Just amazing, to be in the presence of so much history.

 Least favorite moment: Hennessy makes 5.5 million bottles of Cognac a year. Their aging warehouse holds 350,000 barrels of eau-de-vie (as they call it pre-bottling).

However…the tour guide bristled at the concept that “we are a big old monster company. We are an artisan…but we are like a conductor, directing other artisans as to our specifications….We are not just a big old ‘thing’….we are not a factory”  (we all agreed later, the lady doth protest too much.)

(Note:  we were warned at Courvoisier that the French equate “big” with “poor quality,” which might account for the insistence here.)

That said, I did appreciate that all of the barrels in the warehouse we toured have intricate calligraphy on each barrel — put there by a full-time staffer employed just for that — what a cool job! Each barrel also had a bar code (none of the other facilities we toured used bar codes).

Cognac for Chicks:  “Vin de Paradis” – launched in 2002 as a “delicate fruity flavor” meant “to appeal to the ladies.” We drank it mixed with tea, out of very ladylike glass tea cups.

If whiskey is for women, is Cognac for chicks?

Is Cognac for chicks? (This seems especially relevant today, as it’s International Women’s Day.) 

That was one of the assumptions at the International Cognac Summit I attended mid-January, in France’s Cognac region. In fact, the event, hosted by the BNIC, revolved around how to persuade more women to take up Cognac.

It’s taken me a while to organize my still-scattered thoughts about this trip, and it seems best to post them in three tranches — a few general ideas, then a look at the “big 3” Cognac houses, and finally, some snaps from an independent Cognac maker.

A few takeaways:

The French don’t drink Cognac. “In France, this is a digestif for old men,” we were informed by Elise Gartio, a sociologist with LadyVin (yes, that’s the name of the research firm). When we met with reps from the Cognac houses, they underscored this point: most Cognac is exported to the United States, followed closely by the United Kingdom. Physician, heal thyself?? Considering how women around the world follow French fashion, perhaps it’s time for French women to become Cognac ambassadors.

The cocktail is regarded as the savior for Cognac, particularly to attract female drinkers. This makes sense; most spirits are consumed in this format. There was a lot of talk about how to do for Cognac what “Mad Men” did for whiskey and gin. I suggested resurrecting the Japanese Cocktail, but I don’t think I sold anyone on that idea.

We had a cocktail making “competition” – the winner was the Lady Coeur (team led by Willy Shine):  VSOP Cognac, Carpano Antica, lemon and orange juices, brut Champagne, dusting of cinnamon, orange zest). It’s a good cocktail, although I still can’t shake my misgivings about creating a cocktail “for the ladies.” This is a good cocktail. For human beings. Whatever (eye roll).

Packaging matters to Cognac drinkers. Frankly, I think this is true of all spirits categories. Lest you think this was just another cushy press trip, let me assure you that we had to sing for our supper:  for every Cognac tasted, we were expected to fill out a lengthy form evaluating the appearance and packaging, aroma and flavor profiles for each product. (Nearly 1,400 forms were collected from the group of about 30 people…you do the math!)

After the survey dust settled, the bottles that ranked highest among women (or among men who thought they were predicting for women) were generally XO Cognacs (the oldest and most delicious) housed in perfume-like bottles described as “luxury, rounded, original” and featuring soft/round aromas with “tasty” notes (the charming French translation for food-like aromas such as vanilla, spices, fruit or dried fruit, or pastry-like aromas). Sommelier Dominique LaPorte summarized that women “are looking for elegance, not power, in Cognac aromas.” I suspect that’s true of drinkers of any gender, though.

Five things I’ve learned about…American Brandy

The December 31, 2011 issue of Wine Enthusiast magazine is out, and it includes (among other things) my review column on American Brandy.  You can pick up a copy at the newsstand, or view it in digital format on Zinio.  Here’s what I learned:

1. American Brandy is an underappreciated, or at least under-publicized, category. A handful are every bit as good as French Cognacs – but the prices are much, much gentler. (I also just received a press release for an intriguing-sounding oak-aged Canadian brandy….could this be yet another nascent category? UPDATE 5/7/12:  Apparently, not a new category, at least not yet. Went back to the release – and it’s for an American brandy with a French-Canadian name.)

2. Many of these brandies are made from interesting wine grapes, such as Pinot Noir or Semillon. But not all brandies are grape – in particular, there are some amazing American apple brandies, such as Laird’s. And although I didn’t sample any for this review, the category also includes a number of good peach and other fruit brandies.

3. Unaged fruit brandy = eau-de-vie.

 4. Some brandies (such as those from Paul Masson) are produced in California, but are then transported to Kentucky, where they age in former Bourbon barrels. As a result, many have lovely Bourbon-like caramel and vanilla notes.

 5. It turns out that Americans have a long history of brandy innovation, dating all the way back to the original maverick:  George Washington. Though better known as a general and statesman, he also distilled his own rye whiskey and brandy. In fact, according to the Mt. Vernon Museum, the year Washington died, in 1799, his plantation account book shows he had 60 gallons of peach brandy and 67 gallons of apple brandy sent to his main house from the distillery.

Got a favorite American brandy, or brandy cocktail? I’d love to hear about it.

5 Things I’ve Learned About…Cognac

The December 31, 2010 issue of Wine Enthusiast magazine is out, and it includes (among other things) my review column on Cognac.  You can pick up a copy at the newsstand, or view it in digital format on Zinio.

Here’s what I learned in the course of tasting through 20-something different bottles of Cognac, a task which I have to admit, truly did not suck:

1.  Cognac comes from the Cognac region of France. Otherwise, it’s just brandy.

2.  The alphabet stew of classifications – VS, VSOP, XO – can be confusing. VS means Very Special, with the youngest eau de vie in the blend no less than two years old. VSOP means Very Old Superior Pale, with the youngest eau de vie at least four years old. XO means extra old, with the youngest eau de vie at least six years old. Most of the Cognac sold in the U.S. is either VS or VSOP.

3.  Rancio!  It’s a delightfully weird umami-type flavor found exclusively in some aged Cognacs. It reminded me of funky aged cheeses, in the best possible way.

4.  Cognac is the drink of choice for the kings of rap and hip-hop, many of whom back or tout the spirit.  Frankly, this trend has helped revive sales in the category. (Remember the 2001 hit “Pass the Courvoisier”? According to BusinessWeek, sales of Courvoisier skyrocketed 20% after its release.)

5.  There’s got to be another word for “caramel.”  I ran into this same issue with Bourbon and rye reviews. Here’s the thing:  one lovely side effect of barrel-aging is that it produces a brown color and a caramel-like aroma. But it’s lazy writing to describe every spirit as “caramel,” and it ignores all the nuances. So I’m trying to push harder on what exactly that scent and flavor really resembles. Is it really a milky caramel? Or is it toffee, maybe even burnt toffee? Vanilla? (vanilla and caramel seem really similar, until you smell them side by side.) More like honey, or even figs, cloves or flowers?  I’m starting to keep flavor adjective lists, just like when I wrote about stocks, and I had a list of different ways describe how the market rose or fell – edged lower, or plummeted? There’s a big difference. So I tried to discern during the Cognac tastings:  is that a subtle caramel note, or a big honking wall of vanilla?

If you have a favorite Cognac, cocktail featuring Cognac, or even just a helpful synonym for “caramel,” I’d love for you to share it.  I really enjoyed the lively debate over the Absinthe post a few weeks back!