Wednesday, August 27, 2014

A Perfect Day Trip through the heart of Armagnac

The Four Musketeers
at Cathedral St. Pierre, Condom
If you’re planning on traveling in France---and if not, why in the world aren’t you?---it is possible you might be overwhelmed by tourists with the same idea. But it’s not necessary if you plan wisely and well. And one of the wisest decisions you’ll make is to go to Armagnac.

Armagnac is a perfect destination for discerning travelers who wish to explore and enjoy the unique charm of rural and agrarian France and discover the hospitality of the people who live with the land…and not at all coincidentally enjoy some astonishing local brandy.

Located in the area called Sud-Ouest, the southwest of France, snugged up in the rolling verdant foothills of the Midi-Pyrénées of Gascony and encompassing the departements of Gers (zyhehrz) and Landes, it is easily accessible from Toulouse or the Languedoc-Roussillon to the east and Bordeaux to the northwest, following the path of express autoroutes or the Garonne River and the famous Midi Canal, once a bustling riverine highway of commerce and now a slow drifting canal for pleasure boats.

From the Garonne you can do a marvelous concentrated day trip on one national highway that seems more like a gently winding country road bisecting the heart of Armagnac, a bucolic land of small farms and few industries, and thus ideal for tourists because they are not yet in overwhelming numbers.

In Gascony you can still find the idea of France you’ve always been searching for and rarely found.

alembic Armagnaçais still
From the A26 at Agen go west on D931, traveling through a string of village pearls and glimpsing brooding medieval towers, until you arrive in the bustling little town of Condom. Visit the cobbled main place in the centre ville, admire the statues of the four mousquetaires in front of the Cathedral St. Pierre (in Dumas’ masterpiece, Condom was the home of the romantic rustic D’Artignan), have a mid-morning espresso, then go across the small river bridge to Chateau de Larressingle to be welcomed into a fascinating tour of the distillery, cellar and tasting room.  Make sure you snag, at the very least, a bottle of Larressingle 21 Year TénarèzeArmagnac, a truly impressive brandy.

Then it’s back to the centre ville and Le Table desCordeliers, a lovely one star Guide Michelin restaurant, for a stunning seasonal lunch at about the same price you’d pay for fast food in America! And having just visited the Chateau de Larressingle, you can enjoy a digestif of café with a glass of Larressingle Armagnac (highly recommended).  If you’d like to stay in the heart of Armagnac overnight, Cordeliers has an attached small logis hotel and spa that is ideally situated.

Gazpacho and Mauzac
at La Table
After your long lunch, continue on the same road until the town of Éauze (ehyoze) in the Bas-Armagnac. Just outside the town is the sprawling estate of the Domaines Grassa, now in full wine boom from the newly trendy wines of the Cotes deGascogne, but also home to traditional Armagnacs. The Cotes de Gascogne wines, unassuming but slightly exotic blends of local and global varieties and reaching the market at irresistibly modest prices, are all the rage now, and Domaine du Tariquet is the prime beneficiary.  You’ll meet a charming young lady who is eager to introduce you to the wines of Tariquet, and you can gaze blissfully over the manicured fields that sweep majestically down the slope and into the forests.
Larressingle Armagnac

Continue on the road, through the town of Nogaro to the almost non-existent village of Sorbets. Turn right at the Chateau de Laubade sign, roll past the wrought iron gates and the ancient brick tower and park beside the Normandy-style mansion built in 1870.  Stroll the garden and greensward, look out over the sweeping vista of the estate vineyards in the valley below, and wander amongst the artworks scattered around the grounds, all gathered by the Lesgourgues family.

Chateau de Laubade
You can view the ancient copper alembic Armagnaçais still and visit the cellars where the Armagnac quietly, slowly ages to perfection. Properly made Armagnac requires traditional practices, and Chateau de Laubade adheres to them to make their estate-grown wines and spirits in the old way; the wines for Armagnac are vinified, distilled and matured separately, then blended by the Master Blender for the “marriage” in the barrel. 

With its terroir, here encapsulated in a single estate vineyard, its unique blending of particular varieties, its use of local black oak, and its preference for long maturation, Armagnac is a rustic, earthy, rich and mellow brandy with deep amber-golden depths that seem to linger for the longest time…just as the region will linger in your memory, for the longest time.

Le Paradis de Laubade Armagnac

If you have more time, there are many, many other distilleries, from the large concern to the individual family operations, as well as foie gras farms you can tour (and sample the finished product!) There are any number of small museums and numerous castles and keeps dotting the countryside, and there’s an easygoing feel about the region that encourages you to simply stop in the villages and stroll around and sit for hours sipping a glass of local wine and watching the daily life go by. Small logis and comfortable inns, choice spas and numbers of fine restaurants featuring the local cuisine abound, usually at prices that are rock-bottom low compared to the touristy hot spots of Provence and Paris.

Beautiful countryside, easy-driving country roads, pleasant people, superb food, good wine and a unique style of brandy:  Armagnac makes for a perfect day trip.  So perfect, you’ll wish you had planned for yet another day, no matter how many days you planned for.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Giacosa and Antinori, Barbaresco and Brunello at Bistro Don Giovanni

Had a brief flirtation with Napa again (slightly pre-earthquake) on a quickie zip from the Bay to see some friends, and went to one of our favorite restaurants, Bistro Don Giovanni, partly because it’s one of our favorite restaurants, partly because we’ve had so many good meals there, and partly to give requisite honors to the passing of Donna Scala who founded and presided over the place.

She was a woman of fierce standards, demanding and uncompromising and damned near a force of nature when she wanted something, but generous in her hospitality. The woman knew how to run a restaurant.

Seated in a corner booth with our good friends, Lou and BettyLu Kessler, being fawned on by owners, managers and waiters, for the Kesslers are something akin to nobility here in the Valley, known to all, we watched the natural hustle and hubbub of this great place swirl around in cool summer tones.

From his magic wine bag, Lou pulled out a bottle, just a little something to go with pizza and bucatini arrabiata. The waiter’s eyes went round when he saw the bottle, and he took it up with stately reverence: a pristine bottle of Barbaresco Riserva Bruno Giacosa 1988 (Red Label).

We waited silently while the waiter maneuvered the cork from the neck; it was firmly placed, long and reluctant to leave, all good signs that it had done its work and protected the wine as it languished in Lou’s cellar.

Lou tasted the proffered sample…and then his lips tightened slightly and a bit of concern showed faintly on his face. Lou is not a demonstrative man and except with friends he keeps his emotions largely to himself, so something was obviously amiss.  He handed the glass to me, suggesting I taste it, but one smell confirmed his fears; the wine was egregiously cooked, spoiled beyond repair in the other worst kind of way (the first worst the detested TCA cork taint), through improper treatment somewhere along the way, quite likely in transit when it was subjected to extended periods of high heat. The French term is maderisé, because it is somewhat similar to the smell of the Madeira must cooked in estufa---ovens---to give the wine a characteristic flavor.

An unfortunately ironic word, maderisé, for while the effect can be delicious with Madeira, it created an ungodly spoiled stew of rank aromas in what should have been a magnificently fruited, tar-and-rose petal scented delight of a Barbaresco from one of the truly legendary producers.

While the rest of us sat stunned and dismayed, Lou stoically reached down into his magic bag again. Lou had a fallback.  Lou always has a fallback.

And out came our “consolation prize” to follow the fiasco of the ruined Giacosa, another pristine bottle, but this time a 1997 Brunello diMontalcino, Pian de la Vigne from the house of Antinori with its dramatic, stark contrast of red on black label.  And this bottle was just fine, thank you very much.

The Brunello was still tight, slow to yield and open up, packed with massive black fruit of maraska cherries and deeply, deeply infused with an intense spicy licorice note that added marvelous complexity to every sip.

I don’t know how well it went with the pizza, although from the responses at the table, I think quite well. I can testify, however, that it was spectacular with the bucatini arrabiata, that meaty, thick, chewy, hard to handle but easy to eat pasta, roiled in a glistening sauté of bacon and thin sliced onions and hot peppers.  The heat? The Brunello shrugged it off as inconsequential, simply a flavor component to add to the mélange.  The simmer of tomato made the wine seem a tad more mellow, almost sweet in its richness, but still stern and dignified and intense.

So, disappointment dealt with it, disaster averted, still grieving over the lost Barbaresco but celebrating with the Brunello, we raised a glass to the lovely Donna, in her splendid la dolce vita youth, sitting on a Vespa scooter lugging a can of Illy Café on the back. A fitting portrait, I think, for she was, for all of us in awe of her as the perfect hostess, La Donna e Mobilé.

Monday, August 25, 2014

Shakewell in Oakland, with three,, five

On a lightning trip to Berkeley (close friends), San Francisco (doing a cognac seminar), and Oakland (for the food), we dined at a brand new place that is already packed and by all standards should remain thus in future, only more so as word continues to get out. 

When you’re in a culinary oasis like the Bay Area, a wonderful catalyst effect happens, with excellent restaurants empowering young, creative and fiercely talented chefs and restaurateurs and giving them the chops to go out and start their own places.  So Chez Panisse and Oliveto and Zuni Cafe and Jardine can generate a slew of new places that, rather than being clones, go off in exciting new directions and embody their own dreams.

That’s what happened with Shakewell.  Just look at the pedigree of Chef Jen Biesty and General Manager Tim Nugent:

Chef Jen Biesty has been associated with the CIA in Hyde Park; Jaime Oliver, Ruth Rodgers and Rose Gray in Europe; Traci des Jardins, Richard Reddington and Loretta Keller in San Francisco; was the Executive Chef at the Sir Francis Drake—LaScala Bistro, anyone?; impressed people at Coco500; was featured on Top Chef; and was named a “Rising Star Chef” by StarChef. 
Tim Nugent’s CV includes Zuni Café, Perbacco, Campton Place, the Liberty Café, Fresh Cream in Monterey, Café Rouge in Berkeley, and the Sir Francis Drake Hotel. In addition to his front room management, Nugent is also a talented pastry chef, oversees the Shakewell desserts, and has appeared on ‘Top Chefs Just Desserts’.

All that experience and talent converges on Shakewell (and here you can insert your obligatory pun on stirring and get it done with), from the gorgeous and inviting moderne space to the Spanish-Mediterranean-North African menu, a combination of tapas/small plates and impressive large plates that boldly charge headlong into pretty much every flavor zone you can think of. Meanwhile the lively bar turns out some pretty creative libations too.

We segued through a long series of shared dishes, both great and small, ably abetted by a cocktail and two wines.

Alpha Amor
With a selection of audaciously seasoned, spiced, and sauced tapas (deviled quail egg, pimento and serrano ham; bacalao croquetas with garlic) and an inspired salad of grilled romaine hearts with boquerones (white anchovies), manchego, pickled onions, avocado and lemon, I ordered an Alpha Amor cocktail, a mix of chamomile-infused tequila, mescal for a touch of smoke, agave, grapefruit and celery bitters, served up in a capacious glass with one single hard ice cube keeping it cold and only slowly diluting the drink. Delicious.

A companion ordered a Lakeshore Cooler, apparently a popular call here since many dotted the tables, looking (and tasting) cool and refreshing in a tall glass filled with cucumber, mint, organic vodka---we are in California, after all---Cocchi Americano, fresh lime and house-made dill syrup. Also delicious.

Delving even deeper into the menu, with a staggeringly good ‘bomba’ rice dish---a paella made correctly with the bomba rice taste and texture and the pan more shallow, making for some succulent ‘crispy bits’ to scrape off the copper pan and crunch on---abundantly studded with chicken and prawns,  braised fennel, piperade, tomato and fino sherry; along with a braised pork shoulder (curiously the least exciting but nonetheless tasty item we enjoyed); outrageously tasty grilled shrimp with a Moroccan-spiced dried lime rub and yogurt; and grilled calamari with charred leeks, artichokes, romescu sauce and basil; all accompanied by a huge double helping of grilled broccolini spiced up with bagna cauda and dried chile.

Finally, by way of a showstopper, we ordered the fish dish of the day, Huachinango, a whole wood-oven-roasted snapper-like fish crusted with herbs and spices and aromatically dominating the table.  Haven't had a fish prepared quite this well since I was in the Rioja Alavesa (and there's those darned Basque again, eh?). We picked the bones.
That amazing fish dish: Huachinango

To accompany this abbondanza and deal with the wondrous spicing and saucing, a veritable barrage of aromas and flavors, we selected two wines from the choice little wine list.

First up was the sturdy, dependable, lean and fizzy and Basque-cider-tart Ulacia Getariako Txakolina. For a pleasant touch (and extra points!) it was served Basque-style as well, which it always should be but seldom is, with the server raising the bottle and lowering the glass simultaneously to elongate the pour and aerate the wine slightly, giving it more effervescent bubbleicity (I made that up just now) and pulling out the aromas and flavors.  Not surprising at all that this lean yet fizzy Basque wine handled the food with aplomb, supporting it rather than trying to match it.

Fiano di Avellino
Then, wanting something just a bit richer with the large plates, we spied the Rocco del Principe Fiano di Avellino from the volcanic soil of Campania, an outstanding bargain for the savvy winelover, and a perfect wine for this table. Audacious in its clean, stony minerality, with pure laser-focused fruit seeping out around it, the Fiano positively blossoms with lemon and lime and grapefruit and melon and stands up to the spices, playing just as well with the smolder of chile as with the sweet lemon, easily dealing with the usually-wine defying artichoke. An amazing companion to spicy and full-flavored foods, the Fiano doesn’t fight with the flavors, it boosts them, enhances their effect while somehow keeping the palate fresh and clear for the next bright bite.

The desserts at Shakewell show an impressive sensibility, apparently simple, but only apparently, because the desserts adhere to Shakewell’s food philosophy of taking fairly simple flavors and focusing on them with intensity, which is more of a craft or art than fussy, elaborate and multi-level architectural fantasies. We chose a shared plate of the bittersweet chocolate torte---really a line of sumptuously rich bittersweet chocolate offset with the tang of fresh, cool raspberries, and what could be better than that?---supported by richly flavored decaf coffee and one shared glass of Lustau Almacenista sherry.

So hie thyself to Shakewell.

Or better yet, hie a lot of selves to Shakewell, because it’s even better with a party of people, if you don’t mind sharing, because sharing will happen when those plates are set down on table.  You'll thank the chefs when you're there, and you can thank me later.  I've already thanked my friends for turning me on to this place.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

The Martini: Eight +1

The Martini remains one of the most fascinating cocktails around. This became evident with the response to both my earlier post (shared on the Wine Lovers Discussion Group---they also do spirits) and the subsequent tasting seminar at the Society of Wine Educators Annual Conference in Seattle last week.

A Martini
with a twist
The seminar was a major success and got enthusiastic involvement from the participants, with major applause at the end and a very high rating.  As the culminating seminar for the conference, it seemed to be a natural, leading the participants from cocktail hour to dinner.  And it was fun to do.

Originally we had planned to pre-batch the cocktails, put them in clean bottles, and keep them in the freezer until serving so they were icy cold, as martinis should always be.  However, at the last minute we decided to go ahead and make them the proper way, and set up the head table as a bar, batching each cocktail and pouring fresh as needed.  (Many thanks to the able room crew, by the way; without them, the tasting would have been difficult.)

Turns out there were quite a few people in attendance who were learning about the lore of the Martini for the very first time. And most of them had never had the Martinez before!

We remedied that lack immediately. Much to their surprise they found the cocktail to be rather pleasant, albeit surprisingly sweet---after all, it was based on sweet red vermouth and was enhanced by liqueur, so how could it not be a little cloying?

The follow up of the Manhattan made perfect sense then---and at least one person learned how good Manhattans can be when made properly (stirred, not shaken) and with the right ingredients, most notably the Woodford Reserve Double Oaked Kentucky Straight Bourbon. 

And once again, there was surprise with the nature of the “original” Martini 1988---still with sweet vermouth and the remarkable shift over to an entirely different style only a few years later with the emergence of the first “Dry Martini”, the first made with dry white vermouth, in 1896.

The martini fans got back into more familiar territory with the Gibson and the Rockefeller Martini, and even perked up when the Vesper made its popular appearance.  On the spur of the moment, after engaging in some serious bartender-centric dialogue on shaking versus stirring, we decided to mix up two Vespers, one shaken, as per Bond’s precise instruction, and one stirred, as would be the normal procedure in this type of cocktail. 

What we ended up with was two very different Vespers.  The shaking noticeably changes the nature of the drink, both in taste and mouthfeel, through greater dilution with the ice and in aerating the drink and entirely changing the texture and mouthfeel.

By the time we reached the ultimate Extra Dry Martini---and by the way, we used a Wondrich-approved Alfred Trumer version of a 4:1 ration, which worked out beautifully---the room was both mellow and enthusiastic.  Small servings were poured, but we did pour nine of them, after all.

The seminar was an enjoyable action- and information-packed hour, fun to participate in and fun to perform.  Now we’re ready to go it again.  Fresh batching nine cocktails for an eager audience in one hour is a challenge…but it sure can make for a good seminar!  The tips were lousy though.  Bunch of pikers, those wine geeks.

Friday, August 8, 2014

The Entire Unexpurgated History of the Eight Glasses.

So I’m looking for an interesting topic for a tasting seminar and I see someone order a Martini.  I do love it when I get struck by inspiration at a bar. (And, yes, it does happen often. Both bars and inspirations.)

Fortunately, shortly after inspiration struck, I called up a friend, the talented and personable Nathan Gerdes, who knows just a little about Martinis, and Gin, and cocktail lore, and loves history too, and talking about his chosen craft.

Not long afterwards, we proposed a seminar to the Society of Wine (and Spirits) Educators for their Annual Conference in Seattle (August 15th). It’s entitled “The Entire Unexpurgated History of the Martini…in Eight Glasses.”

Unindicted co-conspirator
Nathan Gerdes
This was a labor of love for both of us, of course; it’s fascinating to delve into the often murky and myth-driven history of cocktails, knowing you’ll hear any number of versions of how and by whom and where famous cocktails were developed. Some of them are ridiculous and collapse under the most superficial scrutiny. Some are simply delightful and entirely whimsical stories made up after the fact from nothing but idle speculation and vivid imagination.  And some…some are investigative thrillers revealed by exacting research and meticulous reconstruction of scattered written tidbits.

No, Martinez.
Cocktail lore is primarily oral history, or at the best idle conjecture only occasionally written down in passing, and most of what we “know” is not easily verifiable. Fortunately, there are some who recorded the history, such as “Professor” Jerry Thomas, now considered the “Father of the American Cocktail” because he bothered to write a book back in the 1800s, and indefatigable modern researchers, such as David Wondrich, Esquire magazine columnist and book author, that ferret out the historical details and attempt to separate fact from fabrication.

The Gibson.
For us the immediate problem became apparent:  how can we adequately represent the broad scope of evolutionary development of such an iconic drink, through so many stages, in only eight glasses?  It wasn’t an easy challenge: broad strokes and giant leaps were required. We had to chronicle the leaps without paying nearly enough attention to the slow and gradual evolutionary process.

Challenge bartenders---assuming you are dealing with professional and accomplished bartenders, and why would you wish to deal with any other sort?--- to come up with a list of eight martinis replicating the evolutionary development of the drink, and you’ll get some radically different lists, followed by some surprisingly passionate debate.

The Rockefeller Martini, or
You're so rich you can have it both ways!
But Nathan and I seesawed back and forth, with him convincing me of one cocktail and me convincing him of another that just had to be on the list.  Name calling, insults, and outright vituperation were held at a respectable professional distance, and we both yielded up righteous indignation and sulky disagreements for our favorites to come up with a list of eight that we could both agree with.

We made a couple of privileged decisions right from the beginning: keep it primarily about gin, only allude to the presumption of a “vodka martini” by talking about the Vesper; and don’t veer off into “flavored martini” country, because there be monsters there.
The original Vesper.
Bond. James Bond.

So what did we decide on?  Which eight made the cut?

The Martinez 1864 
The Manhattan 1872  
The Martini 1888  
The Dry Martini 1896
The Gibson 1898  
The Rockefeller Martini 1911 
The Vesper 1953
The Extra-Dry Martini Circa 2014
So go ahead.  Nitpick. Opine. Criticize. Snark, even. We can take it.  We even welcome it. Which drink shouldn’t be on the list, and which did we leave out that should be on the list?

The seminar is next week, and unfortunately it's already full. Sorry. But we'll give you an after-action report to let you know how it went. Stay tuned. 
So many choices.

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

File under shameless self promotion...

If you peek over to the right of the blog page, you'll see a new addition to the links:  Taste & Compare  It will take you to one of my other beverage-driven ventures, the Taste & Compare Academy of Wine, Spirits and Food, a nifty and nimble little company composed of partner Chef/Sommelier Maxine Borcherding of the Oregon Culinary Institute and myself.

Our credo is pretty simple, as stated on the opening page of the website:

Dedicated to bringing you outstanding educational and travel opportunities from a staff of exceptionally talented and experienced instructors, we offer tastings, seminars, and hands-on classes designed to guide you into an enhanced appreciation of wines, spirits, and foods. 
Tasting one wine, spirit or food tells you little more than whether you like it or not. To fully understand and comprehend you must TASTE & COMPARE as much as possible, while gaining the information you need to raise that understanding to a higher level. 
That's who we are, and what we do. And we have a lot of fun doing it

Taste & Compare Academy is heating up too.  We're signed up to do two seminars at the upcoming Society of Wine Educators Annual Conference at the Renaissance Hotel in Seattle, August 13-15.

The first is something near and dear to my heart, a thorough tasting (and comparing) of The Great Brandies of France: Cognac, Armagnac and Calvados. We'll have twelve outstanding representatives from these three regions and it looks like we've pulled some great interest---and against some fierce competition too!

For the second seminar, I'll be working with the innovative bartender, Nathan Gerdes from Portland, Oregon. We (and by we I mean mostly he) will be tasting through The Entire Unexpurgated History of the Martini in Eight Glasses.  Yowza!  Should be fun, huh?  How could it not be?

Immediately after that, we're taking Taste & Compare Academy on the road to the San Francisco Bay area. We're working with that great educator, David Glancy, and his San Francisco Wine School to do a seminar tasting on Monday, August 18. It is entitled Cognac Master Class: Essence and Elaboration, and we'll be learning all about the history of Cognac, how the iconic brandy is created, and then tasting nine samples to exhibit terroir, maturation and house style.

And it's once again Cognac in September at the University Club in Portland, Oregon---but sorry, you have to be a member, or member of a reciprocal club, to participate in that one.  Or call us and we'll do one just for you.

Fall is coming up on us as well, so we'll be doing more SWE Certified Specialist of Spirits "Intensive" sessions---it's one of the best ways to prepare and review for the examination---in Seattle and Portland.  Also looking to schedule another Fall session of the French Wine Academy Scholar Certification series, which I honestly think is one of the single best put-together educational organization for French wines there is.

So check us out. All looky-loos welcome and appreciated.  If you see something interesting, let us know.

Saturday, August 2, 2014

Cognac Glacé at Camus

Cognac Glacé
Here’s a radical thought: unstopper a sleek crystal decanter of your finest cognac, pour a modest amount of the precious nectar into a glass…and serve it up at eighteen degrees below zero!

Sound a bit strange?  That’s exactly what happened on a bright, sunny summer day at the Chateau du Plessis in Cognac.  The House of Camus sponsored a lunch at the family chateau for a visiting group of Cognac educators.  The room was lovely, the table was pristine and the menu promised a delightful meal.

An interesting contraption sat by each plate, composed of a fragile cone glass resting in another glass receptacle partially filled with rock salt.  A server appeared and poured from an ice-frosted crystal decanter into each glass.  Our gracious host jovially informed us we would begin our lunch with the “Eighteen Below,” a glass of Camus Extra Elegance frozen to -18°C, sometimes referred to as the Cognac Trés Glacé

Why serve a cognac---and especially an aged, subtle and delicately perfumed cognac---in this way?  Wouldn’t the extreme cold depress the very aromatics that define the spirit?  Wouldn’t cognac be more appropriate in the traditional small snifter, or perhaps a small tulip?

Ah, but we are told, here in the heartland, the epicenter of fine cognac, on a warm sunny day, when the dogs are sleeping in the shade and the workers avoid the heat of the mid-day sun, what could be a more pleasant and soothing way to begin an elegant lunch than this touch of elegance, a chilled glass of impeccable cognac warming ever-so-slowly in the warmth of the day, releasing its concealed aromatic essence more with each tiny, measured cool sip.

With almost imperceptible languor the waft of orchard fruit and honeysuckle lifts seductively in the air, both fruit and flower evoking summer, followed ever so gently by a wisp of caramel sweetness and the lilt of hovering vanilla, altering with time to a whisper of dried fruits, soft baking spices and toasted hazelnuts. On the palate, the Extra goes through a transformation, from chill and refreshing to warm and satisfying, from simple and satisfying to amazingly complex and fascinating.

Camus Extra Elegance Cognac
It is a curious historical oddity that the once popular drink of the working man became so exalted that it was transformed by time and trouble to something suitable only for the wealthy, that cognac was taken from the bistros and bars of everyday people and was destined only for the drawing room.  Prior to the onslaught of phylloxera in the French vineyards, that devastating louse (and thus the apropos vastatrix), fittingly named, Cognac was a commonly available spirit, not something reserved only for wealthy and bling-trendy, the rich and the nouveau-riche.

Cognac, then was consumed as much in the daily café as the drawing room, as often as not with a spritz of seltzer, or for the sweet tooth, a splash of ginger ale, or enhanced with the exotic bitter orange liqueur from the torrid Caribbean Islands, perhaps with a bracing dash of bitters. The rare and expensive cognacs were very much there, of course, but the spirit was not at all limited to the wealthy. It was available to everyone, not sitting lonely on a pedestal.

Indeed, when the American ‘cocktail’ began to become a “thing,” many say cognac was there, an essential ingredient in the great cocktail of New Orleans, the Sazerac.  The first Sazerac, it is said, was assembled in the French Quarter by a Creole pharmacist, and was created around cognac as its base spirit, perfumed by absinthe, rounded with sugar, and made complex through bitters and lemon peel…and served in a deeply chilled, if not frozen, glass, when ice was not a common addition to drinks. It was not until later that commerce and politics changed the cognac to rye whiskey.

So is it then odd or unusual or strange to chill down a cognac? Certainly not in the fundamental Sazerac.  Or the charming WWI-era concoction, the Sidecar (that’s the one with cognac and triple-sec).  Or ever—popular French 75 (And what’s Champagne without a good chill? Tepid bubbly, that’s what.  Add the chill, and the cognac and the bitters and you have a great cocktail)

The menu at Chateau du Plessis


So give it a try, and you might find yourself quite pleased with the result. Get over the idea that superb and complex and well-aged spirits are somehow to precious to be chilled.  Don’t use ice, for that dilutes the cognac, and continues diluting it as the ice melts: chill the glass, and chill---no freeze---the cognac (because of course, it won’t really freeze, just get icy cold) and serve it.  No flourish necessary. The cognac will speak for itself.  It might be cool at first but, trust me: it will warm up to you.