It was Helen Keller who wrote, “Life is either a daring adventure or nothing. To keep our faces toward change and behave like free spirits in the presence of fate is strength undefeatable.” I’ve never viewed my life as an adventure–more of a combination of Greek Tragedy and a Devine Comedy–but there is something in my spirit that leads me every year to head out on Griffy’s Great Adventure.
Enlightenment comes in surprising, simple moments on these trips. For example: dinner on our ship was late every day on our last cruise, so to calm the savage hearts of us passengers the cruise director gave tickets for a glass a of champagne. Now as an experienced wine critic I know the best wines are the wines you don’t pay for, so I partook of this offer every chance they gave me.
Each night at the same bar, seeking that evening’s “spirit” of adventure, I got to know the bar tender. One night he said, “you know what drink you’d enjoy?” which I think was his subtle hint hint to stop drinking the free crap and buy something, “a sidecar!”
What’s a side car? It is two parts Cognac, one part Cointreau, and one part lemon juice. It was named for an American Captain in the First World War who would be driven to a local bistro in a motorcycle with a side car so frequently the locals called him “side car,” and the name stuck to the drink he had every night. I tried one and I now have a new cocktail.
Cognac is interesting stuff. It’s not a wine but it is made from grapes. It takes its name from the town of Cognac in France and it is in the Brandy family. Despite it’s French heritage, the drink was actually invented by the Dutch, and like most things French is a host of contradictions. The wine that forms as a base is so bad it’s virtually undrinkable. It’s made from the grape ugni blanc, which the locals call St. Emilion and has nothing to do with the wine district in Bordeaux. Why? Because it’s France, that’s why!
So the Dutch were trading the French for salt, which they sold to the English, so as always it is all about business and commerce. They sampled the wine, and it was so bad the Dutch decided the only recourse was to burn this crap and sell it to the English! The process of “burning” today we call Distillation, and before my relatives down in Kentucky claim they invented that, that distinction belongs to the Egyptians, who were using this process from 3000 B.C.E. to make perfume. The Dutch called the product “brandewijn,” or burnt wine. To the surprise of everyone the English and other Northern Europeans liked it, started buying it en masse, and the rest is history!
Like in the case of Chianti, there are different grades of Cognac. First there is V.S., or Very Special, which makes me smile because this is the base model, the new stuff, stored for about two years. It’s “special” all right! V.S.O.P., the Very Special Old Pale its aged at least four years in wooden casks, but most of the time longer than four years. This is the cognac of masses. My son got a bottle from his sister-in-law that he loved. The X.O., or Extra Old, is now where we’re talking expensive. Stored at minimum for six years, though most for 20 or more years, these are exceptional bottles. In 2016, the French Government will require a cognac to be aged for a minimum of 10 years to be labeled X.O.
There is also Vielle Reserve or Hor d’age, cognacs that have been aged beyond the X.O. levels and can cost over $3,000 a bottle. Expect to pay between $100 to $200 a bottle for a top Cognac. Courvoisier’s Succession JL sells for more than $3,700 a bottle.
Unlike wine Cognac is expected to be consistent in taste year after year, and most don’t carry a vintage date. They achieve this by blending. A cognac two years or older would be eligible for blending, however most manufactures blend far longer some over 30 to 60 years. These old cognacs are called “ranico.”
Cognac is stored upright, don’t lay them down on their sides like you would a bottle of wine. Why? Cognac has a high alcohol content, usually 40% plus, and that alcohol can “rot the cork,” causing an unpleasant aroma. An open bottle of Cognac will last about a year. Take small sips not big ones to enjoy the taste. If you’re more prone to gulp, drink vodka! A serving is about 1 to 2 ounces, and please don’t fall for the Hollywood crap of heating the glass over a flame. Simply warm it with you hand, as the extra warmth will release the cognac’s aroma and flavor.
This Christmas treat yourself to an adventure and try Cognac.