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Tales recap: Cognac, Armagnac and Jerez Brandy

Our third seminar at Tales of the Cocktail on Thursday, the 17th of July was entitled “Cognacs and Armagnacs,” although we sampled some lovely Spanish brandies as well.

Cognac, Armagnac & Jerez Brandy

A little quick recapping … they went through the basics — all Cognac and Armagnac is brandy but not all brandies are Cognac or Armagnac, the word “brandy” coming from the Dutch “brandwijn,” or “burnt wine”, brandy being distilled wine or, at least, fermented grape juice, sometimes with crushed grape pulp and skin, etc. Interestingly enough, some of the finest brandies are made from grapes that make lousy wine, and you probably wouldn’t want to drink the “wine” or fermented grape juice that’s the basis of many great brandies.

We got a pithy Samuel Johnson quote too: “Claret is the liquor for boys; port for men; but he who aspires to be a hero must drink brandy.” I love brandy but don’t particularly aspire to be a hero, and when I was a boy the liquor for boys was … well, whatever we could get our hands on. Miller Ponies. Everclear and Welch’s Concord Grape Juice. Old Crow and diet root beer. Anything purloined from my dad’s bar. Never once claret, though. But I digress.

Three primary types of brandies: 1) Grape brandy, usually just refered to as “brandy”; 2) Fruit brandies and eaux-de-vie, any distilled brandy made from any other kind of fruit; and 3) Pomace brandy, made from peels and skins, like Italian grappa or French marc, the quality of which can range from beautifully sublime to turpentine-like.

Three major regions of brandy-producing in Europe: Cognac and Armagnac in France, and Jerez in Spain. The revelation for me during this seminar was just getting to taste those brandies from Jerez. Gran Duque de Alba is double-distilled in pot stills from Airén grapes, which has apparently been cited as the most widely grown grape in the world (!), accounting for 30% of all grapes grown in Spain. Aged in American oak barrels that once contained oloroso sherry. We tried two, starting with the 10 year old — lght mahogany color, butterscotch in the nose, with caramel, raisins and toasted nuts, and lots of vanilla and dried fruit on the palate, with notes of chocolate and cinnamon. Yummy stuff. Then we moved on to the Gran Duque de Alba 25 year old — antique mahogany color, tons of butterscotch and toffee in the nose, with vanilla and raisins, and really smooth and lovely on the palate, with more vanilla and caramel and chocolate. I think I want me some of this stuff.

Ooh yeah, there were cocktails too.


2 ounces brandy (we used Gran Duque de Alba 10 year).
1 ounce Grand Marnier.
1/2 ounce fresh lemon juice.

Shake and strain.

Ooh. I could get used to Sidecars like this.

Then we moved to Cognac — Ugni Blanc, Folle Blanche and Colombard grapes mostly, with high acidity and which produce “an undistinguishable wine.” Double distilled in pot stils, with the clear spirit emerging at about 68-72% alcohol, and must be aged a minimum of 2 years in French oak. If you were wondering about what the grades of Cognacs signify, here’s what they’re all about: VS or VSP means Very Superior or Very Superior Pale, which means a minimum of 4 years of aging in the cask. VSOP means Very Superior Old Pale with an average age of something between 10 and 15 years. XO means Extra Old, also referred to as Hors d’Age, which means a minimum of 6 years but often up to 20 years.

We tried H by Hine, which is a blend of 15 Petite Champagne Cognacs at least 4 and up to 7 years old. Floral and fruity on the nose, with apricot, vanilla, orange peel and jasmine in the nose, and baking spices and vanilla on the palate, with a really great texture in the mouth too. Next was Hine Rare VSOP, a blend of 25 Cognacs aged 10 or more years — vanilla, fruit and flowers in the nose, vanilla and apricot notes in the palate, very mellow and smooth. Next, Hine Antique XO, a blend of 40 Cognacs (!) from Petite and Grande Champagne, aged 20-25 years. Lots of vanilla in this one, in the nose and the palate — that’s the wood talkin’ after all those years — with dark caramel in the nose as well, and tons of spice on the palate. Very complex and pretty dry. This is $150 a bottle stuff, so I’m not likely to get a taste of it again anytime soon.

Time for another cocktail.

The Savoir Faire

1-1/2 ounces Cognac (we got H by Hine).
1/2 ounce B&B Liqueur.
1/2 ounce Pimm’s No. 1.
1 ounce tamarind juice.
1/2 ounce lemon juice.

Shake and strain, garnish with a grating of nutmeg.

Pretty good, interesting tartness from the tamarind (find the juice at Latin markets if you’re interested in making this one; it’s less “juice” than the sticky tamarind pulp soaked in water, which you can do yourself if you’re so inclined but it’s a pain in the ass).

Then it was on to Armagnacs. I was keen to taste some of these, as I actually have very little experience with Armagnac and would like to have lots more. (My primary introduction to Armagnac was on an Air France flight to Russia in 1993. I don’t know about now, but at the time being on an Air France flight meant you could have all the free wine and hooch you could drink, even in coach class. I’m not sure where the spark came from, but I asked the flight attendant if I could have some Armagnac, and he quickly brought me some. I don’t even remember which one it was, but I do remember having two of them and they were lovely.) Armagnac brandies come from a different region, use similar gradings (VS/3-star, VSOP/Réserve, XO/Vieille Réserve), and the making of brandy in Armagnac predates the making of brandy in Cognac by 250 years. However, they don’t produce nearly as much; about 20 times the number of bottles come out of Cognac.

Armagnacs will also come out in specific vintages, which you don’t see nearly as often with Cognacs. I always enjoy looking at the Armagnacs in the locked cases at the spirits shop, with the prices going up and up as the vintage dates go further back. (Bottles from my birth year seem to run between $200 – 400; wonder if that was a good year.)

The three Armagnacs we tried were from the House of Castarède, founded in 1832. The first was Castarede Blanche, a white, unaged brandy which was fascinating stuff. You get none of the vanilla and spice notes as you do from the wood; this is delicate stuff, more refined than a marc but if I had to compare it to something it’d be pisco, the clear grape brandy from Peru. (I’ve always been curious about Ciroc, that grape vodka from France, but I’ve never tasted it nor do I know how it’d compare with something like this, but I’ve heard that it’s really good for a vodka.) Sweet and floral in the nose, not much alcohol burn even though it’s 40% abv. Very floral on the palate, with notes of lavender. Lovely stuff.

They used this as the base spirit in the next cocktail:

French Café Mocha

1-1/2 ounces Castarède Blanche.
1/2 ounce Fee Bros. Warm Ginger Cordial Syrup.
1 ounce cold coffee.
1 package hot cocoa.
6 ounces half-and-half.

Shake and strain, serve in a rocks glass filled with ice.

This was nice, but all the delicate floral characeristics of the Blanche just went into a black hole. Frankly, a more assertively flavored and oak-aged brandy would work better in this, I think. I’d be curious to experiment with unaged Armagnac in a drink where it can really stand out.

Next up, Castarède VSOP, with walnut, warm spices, cocoa and prune in the nose, continuing in the same manner on the palate with more spices. Don’t tell me I’m going to start wanting to get Armagnacs too, sheesh …

Then, a vintage Armagnac — Castarède 1979 vintage. This stuff was superb, nuty, with butter, toasted nuts, cocoa and spices spices spices (“!!!!” is what I wrote in my notebook). Again in my head I hear the phrase, “Ooh, there goes your money, honey.” To quote Hellboy, “Ohhhh, crap.”

Finally, we tasted B&B liqueur, which stands for “Bénédictine and Brandy”, which is exactly what it is — the peerless liqueur mixed with brandy and bottled. Bénédictine had been bottled in modern times for about 70 years on its own, until a bartender at the 21 Club in New York in 1937 created a Bénédictine & Brandy cocktail, and it took off — you get the wonderful herbal bouquet of the liqueur without so much of the sweetness. The Bénédictine folks caught on to a marketable idea and began to parket the blended product as well. Oddly enough, although I love Bénédictine and use it all the time, I’d never actually tasted the bottled B&B.

OKay, the running tally for Thursday the 17th … tastes of six single malt Scotches, tastes of ten gins, four small gin cocktails, tastes of nine brandies, three small brandy cocktails. No spitting into the spit bucket at any time. From here it’s off to Cocktail Hour, and THEN to Chef Chris DeBarr’s Tiki-licious Luau Spirited Dinner, with drinks by Jeff “Beachbum” Berry and Wayne Curtis. Keep those scorecards up to date, kids …

Absinthe Suissesse (and another fabulous dinner at Café Adelaide)

Things are a little different around Café Adelaide now — there’s a new chef in town. Danny Trace is off to Destin to take the Exec Chef gig at the new Commander’s Palace (and On the Rocks Bar!) that’l forthcoming, and now heading up the kitchen at Café Adelaide for the last few months has been Chris Lusk, among other things a former sous chef at Commander’s in the Garden District. He blew us away from the outset with the meal he served us during Jazzfest (which, um, I haven’t written about yet … but I’m getting to it!). You’ve undoubtedly heard me sing the praises of Café Adelaide enough — let’s get right to the food porn.

We began with an extended sojourn at the Swizzle Stick Bar, where as I mentioned a couple of weeks ago we started with a lovely morning cocktail, the Absinthe Suissesse:

Absinthe Suissesse

Absinthe Suissesse

1-1/2 ounces absinthe (substitute Herbsaint or pastis if you can’t find absinthe near you)
1/2 ounce orgeat
1 egg white
1 dash orange flower water (optional)
2 ounces heavy cream
1/2 cup crushed or cubed ice

Serve either shaken or blended; old traditional method is to shake vigorously for 15 seconds with crushed ice, or blend with cubed ice. Serve in an Old Fashioned glass.

In his classic tome Famous New Orleans Drinks and how to mix ’em, Stanley Clisby Arthur gives an entirely different recipe for the Absinthe Suissesse. I’m far more used to the one above, which is what you’ll get if you order them just about anywhere in New Orleans. However, apparently if you ordered one in 1937 you were likely to get the following, which is … well, not one I’d care to drink, but certainly interesting!

Absinthe Suissesse
(Stanley Clisby Arthur 1937 version)

2 ounces absinthe or absinthe substitute (e.g., Herbsaint)
1 ounce dry vermouth
1 teaspoon sugar
2 ounces charged (sparkling) water
White of one egg
1/2 ounce white crème de menthe
Cherry garnish

Mix the sugar with the sparkling water, vermouth and absinthe. Add the egg white. Fill the glass with cracked ice and shake vigorously. Strain into a wine glass in which there is a cherry with crème de menthe poured over it.

This is strange indeed. I may have to try it one day; then again, I may not, as I am not a fan of crème de menthe in the least.

Continue reading …


How can you pass up a class with that title? We couldn’t.

After Paul Pacult’s spirits tasting seminar earlier that day (which we went over yesterday), in which I tasted (and did not spit out) six fabulous single malt Scots whiskies, we had about a half-hour break before the next one. Problem was, it was on the top floor of the hotel, with the limited elevators being packed with people every time we tried to get up, and it took us over a half an hour just to get up there. If I wasn’t such a wimpy non-athlete I would have considered the stairs, but 17 flights is rather daunting for anyone, I’d expect. (This was one of the big flaws with the Tales setup at the Monteleone, frankly — it often takes a ridiculous amount of time to get up to the Riverview and Vieux Carré Rooms.) By the time we got there we had to sit way in the back, and consequently didn’t get one of the great Plymouth Gin swag items — a shoulder bag full of bar tools. Sigh.

Ten GinsWhat we did get was a tasting mat before us, lined up with ten gins! (If there was a spit bucket, and I honestly don’t remember if there was or not, I ignored it. Sigh.)

Ryan Magarian and Philip DuffRyan Magarian, Portland-based mixologist and co-creator of Aviation Gin, moderated the session along with Philip Duff, brand ambassador for Bols, Simon Ford, brand ambassador for Plymouth as well as Desmond Payne, Beefeater Gin’s Master Distiller (wow).

We started out with a selection of genevers, also called Dutch gin or “Holland gin” in Jerry Thomas’ time. It’s the original gin, predating the London dry style that we’ve come to know as gin, and has a very different history, character and distilling process. It starts out as a multigrain mash with lots of rye, wheat and corn, although not too much barley. We got to taste the two main types of genever — jonge and oude — plus korenwijn (“corn wine,” the aforementioned multigrain spirit). The base spirit is produced in copper pot stills and comes out at about 120 proof, and to make genever it’s blended with the botanicals and redistilled. Juniper is part of the mix of botanicals, as with London dry gin, but it’s further in the background and not nearly so dominant. Korenwijn, incidentally, is a wonderful spirit on its own, though, and very popular in the Netherlands although sadly unavailable in the U.S. so far. Let’s keep our fingers crossed.

“Jonge” and “oude” don’t refer to age in genevers, but to style and distilling techniques. “Oude,” the older style, is a heartier, maltier spirit, made from barley not unlike Scots whisky, and “jonge” a newer, clear, more neutrally-flavored style. There’s less of a korenwijn base in the jonge style, which is lighter and apparently very popular in the Netherlands these days; young people apparently mix it with Coke. (Gah, such a waste.)

Oude genever, or even better, true korenwijn, makes a perfect Improved Holland Gin Cocktail, one of four cocktails we were served during this seminar.

Improved Holland Gin Cocktail

2 ounces oude genever (or korenwijn if you can get it).
1 teaspoon Maraschino liqueur (or Grand Marnier).
1 teaspoon rich simple syrup.
2 dashes Angostura or Peychaud’s bitters.

Stir with ice and serve on the rocks, or strain and serve up. Garnish with a lemon peel.

This is an amazingly good drink. Truly. The most readily available genevers in the States is by Boomsma, although the Maytag folks have recently debuted an American-made genever called Genevieve. We picked up a bottle recently but haven’t tried it yet (hmm, maybe tonight).

The three genever-style spirits we tasted, thanks to Philip (who was wearing a t-shirt that said “I’d Rather Be Drinking Genever”), were:

An unaged, uncut “malt wine”, the base for genever.

Korenwijn, a very old genever at 38% abv, which we were very lucky to get!

Bols Jonge Genever, lighter but very lovely stuff, and you do get a bouquet of botanicals in the nose and on the tongue. Seems such a waste to mix this stuff with Coke! Philip says this is the #1 bestselling spirit in the Netherlands.

Next to taste was an Old Tom Gin. This is a legendary spirit, predating the appearance of London dry gin in this country by decades, and was a sweetened gin. Back in the Days of Yore sugar was added to gin to help mask nasty flavors brought about by the presence of impurities and bad-tasting congeners resulting from poor distilling techniques. As distilling improved the style’s popularity continued, and Old Tom gin was the basis for almost all historical cocktails pre-1890s or so which called for gin that wasn’t specifically Holland gin. It was extremely popular up until Prohibition, but never really recovered afterwards, and by the 1960s it was no longer made.

Old Tom is back, though, and I hope it won’t be too much longer before we see it in shops. I can’t wait to taste this in a Ramos Gin Fizz; that’s the gin that was used in the original recipe. Old Tom It was surprisingly sweet, more so than I expected, which helped ameliorate the bite of the juniper (which was definitely there) although there was more flavor from the alcohol than from the botanicals. This could be a great “gateway gin” for gin-fearers. Vodka-drinker-converters of the world, unite!

Brands of Old Tom Gin and the more currently well-known and popular London dry gin began to become established in the 1840s, although Old Tom made it over here first. We didn’t start seeing London dry appearing in cocktail recipes until about the 1890s, even the turn of the century. Before long it was established as the premiere gin of choice in the States, and I can’t imagine a Martini without it.

The next gin we tried was old tried and true, Beefeater from London. It was great to have Desmond Payne there to speak, and although I sat in rapt attention while he was speaking I didn’t take any notes, and on that day I beat the living crap out of my already-crappy memory … sigh. Gabriel should have a Juniperlooza post up before long, and here’s hoping he remembers Desmond’s comments better than I do.

This was actually the first time I had tasted Beefeater neat and at room temperature, something I should really be doing for all spirits, according to what we learned from Paul Pacult. That said, gin tends to be the only spirit I never drink by itself; hardly anyone does, really. It’s a spirit that’s made for cocktails, and its botanicals blend so beautifully with other ingredients that you can’t help but to mix it. One taste of Beefeater cried out … JUNIPERRRRRRR! Like, *whap* in the snoot with a juniper branch. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. We also got lots of citrus — bitter orange and lemon peel.

We got a yummy cocktail made from the stash of Beefeater, one of my favorites and a sort of medium-level cocktail for converting former vodka drinkers. It’s tangy and grapefruity and very refreshing, and has been referred to as a “modern classic.” It was invented by Paul Harrington in the 1990s, but tastes like one of those drinks that’s been around for decades.


1-1/2 ounces London dry gin (we used Beefeater, of course).
1 ounce Cointreau (but we used Grand Marnier at the session).
3/4 ounce Campari.
1/2 ounce fresh lemon juice.

Shake with ice, strain into a cocktail glass. Garnish with a lemon wedge.

Then we tasted Plymouth Gin, perhaps my favorite all-around gin. It’s not a London dry, it’s its own style, appelation and category, of which it is the sole occupant. Very unique! The Plymouth Gin company was founded in 1793, in an area that had been making spirits since the 15th Century. It’s full-flavored but less assertive than London dry. It’s a FANTASTIC Martini gin, and very well-balanced. It’s also the base spirit of my own signature cocktail, The Hoskins.

The next gin we didn’t get to taste, because we were too far in the back and they ran out. (D’oh. Get enough product for the seminars!) It’s a gin from Menorca (!) called Xoriguer de Mahon, and I know nothing about it; let’s read the information sheet!

Then … aaah, the sheer joy of Plymouth Sloe Gin! If you’ve ever tasted any sloe gin available in America, you’ve probably nearly spat it out as a syrupy, cough-mediciney swill that’s artificially flavored and colored and that you wouldn’t want in your drink. Plymouth Sloe Gin is actually made from gin and sloe berries (small blackthorne plums), made in the old artisanal style. It’s fantastic stuff, bittersweet and tart and beautifully balanced. The original recipe was lost, but it was reintroduced in the UK 11 years ago and has been unavailable in the U.S., until this year. I have yet to see it on the shelves, but when you see it, GRAB IT! Learn the joys of a true Sloe Gin Fizz.

Finally we moved to what’s being called the “New Western Dry Gins,” still with juniper in the botanical bouquet but it’s not so upfront, not the dominant flavor. These new gins tend to be in two general categories: either citrusy or a savory, floral-spicy style. Tanqueray No. 10 is one of these, with fresh citrus peel in its botanicals. It’s a “softer” gin but lovely stuff, and a good gateway gin. Hendrick’s from Scotland is one of my favorites in this style, with cucumber and rose petal in the finish. G’Vine from France features forward notes of cardamom. Try some gin sours with these sometime.

I’ve been hearing a lot about Martin Miller’s; I’d had some in a cocktail before, and finally got a taste of it on its own. It’s sweet on the palate but not sweetened, with flavors of cucumber, lavender and violets. A good suggestion was to try this in a Collins with some Aperol. (Hmm!)

Cucumber Cantaloupe Sour

1-1/2 ounces Martin Miller’s Reformed Dry Gin.
3/4 ounce fresh lemon juice.
2 ounces fresh extracted cantaloupe juice.
1/2 ounce housemade clover honey syrup (1:1 with water).

Combine in a mixing glass with ice, shake vigorously and strain into a cocktail glass. Garnish with sliced or shaved cucumber.

Last but not least, Aviation Gin, Ryan’s own concoction. I’ve been a fan of this gin since first tasting it, but it’s the kind of gin I want to try in drinks other than a Martini. It’s quite floral and spicy — lavender and cardamom immediately come to mind. The suggestion made in class — try this versus Martin Miller’s in a Blue Moon showdown, especially when Crème Yvette comes back next year!

Pepper Delicious

2 ounces Aviation Gin.
10 mint leaves.
1 ounce fresh lime juice.
3/4 ounce rich simple syrup.
2 thin slices red bell pepper.

Muddle pepper slices and mint leaves in a mixing glass. Fill with ice, add remaining ingredients and shake vigorously. Strain into a chilled cocktail glass, and garnish with another thin pepper slice.

I was already exited about gins, and this got me even more excited. Old Tom! Plymouth Sloe! It’s going to be so much fun playing with all this.

Now, let’s recap the score. We began Thursday from 10:30 to noon with six Scotches which I did not spit out. We continued from 12:30 to 2:00 with nine gins which I did not spit out, and four 2-ounce cocktails which I happily finished. Next session at 2:30 — Cognacs and Armagnacs!

Casino Cocktail

We’re still having fun playing with our new bottle of Angosura Orange Bitters (yay!), and this next one popped into my head as another excellent way to try them out.

This one’s an oldie, so much so that the original recipe calls for Old Tom gin, a sweetened gin that hasn’t been on the market for decades (until … soon; more on that later!). I first had this one several years ago at The Petrossian Bar in the Bellagio, my favorite place to drink in Las Vegas. Our bartender Michael, one of those great old-school bartenders who’s been behind the stick for 30 years and really knows his stuff, turned us on to this one, which hews to the classic recipe but adds one little touch that Michael taught me — a little trickle of brandied cherry juice for color and a little sweetness in your very last sip. In its original form it’s a very dry drink, so this little variation is like a goodbye kiss.

No picture, unfortunately, because I was a lazy bastard last night.

Here’s the original recipe as it appears in the Savoy Cocktail Book from 1930. It’s drier still, and quite lovely.

Casino Cocktail
(as mixed by Harry Craddock in the 1920s)

2 ounces Old Tom gin.
2 dashes maraschino.
2 dashes lemon juice
2 dashes orange bitters.

Stir with cracked ice, strain into chilled cocktail glass and garnish with a brandied cherry.

Here’s the modernized version.

The Casino Cocktail
(Petrossian Bar version, Las Vegas)

2 ounces Plymouth gin (or use Hayman’s Old Tom if available).
1/4 ounce Maraschino liqueur.
1/4 ounce fresh lemon juice.
2 dashes orange bitters.
1 barspoon liquor from jar of brandied cherries.
Brandied cherries.

Combine with ice in a cocktail shaker and shake for 10-12 seconds. Strain into a chilled cocktail glass. Spear a brandied cherry or three on a cocktail pick, then take a barspoonful or so of the brandy from the jar and carefully drizzle it down the side of the glass, so that you get a little red layer at the bottom.

Mighty nice, very refreshing, and one that I might use as a second-tier cocktail for converting vodka drinkers into gin drinkers, especially now that we can make this with Old Tom again.