Category Archives: Cognac

Drink of the Week: Oude Plein

One evening, a few weeks ago, I was contemplating a new bottle of Bols Genever, trying to find a new use for it in a cocktail. I started thinking of a New Orleans favorite, the Vieux Carré, a blend of rye whiskey, cognac, sweet vermouth, Benedictine, and two types of bitters.

Now, depending on the brand of vermouth used, I sometimes find that the Vieux Carré’s request for equal parts whiskey, cognac, and vermouth is a little on the sweet side, so I often reduce the vermouth by a tad–down to 3/4 ounces instead of 1. Or if I want a boozier drink, I up the spirits.

Which is what I did here:

  • 1.5 oz Bols Genever
  • 1.5 oz Pierre Ferrand cognac
  • .5 oz Dolin sweet
  • 1 tsp. Benedictine
  • 2 dashes each of Ango. & Peych.

Mix all ingredients in a double Old Fashioned glass over ice; stir.

My mention of this drink on Twitter sparked a brief conversation, and someone (Matthew Robold, I think) suggested naming it the Oude Plein, which Google Translate offered up as a Dutch translation of “old square.” Works for me.

The Carousel Bar at the Hotel Monteleone in New Orleans remains one of the most reliable places in my experience to find a Vieux Carre, and they’re served in these lovely flared OF glasses. For my variation, I used the closest thing in my cabinet.

The Mysteries and Secrets of Distilling in Cognac, the Cellar Master’s Essential Work and Classic Cognac

This one’s quite a mouthful… Sunday morning, bleary-eyed and unhappy to be awake, I stumbled to the Royal Sonesta for Dale De Groff’s cognac seminar.

His panelists included Salvatore Calabrese, Alain Royer, and Olivier Paultes. Calabrese is one of the world’s most famous bartenders and also author of a book about cognac. Alain Royer has worked with cognac for most of his life and now works with Renaud-Cointreau Group. Olivier Paultes has also worked with cognac most of his life; he is now cellar master for Frapin and Fontpinot. And if you don’t know who Dale is …

So DdG started off with a history of cognac, the region and the spirit. He moved quickly through this material, so my notes are somewhat sketchy. He wanted to get right into the first tasting portion of the panel. We started with a 2009 distillate of cognac, bottled off the still. Not a lot of complexity to this, as you’d imagine. Floral (lavender, violet) and fruity (a hint of citrus zest) on the nose and tongue, but also quite hot. It needed a few drops of water to open it up and get past the alcohol burn. We moved on to a VSOP Frapin, then a VSOP Château Montifaud and an XO Château de Fontpinot. I’m pretty inexperienced when it comes to cognacs of this caliber, so I don’t really trust my tasting notes. I’ll just say I thought the Fontpinot was just gorgeous, though.

A quick aside here: if I remember Dale’s definition correctly, in cognac terms, a château is a single house producing all its own cognac. These cognacs don’t blend their cognacs with distillates from other houses, like mass-market cognacs do. This is, in a rough sense, analogous to a single-malt scotch.

The final cognac tested was called Vat 49, and it was unusual. It’s from the Forgotten Casks program imported by Preiss Imports. A blend of older cognacs, containing brandies from 1904 and 1955. Interesting and a bit of a challenge.

Next part of the panel dealt with still construction in the cognac region, and this part was great. Royer played a video showing craftsmen taking a flat sheet of copper and hammering, bending, and shaping it into the rounded wall of the boiler. Someone interrupted with a question to Royer: “What’s the price of a cognac still these days?” Answer: “A Ferrari.” As labor intensive as it is to build one, I’m not surprised.

We were running low on time at this point, but Calabrese, the mad bastard, had a couple of surprises for us. First up, a pre-phyloxera cognac from 1865. That’s Eighteen Sixty-Five, the year Abraham Lincoln was assassinated. Phyloxera is a pest that nearly destroyed the European wine industry in the late 1800s. The only salvation was to take European vines and graft them onto North American rootstock, which had evolved alongside phyloxera and was thus resistant. Many wine and brandy experts insist that pre-phyloxera wines and brandies were much different in flavor and character from today’s. I don’t know the provenance of the stuff that Calabrese brought along, but it’s a survivor. I thought it nosed like a madeira or a sherry, and caught a lot of complex aromas, but I also thought that the flavor was a little flat.

However, it was the other surprise that was a true treat, an 1805 Sazerac cognac.

A little history here: when the Sazerac cocktail–now rye whiskey, sugar, absinthe, and Peychaud’s bitters–was originally a brandy cocktail. And the brandy of choice was Sazerac. From what I can tell, though, the Sazerac cognac succumbed to the phyloxera pest. A bottle from 1805 is a rare thing indeed.

Which made it surprising when Calabrese mixed about half of a 200ml bottle into a Sazerac. I was one of the few who caught a sip of it, and zoh-mah-gah. The drink was far richer and more complex than any Sazerac I’ve made or tasted with rye or modern cognac, and I can reasonably suspect, a tipple I’ll probably never taste the likes of again.

The perfect starter cocktail

The other day, a reader commented:

I’m new to cocktails. I’m intrigued by cocktail menus at restaurants, but could never decide what to order. Could you recommend a good “starter” cocktail for a novice? I’d like to try Wondrich’s basic recipe but don’t know what kind or brand of spirit to buy.

I’ll go back into the Wondrich recipe later, but for now, let me make some suggestions for what to order and what to mix at home.

How I Started

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photograph of the missus and me by meriko borogove

When Jen and I got into cocktails, we were lucky. It was 2005, and we were living in New York. Flatiron Lounge had been open a couple of years and we were starting to go there once a month or so, often enough that some of the bartenders recognized us. (We wound up there with our wedding party after getting hitched at the marriage bureau in Manhattan, but that’s a story for another day.) Pegu Club opened later that year, so we had an excellent choice of bars at which to meet after work and bend our elbows.

It was at Flatiron that I first fell deeply in love with a cocktail. That drink was the Sidecar. It quickly became one of my favorite drinks, and I believe it’s a perfect starter cocktail, both to order out and to make at home. Here’s why:

  1. When made right, it’s delicious, absolutely yummy, and one of the finest drinks ever invented.
  2. It’s a great introduction to cocktail theory, or the art of balancing the booziness, sweetness, and tartness of a cocktail. A good cocktail is an aperitif, an eye-opener. It eases you out of the stresses of the day and prepares the mind and appetite for a good meal. A drink that’s too boozy, too sweet, or too tart dulls the palate. Where the right balance lies varies from drinker to drinker, though. Some like a tarter Sidecar than others. You’ll figure it out.
  3. It’s easy to make right, unless you’re a cretin.
  4. Its ingredients (cognac, lemon juice, triple sec/Cointreau/Grand Marnier) should be available in just about every bar you’d walk into. If you’re in a bar that doesn’t have all these things, order a beer. If you’re at a bar that has cognac and triple sec, but only sour mix, order a beer. Or find another bar.
  5. Any good bartender should know this drink. If you have a bartender who doesn’t know this drink, you can easily walk him or her through it, unless the bartender’s a cretin.
  6. It belongs to a certain family of drinks that mixographer Gary Regan calls New Orleans Sours. I’ll leave aside the origin of that term, and provide you the names of the sidecar’s best-known cousins: the Margarita and the Cosmopolitan. What these drinks have in common is their basic structure: roughly 3 parts spirit, 2 parts triple sec or other orange liqueur, and 1 part citrus juice. (The Cosmo adds a hit of cranberry juice.) So once you learn the Sidecar, you’ve essentially also learned the Margarita and the Cosmo. And also the Pegu Club cocktail, the Between the Sheets, the Maiden’s Blush, and so on.
  7. Once you’ve learned the New Orleans Sour family, you can improvise and make your own version.
  8. Finally, when making a Sidecar, you can engage in a bit of theater. When you twist an orange peel to spray the oils from the peel into the drink, you can flame the twist so the oils ignite before hitting the drink. This never fails to get a response from guests, whether at a bar or at home. And it’s fun for you, the home bartender.

The Sidecar has a simple recipe; let’s look at the formula I mentioned earlier: 3 parts spirit, 2 parts triple sec or other orange liqueur, and 1 part citrus juice. You can go down-market with this, as I explained in my post about the Flea Bag Sidecar–inexpensive American brandy and basic triple sec–but I suggest you don’t. Not if you really want to love this drink.

The problem with the Flea Bag variant is that American brandy and standard triple sec are both sweeter than their French counterparts, cognac and Cointreau. To counteract that, you need to up the level of lemon juice in the drink, to balance the flavors out. Then the drink risks becoming too lemon-flavored. It wouldn’t necessarily be too tart, but it would upset the balance of orange and lemon flavors that this cocktail requires. That said, the Flea Bag variant is great if you’re skint, but otherwise, I urge you to stick with cognac and Cointreau.

Now that we’ve established the cognac, things get a little confusing. Go to a good liquor store and look at a couple of bottles. In the range that you can probably best afford, you’ll be looking at either VS or VSOP. (A good liquor store will also have an XO, or Extra Old, but if you can afford that, buy it for sipping, not for mixing.)

Sidecar

photograph by Jennifer Hess

What’s the difference between VS and VSOP? VS is Very Special, or barrel-aged for at least two years. VSOP is Very Superior Old Pale, or aged at least four years but often much longer. VSOP is a richer, more flavorful cognac than a VS, and thus makes a more flavorful Sidecar, but it’s also more expensive. Frankly, to start out, I’d buy a 200ml or 375ml bottle of a VS, of a known brand like Martell, Remy Martin, Courvoisier, etc.

Then play with the formula. Start with the classic–3 parts cognac, 2 parts Cointreau, and 1 part lemon juice. A “part” here is 1/2 ounce for one drink, 1 ounce if you’re mixing for two. Here’s the basic recipe:

Sidecar

  • 1-1/2 oz. cognac
  • 1 oz. Cointreau
  • 1/2 oz. fresh-squeezed lemon juice
  • Orange twist, for garnish

Shake over ice and strain into a chilled cocktail glass. Add garnish.

Now you can start playing with that. If you’re a nerd like I am, you can take up the better part of an evening, watching old noir movies on the DVD player while testing Sidecar variants. The drinks writer David Embury liked his cocktails superdry and very boozy. His formula was 8 parts cognac, 2 parts lemon juice, and 1 part Cointreau. (That’s 2 oz. cognac, 1/2 oz. lemon juice, and 1/4 oz. Cointreau.) Way too medicinal and harsh for my tastes, but maybe you’ll love it!

Okay, then, have fun, and salud!

Good touch, bad touch

So, I get a lot of PR pitches. Most cocktail, wine, and food bloggers do. Some of them are smartly targeted and personalized, but many of them are just kind of dumb. I opened my Gmail account one day to see an email that started “Dear Dash.” An amusing nickname, true, and I suppose that’s better than the “Dear <vname>” message I got one day. And, frankly, I can’t even begin to imagine what the PR folks for Women’s Health magazine are thinking in sending me information on dieting, women’s nutrition, and Madonna’s organic lifestyle.

Now you’ll understand why it was a delight to read a PR email that started this way:

Hey Michael,

Hope all is well. I couldn’t help but notice, from reading your blog, that you have a thing for ginger.

Pitch-perfect PR. By my rough count, there are… let’s see… 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10 posts that feature or mention something gingery as a drink ingredient. So thank you, Yun Yu, from Fox Greenberg Public Relations, for actually paying attention to what I do and what this blog’s about–not specifically ginger, but about creatively pairing strong flavors and fresh ingredients with spirits.

Thank you, too, for sending up a bottle of Xanté pear and cognac liqueur while all my pals were at Tales of the Cocktail. This stuff is tasty. It’s hard to balance the flavor in a product like this, to keep it from being cloying, but the distillers did a fine job on this one. Morgenthaler describes it well, in a piece where he rightly and humorously sends up its marketing (Xanté’s PR firm is great, but its marketers are insane):

The opening nose is reminiscent of pears poached in cinnamon and wine. The first sip reveals a moderate amount of heat, which dissipates quickly leaving behind an extended finish of basic sugars, pear, light caramel, vanilla, cinnamon, nutmeg and banana.

I find it just a little too sweet to sip neat or on the rocks, but it blends beautifully into cocktails. I think my favorite use for it is in a sidecar variation, with lime juice instead of lemon, and the triple sec reduced just a smidge.

I also find that it pairs well with rum, in an old-fashioned, with Fee’s Whiskey Barrel Aged Bitters. In fact, the marriage of pear, vanilla, and Fee’s warm Christmas spices reminds me so much of Yuletide that I’m going to tuck some of the Xanté away for the holiday season.

Xanté Ginger Martini
photograph by Jennifer Hess.

Now, what’s this to do with ginger? Well, Yun, in contacting me, suggested the Xanté Ginger Martini cocktail. I know, I know, I know; I’m not crazy about the name either. A martini is strictly a drink with gin and vermouth and maybe some orange bitters. It’s not a drink with cognac liqueur and anything else. But call it what you may, it’s a damn fine drink. Here’s the recipe as Yun sent it.

Xanté Ginger Martini

  • 1-1/2 ounces Xanté
  • 1-1/2 ounces lemon juice
  • 1 ounce simple syrup (I’d cut this back to 1/2 ounce, personally, but I was using a rich 2:1 syrup made with Turbinado sugar)
  • 1 piece of fresh ginger
  • 1 thin slice of fresh ginger, for garnish

In a mixing glass, muddle the ginger. Add Xanté, lemon juice, and simple syrup. Shake over ice, strain into a cocktail glass, and float garnish on top.

Tell you what. Not only is this a fine drink, where all of the elements play well together, but the ginger really helps to bring the pear to the fore. And as we found out last night, Spanish Marcona almonds make a perfect accompaniment to this cocktail. I almost didn’t want to have dinner.

Flipping the bird

About a month ago, Gary Regan devoted his SF Chron column to examining the intersection of food and beverage. I’m not talking about pairings, but instead food as an ingredient in cocktails. The technique of fat washing is an example of what I mean: you take some bacon, for example, and steep it in bourbon for a while. Remove it, fine strain out the solids, and then freeze the bourbon. The spirit itself won’t freeze, but the fat that’s suspended within it will rise to the top, which makes it easy to remove and discard–or reuse, I suppose, if you’d like some bourbon-flavored lard for any reason. Think about chilling a chicken stock after you’ve made it; same thing happens with stock that happens with bourbon.

Canary FlipNow, Gary went on to describe something that isn’t really much like fat washing at all; in fact, it was such an abrupt segue that I think it didn’t really belong in that particular column. What he described was a drink called the Canary Flip, a drink created by a Brisbane bartender. A flip, if you don’t know, is a drink made by shaking up your drink ingredients with a whole egg. Flips were common in colonial times, but today, only cocktail geeks like me seem to make them anymore.

Shame, that. I mixed up the Canary Flip recently, and Jen and I loved it. It was a good use for Fernet Branca, a bitter Italian aperitif that many drink straight. I can’t really stand it on its own, but it’s good in cocktails, when it’s in balance with the other flavors. It’s absolutely perfect in the Canary Flip. In this drink, it’s mixed up with Chartreuse, cognac, simple syrup, and the aforementioned egg. The result is a delightfully complex drink, herbal, rich, and creamy. It’s not at all cloying and it has a wonderful mouthfeel. This one’s a keeper!

Canary Flip

Makes 1 drink

Adapted from a recipe by Nicholas Edwards, the Lark, Brisbane, Australia.

  • 1 ounce yellow Chartreuse
  • 1 ounce Courvoisier V.S. Cognac
  • 1/2 ounce simple syrup
  • 3 dashes Fernet Branca
  • 1 egg
  • 1 lemon twist, as garnish

Instructions: Fill a cocktail shaker with yellow Chartreuse, Cognac, simple syrup, Fernet Branca and egg. Shake without ice for 10 seconds to emulsify the egg. Add ice, shake and strain into a chilled sherry glass. Add the lemon twist garnish.

MxMo 23: Brandy

Twenty-freakin’-three? Holy crap, we’re just shy of the two-year mark! Many, many thanks to Marleigh for hosting this month’s Mixology Monday!

Brandy MxMo is a challenge. With so many fruit brandies out there, how do you choose? Aside from apple brandies, I haven’t quaffed much from the many barrels of non-grape brandies that are available. So I played it safe and chose cognac. I looked through a lot of recipes–some familiar, others new–trying to find something that excited me. I thought briefly of the Between the Sheets, since I love the rum/cognac marriage, but I figured, if I’m going familiar on the spirit, I should at least take a chance on an unfamiliar recipe.

I finally clicked over to the drinks database at Esquire magazine, selected Brandy as my main spirit, and paged through the recipes. The Brandy Daisy caught my eye. As reimagined by Dave Wondrich, it’s not quite the Daisy of yore.

Traditionally, the daisy mixes a spirit with lemon juice and some sort of sweetener. The Brandy Daisy usually calls for both grenadine and sugar, apparently, and then it’s poured over crushed ice, topped with seltzer, and decorated with fruit. Wondrich prefers the recipe of the Englishman Edward Spencer, who uses yellow Chartreuse to provide the drink’s sweet tones.

Behold.

Brandy Daisy

  • 1-1/2 oz. brandy (I used cognac)
  • 3/4 oz. yellow Chartreuse
  • 3/4 oz. lemon juice

Technique: Stir well with cracked ice in a mixing glass. Strain into a chilled Collins glass and top with a splash of chilled club soda or seltzer. Wondrich notes: “To bring this more in line with Daisy orthodoxy, half-fill a silver julep mug or stemmed wine goblet with cracked ice, pour in the ingredients, top…with a couple ounces of seltzer or club soda, and stir until the glass frosts. Decorate with sprig of mint and wheels of orange and lemon and harpoon with a straw.”

I pared it down even farther and then, to further piss off the drink gods, used a different glass! I omitted the fizz and the fruit and served it up, in a cocktail glass. Wondrich would tell me, rightly, that I made a Sidecar variant, with the Chartreuse replacing the orange liqueur.

So be it.

Lip-smacking good. Yellow Chartreuse is sweeter than its green counterpart and not quite as complex on the palate, so it’s probably the best choice for mixing with cognac. Although yellow Chartreuse can overwhelm a drink with its sweetness, I still love its undertones of honey. This drink really plays to that. The lemon cuts through the sweetness while still allowing some notes of honey to play off the herbal tones and the cognac. Mixed to spec, this is a very well-balanced drink.

Dave also mentions a version by his hero Jerry Thomas, which uses curacao and just a weeeeeee bit of rum. That sounds delightful as well. And, just for shits and giggles, let’s say you replaced the fizzy water with, oh, I dunno? A fizzy wine? I don’t know what ol’ Longbeard would say, but you could invite me over for that!

Gingered and smokin’

A few weeks ago, I received a review bottle of a product that’s been reintroduced to the American market (albeit in a reformulated recipe)–Canton Ginger Liqueur. I love ginger in all sorts of forms: I love the slices you get to clear your palate between bites of sushi; I love ginger beers and ales; and I love ginger as an ingredient in food and cocktails. So I was excited to accept an offer of Canton.

As soon as I got it home, I opened it and poured a dram into a small snifter. Both Paul and Jamie have already written about their bottles, and I find no fault with their tasting notes on the straight liqueur–ginger and honey with a note of vanilla.

Alone, it’s a really pleasant quaff, delightful as an after-dinner sipper. But the big question is, how does it mix? Gotta say, I’m still workin’ on that. The first thing I did was to follow Jamie’s suggestion and mix up a Debonair, using Oban for the scotch. Wow. That Gary Regan knows his shit; the Debonair is a great drink, both smoky and gingery.

Then I started experimenting to create something new. And at this point, I made some dumb mistakes. I won’t say what they were, but if you knew, you’d say, “WTF were you thinking?! Have moths eaten your brain?” Let it suffice to say that it’s pretty easy to bury the Canton’s flavor if it’s up against aggressive ingredients.

Finally, I hit upon a winner, a simple, if somewhat obvious, blend of cognac, Canton, vermouth, and lime.

  • 2 oz. cognac
  • 1 oz. lime juice
  • 3/4 oz. Canton
  • 1/2 oz. dry vermouth

Technique: Shake over ice and strain into chilled cocktail glass.

I’m curious to try a variation of that with rye.

MxMo: Limon

MxMo LimonHey! It’s time for MxMo V: The One With the Whales, this month hosted by hosted by Jonathan at Jiggle the Handle. So grab a bowl of lemons, tart yourself up, and strap in: Look at the lemons/See how they juice for you/And everything you do/Yeah they were all yellow…

Twelve, on FlickrHaving become an avid reader of the Fine Spirits and Cocktails forum on eGullet, I came across a thread recently about limoncello. Forum reg. Katie Loeb posted to the thread, describing the techniques involved, and I started jonesin’ to make my own. But when I first saw the thread, Jen and I were in the midst of planning our cocktail party, coming up with the menu, and gathering the various spirits and other ingredients.

Finally, I came home with a dozen lemons and a bottle of high-proof Stoli. Coincidentally, the same day I brought home the stuff, I got the latest issue of Imbibe magazine, which had a photo essay (with text by Paul Clarke), showing how to make limoncello.

With two good sources in front of me, I broke out the Microplane, zested the hell outta a dozen lemons (and one lime), and soaked the gratings in the rocket-fuel voddy.


Twelve, on Flickr

And, hooboy, did it ever smell like rocket fuel in those first few days! I steeped it for about 20 days before straining it, adding more vodka, and pouring in some simple syrup. I let that sit for another week–some of it in a nice bottle and some back in the original jar.

Sunday, I finally uncorked the bottle and had a taste. Strong vodka in the nose as I sniffed a snifter of warm limoncello, but not so much vodka on the tongue. When we had it chilled later that evening, we neither smelled nor tasted vodka.

I mixed two cocktails with the limoncello. The first was a Sidecar/sour variation, which I’m calling a Lemon Cart.

Lemon Cart

  • 1½ oz. cognac
  • 1 oz. limoncello
  • ½ oz. lime juice
  • Lemon twist, for garnish

Technique: Shake and strain into a cocktail glass. Add garnish.

I think Jen liked this more than I did. I thought it was perhaps a bit sweet. I thought about adding a dash of Regan’s orange bitters to spice it up a bit. Next time…


Twelve, on Flickr
Despite the hot weather, I was also grilling Sunday, so we were outside and needed refreshment. So for my next trick, I tried a Lemon Cooler.

Lemon Cooler

  • 2 oz. gin
  • 2 oz. limoncello
  • juice of half a lime
  • Lime wedge, for garnish

Technique: Build in a tall glass. Stir, top off with tonic water, and add garnish.

Our final limoncello test was old-school: straight and chilled. Well, not quite straight. Our freezer is packed full of food and ice trays, so there’s no real room, alas, to store a bottle of limoncello–not even a small bottle. I served it on the rocks, using the nice chunky ice cubes you can get with those silicone trays. I’d still love to try it straight from the freezer.