Cognac: A Warm Beautiful (Cocktail) Memory

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It was a bright summer morning in Victoria. Mom and my aunties were in deep discussions over which beauty salon to go to. My uncle was waiting patiently with cup of coffee in one hand, and car keys in the other. I was sipping my coffee in the balcony, looking out at the marina, and watching planes skim over the water when I got a text from my brothers. They had all decided to go downtown right after an early breakfast. No doubt, I’ll meet up with one or all of them later today, after their afternoon of selfies and shopping.

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Until then, I decided to go exploring on my own. Our condo was just a five-minute walk to the Inner Harbour and Empress Hotel. As I wandered in and out of alleys along Government Street, I briefly checked out a number of trendy bars and cheery pubs, making mental notes of which ones I’ll visit later.

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One shop I popped into sold beautifully-cut crystal liquor decanters imported from Ireland. Another had intricately carved chocolates that looked too amazing to eat. Was craving a snack at that point, but the dainty finger sandwiches and tiny cakes crowd at Murchie’s was ridiculous! I ended up lunching at a patio on Trounce Alley, and chatted with a sous chef from Montreal on his smoke break. He gave me his card and suggested, with his heavy French accent, that we have dinner at his place some evening. “I cook for you, we have some wine and…”, he let the sentence trail off with a nodding smile and a crook of his brow. I kept the card.

My brother Arthur texted me that he was cocktailing at a bar in Chinatown. He invited me to join him if I was nearby, before meeting up and dining with family in a couple of hours. Past the fruit stands and tea house, I found an alley that looked almost too narrow for two people to walk through, shoulder to shoulder. I took my time exploring the tiny shops and fragrant varieties of burning incense. It was summer, warm and perfect. And I had no intention of rushing anywhere.

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I found the bar just a block and a half away. Arthur wasn’t seated at the counter, where I expected him to be. I saw through a glass partition that he was sitting at a table, staring at an oil painting hanging directly in front of him.

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I wish I knew the name of the artist who did this painting

He was completely absorbed by that gorgeous painting of what appeared to be a (ahem) costume party, which took up half the wall. He could barely look away, even as he spoke or took pictures of it with his phone. More interesting to me was the cocktail my brother was sipping. He called it the Warm Beautiful.

The cocktail

The Beautiful is a delicious, potent and citrusy cocktail made of cognac and Grand Marnier orange liqeuer. Arthur preferred it topped with a lemon zest. Having worked part-time as a bartender while in medical school, he knew that cognac’s flavor and aroma deepened when warmed. Cognac lovers would often just cradle the snifter in the palm of their hand, warming the cognac with their body’s heat. My brother wanted something a bit more imaginative.

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The cocktail was served in a snifter. He then asked for a “heater”, a small glass half-filled with hot water. Arthur placed the snifter on top of the water-bearing glass. As my brother waited for the cognac cocktail to reach the proper temperature, he rotated the snifter now and again, still gazing in awe at the absurd yet fascinating painting across from us.

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Age of the cognacs

According to the Bureau National Interprofessionnel du Cognac (BNIC), there are three official classifications of cognac, depending on how long the cognac had been stored in casks:
VS (very special) – At least two years
VSOP (very superior old pale) – At least four years
XO (extra old) – At least ten years

Other classifications have also been used by producers when the cognac had been stored beyond official age scales, such as Extra and Hors d’age (beyond age), which can be as much as 100 years old.

“Rules” of enjoyment

Cognac connoisseurs have very strong feelings about cognacs being used in cocktails. One forbes.com article mentioned that, whereas it is acceptable to use a young VS or VSOP cognac as part of a cocktail mix, it is considered a tragedy to do so with an exceptional-tasting, wallet-busting XO or older cognac. Those can cost hundreds or thousands of dollars per bottle.

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My brother’s Warm Beautiful cocktail was created using Hennessey VS, but a Courvoisier VSOP could have also been used, instead. On the other hand, Remy Martin’s $3,000-a-bottle Louis XVIII, which is very popular in China (along with all the other premium cognacs), is an example of one that should be showcased as a solo act.

All drinking aside (for the moment), younger cognacs should also be used for flambe, marinades, sauces, chocolates and fruit preserves.

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And if you’re in the mood to immerse yourself in all things cognac, the French town this liquid luxury was named after hosts the annual La Fete du Cognac , where you can party for three days with cognac cocktails, crowds, cuisine and concerts.

Cheers!

The Beautiful cocktail recipe

1 oz Hennessey or Courvoisier VS/VSOP cognac
1 oz Grand Marnier orange liqueur

Add both ingredients into a brandy snifter, mix and serve. Optional: Top off with a lemon zest, the way my brother and I like it.

Enjoy!


All photos of Victoria BC, Canada by Alexandria Julaton
Remy Martin shop photo by Weng lei – Imaginechina/AP
Still shot of Cognac Festival, courtesy of La Fete du Cognac YouTube video

Life as a Cocktail: Trying Something New

 

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I had a rough week – the kind of rough week that made me want to re-think several of my life and career choices.  After surviving yet another one, I was trying to put it out of my mind and get to a happy place, as I sipped my vodka lemon drop. My thoughts started drifting off randomly to paths taken, and experiences that shaped decisions made along the way as I felt, figured and clawed my way through this existence. All while trying not to feel completely overwhelmed. Or fall flat on my face.

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I meditated and thought back to choices others I knew have made, and the happiness and fulfillment those decisions brought (or didn’t). It was easy to conclude that making those same choices, walking that same path, would result in the same for anyone else. Treading well-worn paths. But if our lives become all about playing it safe, how can we know there is another path, or level of happiness, that could be more rewarding? One more unexpected, surprising, even exhilarating, and perhaps more fulfilling? We really can’t know until we…pivot.

A great idea or quest for some form of happiness had to start somewhere, and it might have been an amazing journey along the way.

A cocktail analogy.

Pivot. Twist. Zag. Change IS scary, with no guarantees of success. Then again, it doesn’t guarantee failure, either. Think about THAT for a moment!

A well-made cocktail is a thing of beauty and wonder. The balance of ingredients, one in step with another, and that with another, and so on, creating the mesmerizing dance of flavors. But is it a perfect cocktail? That depends.

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On YOU, and if you want to stick with one recipe and be perfectly happy to never deviate from it, or decide that tweaking it a wee bit would make it different, and possibly better. Perhaps the art of the cocktail can be more interpretive dance, than classical ballet – creating your own new combination of moves, instead of following someone else’s footsteps.

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The well-worn paths, the classic cocktails, have withstood the tests of time, but they haven’t always existed. Someone started with a gin, aged and smoothed to perfection, added – just for giggles – a liqueur of 130+ herbs and botanicals whose recipe has been guarded by monks in Europe for centuries, then sweetened it with the fermented juice of a thousand cherries. A few more ingredients and experiments later, one of the most famous cocktails (and one of my personal favorites) was created.

But anyway, back to the story.

One evening at home, I decided upon a vodka lemon drop. Nothing like a sweet, citrusy kiss to smooth out my ragged soul after a long week. A few minutes relaxing in my lounge chair with a cocktail, and the world was slowly obscured by a veil of bliss. I wandered over to the refrigerator to choose ingredients for tonight’s dinner. Deciding on stir-fried veggies, I reached for the fresh ginger and noticed the stalks of lemongrass beside it.

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Hey…what if…?

I pulled out another martini glass and poured in a couple of ounces of vodka.

I sliced off a thick piece of ginger, pounded it with a mallet, and let it sit in the vodka while I finished my cocktail. Later, I put some ice in a mixing glass, and added the piece of ginger I had used to infuse the vodka.

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Zag (Ladies and gentlemen, now for my NEXT trick…).

I chopped some of the lemongrass and dropped it into the mixing glass. After muddling and pounding the lemongrass and ginger on the ice, I added a quarter ounce of triple sec, and a quarter ounce of simple syrup, then the infused vodka.

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I poured in a wee bit more vodka (wink), shook the whole thing for a few seconds, then strained the exciting concoction into my martini glass.

MMMMM!! Ginger lemongrass martini – a delicious vodka martini with a couple of exotic twists. If the ginger is too strong, add less next time. If you like it sweeter, add more triple sec and simple syrup. The idea is to adjust it to your taste. As with life, the cocktail is all about you and your happiness, after all.

Also with cocktails, as with life, you can start over and try again – fix something, make it even better, or try something new. Who knows what brilliant schemes and cocktails you’ll dream up next!

 

A Quiet Cocktail Moment: The Journey

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There was a time when we threw fear and self-doubt to the wind, and imagined our bright, shiny futures with wild, joyous abandon. Pah! We didn’t temper our dreams because…why should we? We knew they could happen; and believed even more so that they would. The journey was beginning. Armed with reckless hope and far too much confidence, we were on our way to glorious conquests. That big, gorgeous world was waiting just for us.

Eventually, we found the world isn’t such a nice place, and the cold slaps of reality really began to sting. For some of us, a dream is not an easy thing to abandon, even as the road becomes less solid and more difficult to see. The world, once a paradise, becomes a hard place, with lots of sharp edges. Still you chase the shards of your dreams on an uncertain path, in what has increasingly become a desert of hope.

Over and over again, we run eagerly towards each oasis.  When we get there, we fall to our knees and grab a handful of that sand, disbelieving that this was yet another mirage. Every time it looks like paradise is on the horizon, it’s more desert. Just like with the last oasis. And the one before that.

Eyes, once again, fill with liquid rage; bitter disappointment carves another notch on your soul. The journey is hard, and the journey is long.  There are days when you believe your life’s story will just be tales of disappointed journeys, eventually ending in a disappointing death.

As the sand slowly falls from your cupped hands, you shove the pain back in and get up again, just like you’ve done many times before.

But this time, you look around. You see that the desert that was before you is actually many roads. And on either side of each road, there are people you’ve never met, places you’ve never seen. Martinis waiting to be tasted, and laughter yet to be shared.

You realize that while devoting most of every waking moment of your life to reaching that dream and destination, you forgot to live. The quality of the journey matters as much as the destination. Your life could be tales of interesting, adventurous journeys, eventually ending in a more meaningful death.

The sad reality is, many of us will not reach our destinations, although many will. You may, or you may not. In the meantime, there is a choice to be made: That is, to enjoy the journey, to embrace the experiences of people and places along the path, or to stare and trudge straight ahead – to see nothing but desert on either side of you and always an oasis on the horizon.


Orange Oasis

1/2 oz cherry brandy
1 1/2 oz gin
4 oz orange juice
Ginger ale

Shake brandy, gin and orange juice with ice, strain into highball glass. Fill with ginger ale, stir and serve.

(Recipe from barnonedrinks.com)