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. I had lunch 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 sort of 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

Bengal Lounge: Pussycat with Big Attitude

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The beauty of downtown Victoria BC’s shopping scene is that all the fun, eclectic shops are right next to, or walking distance from, each other. Within one or two blocks, I could pop into several different shops for fine crystal, Irish wool jackets, Mediterranean tapas, carved chocolates, soaps that look good enough to eat, and a number of pubs.

It was a few hours before I had to meet up with family for dinner, so perhaps I could treat myself to a Victorian martini experience. The very distinguished-looking Empress Hotel sat across from the Parliament building in downtown Victoria’s inner harbor. I headed over, wondering if it was every bit as hoity on the inside.  It was. Which meant a fancy martini bar was waiting just for me.

The Bengal Lounge

The immense doorway to the lounge was guarded by uniformed hosts. From the entrance, I took note of the expansive room’s large potted palms and sectional seating areas of plush leather sofas, with wide pillars of dark wood that rose and connected in a trellis-like design on its high ceiling. As I was escorted to my table, I observed the lounge had the genteel ambiance of a drinking establishment built for British gentlemen after a long, hard day of colonizing provinces throughout India. The fireplace was fronted by sofas and animal-print throw pillows, no doubt to complement the full-sized Bengal tiger skin hanging above the mantel. The tiger’s head was still attached, with a fight-to-the-death, “You’re taking my fur?! Oh, I don’t THINK so!” snarl forever frozen on its face.

Some ladies were playing a loud, exciting dice game at a table nearby. I was more interested in the idea of sipping cocktails in front of a roaring fireplace. I ordered the Empress 1908 Martini. Since it was the hotel’s signature cocktail, it had to be delicious and strong, right? Right? I posed the question to my server, an older gentleman from India (an ironic coincidence). He smiled politely and said nothing.

The Empress 1908 Martini was both confusing and disappointing. Made with Empress Blend tea-infused vodka, lightly sweetened fresh lime juice and frothy egg whites, its flavor was too subtle (okay, bland), its texture nog-like. As I drank it, I couldn’t make up my mind if I liked what I was tasting, or not. And I felt no holiday cheer whatsoever up until the last sip. I think the bartender left out the vodka and gave me straight tea.

There is a special place in Hell just for incompetent bartenders. There has to be! I spoke with my cousin, a cocktail connoisseur, later that evening, and he confirmed my suspicions – the Bengal Lounge’s martinis were all pussycat and no tiger. With mixology standards and martinis this weak, I highly recommend you seek your holiday spirits elsewhere!

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Empress 1908 Martini

1 1/2  ounce(s)  Empress Tea-infused vodka
3/4   ounce(s)  fresh lemon juice
3/4   ounce(s)  Simple Syrup
3/4   ounce(s)  egg white (1/2 of one egg white)

Combine all ingredients and shake vigorously with ice. Strain into martini glass with a half sugar rim.

(Recipe provided by Fairmont Empress in Victoria BC, Canada)