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

Gin = Vodka?

Bartender at Birch Street Uptown Lounge

The Bar

It was a late Saturday afternoon when I wandered into the Birch Street Uptown Lounge -a downtown bar I’ve never visited before. It was the kind of classy old-school bar that you’d see in 1930’s movies – secret passage to an exclusive, high-stakes gambling room, and pricey bootleg liquor quickly wheeled in through the basement back door, before the cops bust the joint and pistol-whip everyone in sight.

The kind of bar that celebrates the era when beauty and bliss were conceived in a cocktail shaker, and born in a martini glass.

The Man

I sat at the counter, where I could observe the mixology magic. The bartender was busy shaking up a delicious concoction for some lucky customer. He was a dapper older gentleman in his late 60’s, wearing a white uniform and tie. I looked around to see if Nick Charles was working his way through a line of martinis.

Two-Martinis

The cocktail choices were impressive; the slim, black leather-bound menu showcased several pages of classic cocktails, their ingredients, plus the years and places of their origins. The bartender and I briefly played a game of “name that cocktail”, where he’d start to make a customer’s cocktail and I’d try to guess its name. I also noted the selection of high-end liquor behind the bar, including one of my favorites, The Botanist, a lovely gin from Scotland that tastes like a revelation (22 botanicals!). I still get wistful thinking about my first shot.

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After finishing my refreshing Moscow mule, I decided on my next cocktail, a Prohibition-era cocktail and my absolute favorite, called the Last Word. “Ah yes, the Last Word. Another fine cocktail,” he said approvingly. We chatted about the origins of the Last Word, a gin cocktail, and about the Carthusian monks who created the famous green chartreuse liqueur for medicinal purposes.

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I watched him neatly arrange his tools, pick up the mixing glass with one hand, and swivel backwards to grab a bottle off the shelf.

The Gin Versus Vodka Lesson

I suddenly froze and stared bug-eyed at him. My voice just short of a hysterical scream as I said, in what I thought was a calm voice but was probably more of a panicky shout, “UUUHHHMMM..is that VODKA you’re about to put in there??!”

When he turned to look at me, he had an impish grin on his face, “Just kidding! Wanted to see if you were paying attention. Although, gin IS vodka.”

“Wait…what?”

Gin IS Vodka?

I had to look that up. It seemed unlikely, I thought, since vodka tastes like…well, nothing…and gin has such depth and variety of flavors. But, that bartender was right. One forbes.com article mentioned that vodka, a neutral spirit, is made from “nothing more than unflavored alcohol and water”. Gin starts out as a neutral spirit, then the gin distillers add a number of other botanicals to their recipes, in addition to the requisite juniper berries. Basically, making gin is like flavoring vodka, according to a foodrepublic.com article, “The most usual production method for gin is to distill botanicals…with neutral grain alcohol.”

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However, to know if you’re getting a gin flavored with artificial or natural botanicals, read the label.  A foodandwine.com article explains:

“What all of them have in common is juniper—but gin is also flavored with other so-called botanicals, such as cardamom, orange peel, anise and coriander seed. As long as you have juniper, then pretty much anything goes… If it just says ‘gin’ on the label then the flavors can be artificial. You are basically buying flavored vodka. The next step up is ‘distilled gin,’ where the flavor comes from distilling botanicals, but things like essential oils can still be added afterwards.”

Speaking of flavorings, I personally keep several liqueurs  in my home bar just for mixing with gin, including and especially Green Chartreuse (not shown here, but pictured above in its solo glory). Most of my friends are gin lovers also, so we could chat into the wee hours over fabulous cocktails.

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The Gins

I recently read an article entitled 5 Styles of Gin, which narrowed the types of gin into five categories:

London Dry – Very dry, light-bodied and pungent.

Plymouth – Clean and bracing, made only in Plymouth, England.

Old Tom – Sweet, full-bodied.

Genever – Malt-spirit base, less botanical, good for sipping straight and chilled.

International – Expanded range of botanicals, ideal for inventing new cocktails.

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These days, there are hundreds of brands of gin to choose from, made all over the world – Italian gins, Australian gins, German gins, French gins, and so forth. Another one of my favorite gins is from France, Citadelle (not shown above because I had finished the bottle before this pic was taken). Delicately fragranced and perfect for making another one of my favorite classic cocktails, the Vesper.

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Whichever gin you roll with, you can celebrate World Gin Day  and lift a glass with the rest of us gin-lovers every second Saturday in June.

Cheers!


The Vesper Cocktail

Vesper is a cocktail where vodka and gin play nicely to create this classic beauty.

2 oz gin
1 oz vodka
1/2 oz Lillet Blanc
1/4 oz simple syrup (because the Lillet is a little bitter)

Stir with ice, serve neat. garnish with a lemon zest.