Cognac: A Warm Beautiful (Cocktail) Memory

warmbeautiful_filtered2

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.

victoriabar baroffgovst

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.

paintinginvictoria
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.

warmbeautiful_sml2

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.

thebeautiful

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.

remymartin_wenglei
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

Cocktails: How to fail at picking up ladies, and the fabulous flavored cube

austinladies_new

There are so many wrong ways to meet women.

On our way to a cocktail adventure downtown, my gal pal and I added a few more to that list. Here’s one: A dark-colored car with tinted windows pulling up alongside us. Then an unseen driver slowly lowering his driver-side window to reveal a hand, palm up, and fingers beckoning in a “Bitches, come here.” gesture.
Nope.

Here’s another: A guy stopping his car on the corner at a green light, angry drivers honking behind him, while he’s shouting lame come-ons at us with a huge, naughty grin on his face.
Really big nope!

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Yeah, nope again. But kudos for originality!

austinpowers_new
Maybe?
I mean, what woman could resist a suave, fashion-forward icon like Austin Powers, am I right?

After that obstacle course of weirdness, we made it to the bar and grabbed seats in front of the bartender. We like to watch the magic happen.

Luc Lac bar

The Single Knight cocktail at Luc Lac’s bar was a game-changing, Whoa!-inducing twist on the Old Fashioned cocktail that made our tastebuds do a double-take. First, a large cube made of deeply smokey Lapsang Souchong tea was placed in the glass. This was followed with their sigh-inducing blend of bourbon, pho syrup, and angostura orange bitters. But wait, there’s more! The finishing touch was a lemon twist, wrapped around a blowtorched bourbon cherry and cloves! Daaaamn!

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When I order cocktails that arrive with a large, slow-melting cube, I usually leave it alone for a couple of minutes before I take a sip. This is so a little of the ice will melt into the mix and make it less syrupy. One sip of the Single Knight and MIND BLOWN! The smokiness from the melting tea cube adding to the bourbon, further flavored by zest with burnt cherry and cloves – I was caught up in a swirl of amazingness.

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Citrus with burnt fruit and spice was all kinds of nice (especially in a bourbon), but that giant cube made of smokey Lapsang Souchong tea made me realize flavored ice cubes that bring out another flavor dimension in cocktails is a thing!

Luc Lac single knight cocktail


 

Single Knight Cocktail at the Luc Lac bar

I wish I had the recipe for this cocktail. However, I do have the ingredients list:

Four Roses single barrel bourbon
Pho syrup
Angostura orange bitters
Lapsang Souchong tea ice cube
Bourbon cherry
Cloves
Lemon zest

 

 

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.

TheBotanistGin

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.

chartreusebottle

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.”

juniperberries

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.

thegins

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.

vesper

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.

 

Mezcal: The Rockstar Agave

teote_during

I was at a Mexican bar one evening. Late enough, and in a neighborhood cool enough, that Uber smacked me with surge pricing. Ugh.

Anyway, it was the kind of warm, late spring night that made it seem all kinds of wrong to stay home. I hooked up with several of my friends who suggested we go to a mezcaleria. I’ve never been to one and didn’t know what that was, but they lured me with sweet promises of an outdoor patio, tiki bar and fire pit. They did not disappoint! And even better, it was “international beats” night, so live deejays played Eurolounge, deep house, electronica, etc. – the good stuff!

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One of my girlfriends turned to me. “You ever had mezcal?”
No, I said. What IS that?
It’s like tequila, she said. But more…interesting. Better.

And she was right. On her recommendation, I first tried the house special margarita – margarita made with mezcal – since I was told it was quite delicious. Plus, she said it was a good “gateway” cocktail to prepare my palate for direct contact with the strong stuff. That was probably the best margarita I’ve ever had, made by someone other than myself (I won’t even pretend to be humble. My margaritas as amazing!).

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It intruiged me. I had to get to know this magical mezcal thing, one-on-one. Savor it more closely, intimately. I ordered a shot of one of their mezcals, asked the bartender to recommend one for me. The patio bar was wall-to-wall hipsters, gyrating, posing, being witty…is that “medicinal” herb I smell? But I was far from being distracted.

mezcal

I sipped the mezcal, held it in my mouth and throat, inhaled and exhaled slowly, the way I do when trying a new whiskey. Then swallowed. It was dark, smokey and there was something else. Tobacco? Leather? It was just that complex and yet utterly fascinating. Mezcal, like tequila, is made from the agave plant. But while tequila can only be made from the the blue agave, mezcal can be made from different agave varieties, which accounts for its array of flavors.

Preparation is another way mezcal distinguishes itself from tequila. To make tequila, the agave heart is baked and steamed prior to its juice being extracted. With mezcal, the agave heart is instead roasted underground with wood charcoal and hot rocks prior to juice extraction, resulting in its smokey taste.

If you love tequilas, you have to try mezcals. Just look out for the worm when you get to the bottom of the bottle.

Cheers!

——————————————-

The Mezcal Margarita
(From bloomberg.com article “The Perfect Margarita Is Made With Mezcal”)

Salt (Recommended: A half-kosher, half-wood-smoked salt blend from Mountain Rose Herbs)
1½ oz. Del Maguey Vida mezcal
¾ oz. green Chartreuse
¾ oz. lime juice
½ oz. agave nectar

Lightly moisten the rim of a glass with a lime wedge, then roll it in salt. Combine remaining ingredients with ice in a shaker, give it a couple of hard shakes, then pour into the glass and top off with fresh ice. Garnish with a lime wedge and a sprig of mint.

 

Soul Rejuvenation: Life Has More Flavor with Friends

drinks with a friend

I was getting ready to tuck into my favorite chair with a cocktail (well, maybe two) within reaching distance. It’s nice to have these quiet moments to yourself, a bit of meditation and Zen in one’s hectic life.

chilloutchair

However, one can have too much soul-searching solitude, and start to feel cut off from the outside world. So I texted one of my girlfriends, and we checked out a fairly new bar downtown.

Lady Asya at Paymaster Lounge

The Paymaster Lounge in NW Portland successfully pulled off the “we’ve been your favorite neighborhood bar for years” feel, with edge-y posters, comfy pleather lounge seats and turned-down lights, but was too clean and new to be dive-y. And there was no duct tape on the pleather. In our reckless wanderings, we came across their vending machine, filled with a nice selection of lip gloss, condoms, fangs, old movies, and packets containing info on finding your spirit animal.

Vending machine of oddities at Paymaster Lounge

spirit-animal

We made our way to the patio, where we enjoyed our cocktails and ordered from a menu with an impressive array of tater tots options. For the rest of the evening, it was all about girls gabbing happily and frivolously about boyfriends, family, fashion, cocktails with herb infusions, trips we wanted to take, etc.  The hours flew.

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In case you were wondering, no I couldn’t resist finding my spirit animal in a vending machine.  It’s a wolf. And I’m not as evil as I fear, according to the message inside.

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For me, friends (and cocktails!) are good for the body and the soul. They remind us what are most important in our lives. Friends not only help us feel like we’re not alone in our burdens, but they also enrich the greater, more meaningful portions of our existence, as well as the quality of our lives.

When I look back at my life, I want memories of adventures and mayhem I shared with friends, not just the sacrifices to my time and life I made so I could work more and harder, until I woke up old and alone.

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Now get out there, call a friend, and share a cocktail moment with them. Cheers!

Absinthe: Green Fairy Cocktail Party

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“None of which equals the poison welling up in your eyes that show me my poor soul reversed, my dreams throng to drink at those green distorting pools.” Baudelaire comparing and preferring absinthe to wine and opium in his poem “Poison”.

Absinthe has enjoyed a tantalizing reputation steeped in decadence, myth and controversy for over a century – the kind of popularity and staying power big-screen actors and rock stars would envy today. Invented in 18th century Val-de-Travers Switzerland, this supposed hallucination-inducing liquor has been rumored to cause convulsions, blackouts, visions of little green fairies, and rampant psychosis. The Fed’s ban on selling absinthe in the U.S. was in effect for decades.

In the 1990’s, its popularity grew worldwide, and eventually – around 2007 – the Fed allowed two European distillers to sell the liquor Stateside. Since then, many have attempted to tap the green fairy portal for visions of demons, angels, creative genius, and so forth. Some say a toxic chemical in wormwood, one of the main ingredients in absinthe along with anise, may have been the cause of these extreme symptoms, and not the liquor itself. According to one recent BBC article, however, “Contemporary analysis indicates that the chemical thujone in wormwood was present in such minute quantities in properly distilled absinthe as to cause little psychoactive effect. It’s more likely that the damage was done by severe alcohol poisoning from drinking twelve to twenty shots a day.”

How to Serve Absinthe

These days, many bar menus feature absinthe as part of a cocktail mixture. The two most popular methods to serve absinthe have been the Absinthe Drip and the flaming sugar cube. The Absinthe Drip, a classic method, involves the slow-drip of cold water onto a sugar cube sitting on a perforated spoon, held over a glass of absinthe.

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The water drips through the cube and into the absinthe, sweetening it.

 

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With the very stylish flaming cube method, you put the sugar cube on the perforated spoon, on top of an empty glass. You then pour the absinthe over the cube, soaking it as the liquid flows into the glass. Then, purely for the sake of showmanship, the cube is lit on fire, and the melted sugar slowly drips into the absinthe. Follow this up by adding ice cold water to the absinthe to get the cloudy effect.

Absinthe’s alcohol content of between 45% and 74% could provide a “transcendent” experience, although mainly without fairies.

I was at a bar one evening, nervously watching a very tall, red-wigged, platform-heeled drag queen in a green dress staring silently and very intensely at me through the gauzey curtains surrounding my candlelit alcove, before suddenly sprinting off into the darkness. The lesson here is, if you’re in the right place at the right time, green fairies can be seen even without absinthe.

 

Death in the Afternoon
A cocktail invented by Ernest Hemingway. Recipe in his own words:

“Pour one jigger absinthe into a Champagne glass. Add iced Champagne until it attains the proper opalescent milkiness. Drink three to five of these slowly.”

 


Sources:

Photos by JE Alexandria Julaton at Raven & Rose

http://content.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,1689232,00.html?imw http://www.bbc.com/culture/story/20140109-absinthe-a-literary-muse http://content.time.com/time/specials/packages/article/0,28804,2031497_2031504_2031460,00.html http://www.wikihow.com/Prepare-Absinthe http://liquor.com/articles/biggest-absinthe-myths/

Cocktail Etiquette: Surviving a Chinese Drinking Party

Station staff looking after drunken businessman

 

There’s an old Chinese saying that goes: “No social ties can be formed in the absence of alcohol.” Be it networking, new friendships or strengthening spiritual bonds, a very good time can be had with cocktails as social lubricants. But if you’re in China, don’t let these moments be ruined over a clumsy faux pas, or several.

Here are some rules and guidelines in place to maintain good guanxi (relationships), and hopefully keep you from turning yourself into a pariah:

The Toast

You’re at a fancy banquet, rubbing elbows with the C-Suite and execs from a partner company. The party’s just getting started, and you want to capture the moment with a toast. Restrain yourself immediately!

There is a hierarchy that comes into play when it comes to toasts. The main host makes the first toast, which is sometimes directed at the guest of honor. Everyone then raises their glass and downs a hefty swig. When you come up for air, that glass better be empty. If someone higher up the corporate food chain proposes a toast to you, raise your own glass with your right hand, makng sure its rim is lower than theirs. If he/she drinks the entire cocktail, you should do the same with yours. Guests are then free to move about. But when away from their seats, the first person they should raise their glasses to should be the other company’s highest-ranking person.

The Drinking Game

As you run amok, making toasts to and with everyone else in sight, there are just a few more rules to wrap your cocktail-soaked brain around.

What? More rules? Yep. First of all, “Gan Bei” is Chinese for “Cheers”. Shout it loud and proud. Also, if you clink glasses with someone, it’s bottoms up! If your glasses don’t clink, you can drink any amount of your cocktail, even just a sip.

When everyone starts slamming shots of baiju – the traditional firewater in these parts – you’re in for some interesting times. One tactic to ensure you don’t end up passed out in your own vomit an hour later along with fellow “Gan Bei”-ers, is to switch to a less potent beverage, like doing shots of wine or beer, instead of baiju. You can even try sneaking some water into your wine. Yes, doing wine shots sounds nasty, but they’re less toxic than baiju, which is made from distilled sorghum and has an alcohol content of about 53 percent. Either way, you may be still be hung over and praying for death the next morning.

But what happens with guests who don’t drink, you may wonder. At an event like this, a person who does not drink while others do is pretty much regarded as an outcast with a slim chance of making any important business deals. However, an excuse like religion or health reasons may help you save face, even if it still makes you fair game for teasing. Best excuse: pregnancy, either being pregnant if you’re a woman, or taking special medication to get your wife pregnant if you’re a man.

At this point, you may be wondering if the same bottoms-up “Gan Bei”-ing rules apply to non-pregnant women. If she’s at one of these banquets, she won’t be expected to drink. But if she does partake, she’d better keep up with the boys!

Gan Bei!

Sources:

Photo by iStock

Drinking at Chinese Business Banquets: A Primer
http://blogs.wsj.com/scene/2013/06/28/drinking-at-chinese-business-banquets-a-primer/

How to Survive a Chinese Drinking Frenzy
http://travel.cnn.com/shanghai/drink/5-chinese-drinking-habits-explains-621771

Maotai auction reaps RMB 5.22 million
http://travel.cnn.com/shanghai/drink/maotai-sells-rmb-522-million-432520