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Archive for the ‘Cognac’ Category

Back during the annual ritual known as spring cleaning – misnamed, I think: It should more properly be called spring messing – Diane asked me that question. I was momentarily dumbfounded, and all I managed to say was a lame “37?”

Many years ago, when she asked me a similar question – “Why do we have 44 bottles of grappa?” – I was able to confidently and truthfully say “Because I’m working on a big article on grappa for Decanter.”

That wasn’t the whole truth, as anyone who knows my fondness for grappa understands, but it was at least a plausible cover for my shameless indulgence. Back then, I could honestly claim to be the most important proponent of grappa in the US: I had published the first North American article about grappa back in the 80s, in Attenzione, and written about it in several other magazines as well – so I could, with a straight face, say I had a professional interest in that distillate.

But now that I am no longer an active wine journalist (except for this blog), how could I explain needing so many brandies?

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Had I not been taken by surprise, the answer was easy, really: They all have different uses, different niches that they fill. Just as I am passionate about matching a wine with food that will show it at its best (and vice versa), so am I interested in choosing the digestivo that will best complement the dinner I’ve just enjoyed.

That’s the real key for me: Call them brandies or digestivi or after-dinner drinks, whether it’s grappa or cognac or armagnac or marc, malt whiskies or curaçao or chartreuse, whatever their name, their function for me is to complete my meal, to round off the whole culinary experience. That may sound pompous, but it tends to be delicious – and figuring it all out is sheer fun.

So: Shameless self-indulgence once again, with a slight admixture of self-education. As Brillat-Savarin so well understood, a true gastronaut’s work is never done.

You can be forgiven for wondering what all those bottles are, and what niches I think they fill. A fair enough question, so here’s a broad rundown. For simplicity’s sake, let’s divide them, as those in the liquor trades often do, into “white goods” and “brown goods.”

White goods consist primarily of my beloved grappas, of which I like to keep a goodly selection on hand – grappas of Barbera and Dolcetto and Nebbiolo, Tuscan grappas, even southern Italian grappas, from Campania and Calabria and Sicily, all regions where this originally northern drink has gotten a firm hold.
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Each of these grappas differs from the others in basic ways, having the aromas and characters of the very different grapes from which they are made, and so meshing with very different meals. I take almost as much pleasure in making the right match as I do in actually drinking the grappa.

This category also includes tequilas, a class of drinks that I have been late in coming to appreciate, as well as eaux de vie of mirabelle, poire, and/or framboise, all offering a small explosion of fruit aromas and flavors. Served ice-cold, they can be by themselves a perfect summer dessert.
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Then we come to the brown goods, which will be more familiar to most people than the white. These may include barrel-aged grappas, but mostly they are cognac, armagnac, and an occasional marc. Burgundy and various appellations of the Rhône are my usual sources for marc.

I like to keep on hand a basic cognac and armagnac, as well as better bottle or two – a good vintage of armagnac, and for cognac a reliable producer’s more rarefied selection of vintages or areas of growth, such as Grand Champagne or Borderies. And not to forget Spanish brandies, which are very different in character from their French counterparts.
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Finally, I always need to have a few single malt scotches on hand, and Diane is occasionally fond of an herbal liqueur or plum brandy.
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Those bottles arm me for most contingencies and pretty much any sort of cooking my fair bride may wish to do; and that gives me a great sense of security and comfort, a very desirable condition for the aging wino. Also – I confess to a bit of showmanship – at the end of a dinner party, I like to set out 4 to 6 different bottles for our guests (and ourselves) to sniff and choose from. And that’s why we have 37 – or whatever the number may be now – bottles of brandy.

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P.S. from Diane, who has just counted them: It’s only 29 now. Poor baby!

P.P.S. from Tom: I must do something about that!

 

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I know summer is not supposed to be the time for thinking about, much less consuming, brandies, but I can’t help it: I’m addicted. For me, nothing completes an enjoyable dinner as well as a fine digestivo – or digestif, if you prefer. Whichever you call it, those names indicate exactly what that little tot does: Settle in the good food you’ve just ingested and comfortably begin the process of digesting it.

Not that I need to have eaten to the point of discomfort: far from it. I’m talking about a good, modest dinner, not a Coney Island hot dog eating contest. Perhaps in my distant youth I might have been interested in some such marathon, but these days I couldn’t even if I wanted to: Age and metabolic changes (they will come to all of us) have drastically reduced my consumption. Diane and I together now can’t finish a T-bone steak that once would have been just right for one of us. Our capacity is way down, but that doesn’t make a juicy piece of beef any less delicious:  Now more than ever, it’s quality that counts, not quantity – just as, with wine, it has always been quality that mattered more than alcohol.

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So the only question in my mind is not whether one should end a good meal with a little snocker of something, but with which one?  Armagnac?  Calvados? Cognac? A fruit eau de vie? Grappa?  Marc?  Tequila?  Single-malt whisky? And which one of the many in each category?  There’s no easy answer to that: Each has its niche. And it isn’t just a question of the great diversity of these drinks. No: It’s also the fact that each one of these spirits alters with the food you’ve consumed before it. That can be most obvious in the case of grappa, where the same specimen will sometimes smell freshly fruity and sometimes reek like aged Parmigiano, but it is equally true of spirits seemingly more well-defined, like Cognac or Armagnac, which, when they are not exactly what the doctor ordered, can be either too fiery or too sweet, depending on what foods they’re following.

I know only one way to determine which little tot to choose on any given evening: Pull the cork and sniff the bottle. Usually, the meal’s flavors in your mouth and scents in your nose will point to a broad category of spirits: an Alsace fruit eau de vie, or a Piedmontese or a Tuscan grappa, for instance. But after that, only taking a good sniff from a bottle or two or three will make clear to you whether you want Framboise or Poire, Barbera or Moscato, Sangiovese or Canaiolo – or maybe you want to go in a completely other direction and pour yourself a wee dram of peaty, smoky, seaweedy Oban or Talisker.

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I’ve enjoyed all of the above at different times and in different circumstances, and each has had its moment when it seemed like the only taste in the world that could fit that moment. Equally, I’ve had times when I sniffed the bottle and thought “Why in the world would I ever drink that?”  The process is always illuminating, and the result is always fun, haphazard as it may be.

What actually causes these changes, in the drink and/or in my perception of it, I don’t really know. Science has other things on its mind, and no wine journalist I know of has made a serious study of this phenomenon – but it strikes me as far more interesting and pertinent to day-to-day gastronomic contentment than the molecular composition of any of Ferran Adria’s foams. That’s not the chemistry I’m interested in. Much of my contentment and my health, both mental and physical, derive from the day-to-day experimental science of the table and its pleasures.

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Recently, I’ve been spending more time than I really want to with members of the medical profession – nothing life-threatening, but a few symptoms that are quality-of-life disturbing – and some MDs seem both unfamiliar with the concept of pleasure and incapable of pronouncing words like “wine” or “cognac” or even “beer.”  To the puritanical breed of White Coats, there is only Alcohol; and it’s all the same, and it’s a poison. No matter how healthy your liver and kidneys, brains and guts may be, it’s poison, and if you “use” it, you’re killing yourself.

I’ve given up asking such doctors whether metabolisms aren’t sufficiently different to make generalizations like that useless, and pointing out that I don’t plan to live forever and would willingly trade off a few years of gustatory boredom for a slightly shorter span of intense palatal pleasure. That’s my version of the choice of Achilles. Sadly, such MDs don’t seem to even comprehend the alternatives.

Not all are like that, of course: Occasionally I come across a sybarite who, while poking my torso in search of overripe spots, happily picks my brain for wine suggestions. Maybe I should bill them for the consultation?

All this is not as far off my subject as it might at first appear. It’s no accident that brandies and whiskies and that whole class of distilled drinks used to be known as cordials. They were thought to be – and I think they are – good for your heart. And remember, many are still called eaux de vie, and eau de vie means water of life. Now that I think of it, that too is what whisky means. I don’t think any of this etymological convergence is accidental. Stoking digestion is good for you, and doing so with a complex and delicious, gently fiery small glass of spirits (again, the word is no accident) is one of the more brilliant inventions of our flawed civilization.

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