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Cognac word of the day: alembic

The word of the day from my Cognac trip is: alembic. It’s the distinctive still that the wine must pass through–twice–to become the eau-de-vie that is cognac.

Known in French as the alambic charentais, it is made out of copper, which gives the distillate a distinctive flavor. The wine, a thin acidic wine almost entirely from the ugni blanc grape, goes into the boiler on the right in this miniature, antique example. The vapors, mostly alcohol, rise into the onion-shaped dome on top of the boiler. The lightest ones escape down the bent pipe called the “swan’s neck” and into the cooling tower on the far left. (The thing in the middle simply captures any warm wine to return to the boiler as a measure of economy.) The cooling tank can have a copper coil 60 meters long running through cool water in order to bring the vapors back down to liquid form.

When the distillate comes out of the cooling tower it goes into a cask and then is passed through the still again for the double distillation that makes cognac different (armagnac, for example, gets one distillation usually while vodka can go through the still eight times). The liquid coming out at the end of the second distillation is clear and about 70 percent alcohol. It takes about 9 liters of wine to make one liter of the distilled spirit at the end.

I visited a distillery, which runs 24 hours a day this time of year. All the distillation has to be completed by March 31. The stills can only be 2500 liters for the second distillation, or “la bonne chauffe,” and it takes 12 hours for the process to be completed. Surprisingly, you really can taste a difference in the distillates, potent as they may be.

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Cognac Q&A with Eric Felten

Eric Felten is the author of the “How’s Your Drink?” column in the the Wall Street Journal. I enjoy his spirits writing and, in particular, his story “Cognac and its cognoscenti” from last June. So I thought I would ask him for some orientation on how to enjoy cognac as I embark on a trip to the region. Hopefully I can avoid any egregious faux pas while there–and know how to make a sidecar when I return!

From Eric Felten:

I choose to finish a meal with whisky or cognac purely as a matter of mood and whatever my tastebuds might be wanting at the moment — just as one might choose, at dinner, between steak or veal. But whichever I choose, I have a couple of personal rules:

1) Wait until after dessert for the spirit. This, I admit, is a matter of my own preference. I simply do not like the combination of sweets and spirits. There have been a lot of people urging the pairing of chocolates with after-dinner spirits. Others may like that, but I find it to be just awful.

2) Do not warm your cognac. Silly tradition.

3) Avoid ridiculously oversized balloon snifters. Even sillier tradition.

4) As for mixing cognac, just be sure that the brandy is not overwhelmed by the other ingredients. The classic cognac cocktail — the Sidecar — is now regularly ruined as all one tastes is orange liqueur and (ugh) sweet-n-sour mix. To make the drink properly, use 4-6 parts brandy to one part Cointreau and one part (or slightly less) fresh lemon juice. That way you taste the cognac, which then makes it worthwhile to use a decent (VSOP) bottle.

XO XO from Cognac with love

Winston Churchill. Kim Jong-Il. Jay-Z. Segolene Royal. What’s probably the one thing they have in common? Cognac!

With fans as diverse as this, how could I not know more about this distinctive beverage? Samuel Johnson threw down a challenge to us wine geeks more than 200 years ago when he was offered a glass of claret. “No, Sir, claret is the liquor for boys; port, for men; but he who aspires to be a hero must drink brandy,” according to Boswell.

Well, I don’t know if I aspire to hero status, but I’m not going to settle for being a mere “boy!” So when the Bureau National Interprofessionnel de Cognac, the trade group representing ALL producers and distillers in the region invited me on a press trip, how could I refuse?They asked me what I know about cognac. I said nothing. They said, “Fine!”

So what do I know about cognac? Let me think out loud:

  • Like Champagne, Cognac is both a drink and a place. Fancy that. It’s north of Bordeaux, touching the Bay of Biscay and runs inland.
  • Also like Champagne, Cognac favors brands over growers. That’s evidenced by the fact that the cognac Hennessey is the best known wine and spirits brand according to Business Week magazine. And the second? Moet.
  • Cognac is made from grapes! The humble ugni blanc is grown with yields almost three times that of quality table wines. Then it is distilled. Twice.
  • Production is 95% exported.
  • Hip-hop artists want to “pass the Courvoisier.” Cognac is also known as “yak.”
  • One cognac comes in a Baccarat crystal bottle and costs over $1,000.

Actually I do know one more thing: there are various grades of cognac. Here’s my initial impression, pending further research:

  • VS = blending
  • VSOP = blending or sipping
  • XO = sipping, big bling factor

For the late, great R. W. Apple Cognac, “properly made and aged, is the best brandy in the world.” The decisive factor in setting cognac apart from other brandies is not the unique climate or soil. Appple ascribed its difference to the humans, saying “the decisive factor is the skills in distilling, blending and maturing that have been perfected over 300 years.”

But with almost all the production exported, looking at who and where it is consumed is arguably just as important as where it is made. In his excellent story “Cognac and its Cognoscenti” in the Wall Street Journal last June, Eric Felten wrote about the rich history of brandy and American musicians, particularly African-American musicians such as Billie Holliday or Dexter Gordon all the way to P-Diddy. Felten observed this change:

With Lady Day and Dexter, cognac was a way to cultivate and project a worldly, savvy and civilized image. By contrast, the hip-hop brandy trend has been more about sheer expense — especially the stuff that sells for four figures and comes in Baccarat bottles. Even so, I suspect that cognac’s appeal to the hip-hop crowd is about more than conspicuous consumption. The authors of the “thug” lifestyle seem to think a glass of cognac is like “a gat in the hand.” Rap’s celebration of yak is an embrace of the venerable notion that cognac is the drink not only of the rich, but of the powerful.

How open are the cognac producers to this embrace? After all, when the Economist asked a representative of Roederer about the house’s top wine, Cristal, being a favorite of the hip-hop crowd he made comments that were interpreted as racist and led to a boycott of the bubbles.

It seems to me that the cognac producers are likely more relaxed about their “cognoscenti.” Their beverage is, after all, a distillate, potent and concentrated. They’re used to blending or just playing it straight.

So next week I’ll be reporting on this and more from the region. I hope to be able to post from the region but that depends on two things. First, internet access, which can be spotty in France. And second, if I can keep my tasting volumes below the “heroic” levels of Churchill.

What I’m reading to get up to speed on Cognac:
Cognac, by Nicholas Faith (2005, Mithcell Beazley)
Cognac, the Seductive Saga of the World’s Most Coveted Spirit, By Kyle Jarrard (2005, Wiley)
“From the Thinnest of Wines, the Richest Spirit: Cognac,” R. W. Apple, NYT, September 25, 2002.
“Cognac and its cognoscenti,” Eric Felten, WSJ June 3, 2006, the BNIC site

PS bonus points for anyone who can say who Segolene Royal is. And double bonus for why she is relevant to cognac!

Survey: after-dinner drink, what’s yours?

If the server came up to you in a restaurant and said that one glass of any after-dinner drink was on the house what would you have?

[survey now closed]

Or post your thoughts in the comments.

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