For those among you ramping up the ‘bah humbug’ sentiments, and already mapping out a seasonal escape through the front door of a drinks cabinet, let us all remember that Christmas is a time for peace on earth, good will to all, and brandy.
Still something of a stubborn stalwart during yuletide shenanigans, brandy’s popularity has arguably been waning for centuries. During the 19th century, cognac, a specific type of brandy, had become the tipple for Europe, and despite relations with the French, the British championed the stuff. The Irish meanwhile kept their eyes smiling while opening their own houses – Richard Hennessy being the most renowned purveyor. And as the American cocktail revolution took hold in the mid 19th century, it was cognac that was at the base of classics we still venerate today. Alas, the progress of the spirit was severely hindered in the 1870s when French vineyards were attacked by the devastating phyloxera pest, and as the grape growers stewed in their wrath, whisky nipped in to claim the discerning drinking crown.
Cognac has never really reached the same dizzy drinking heights, and such is our disdain in more recent years, that the spirit has been reserved for sploshing on a festive pudding. To further injure its credentials, we usually dust off the cheap gear from the back of a cupboard. This practice merely converts a suspect desert into something completely unpalatable and further diminishes the role of brandy. Indeed, ‘bah humbug’ proves a highly appropriate refrain, Charles Dickens helped cement brandy into our ritual of Christmas pudding with his Christmas Carol – Mrs Cratchitt’s bowling in with a pud ‘blazing in half of half a-quarter of ignited brandy.’ Undoubtedly charming in many other ways, had Mrs Cratchitt tried that on with us, she would’ve got short shrift, because the spirit deserves more respect.
Brandy covers a wide spectrum of fruit spirits, from the awesome grape armagnacs, pisco, grappa and brandy jerez, to the apples and pears in Calvados, or cherries in kirsch. For the purposes of this piece though, we’ll keep our focus on cognac, since it remains the most available and consistent.
The spirit is produced according to a host of regulations. Only six grape varieties are permitted with Ugni Blanc dominating. The vineyards are divided into six crus: Grande Champagne and Borderies representing the top tier, then Fins Bois, Bons Bois and Bois Ordinaires. Once harvested there follows a rapid fermentation to avoid spoiling, and once fermented the wine must be distilled by March 31, the end of the cognac year.
The wine is double-pot distilled, using a legally defined Alembic Charentais still, and some will leave the sediment, or lees in (Martell), some will remove (Remy), some will do a bit of both (Hennessy) to impact on the final eau de vie (spirit). The wine is distilled to 72.4%, which allows for more character in the new make spirit and ensures that each eau de vie is packed with complex congeners that will react differently during maturation. These eau de vies are then rested in oak for at least two years.
A great deal of significance is attached to blending aged eau die vies, and as you’d expect, the older the cognac, the higher the price tag. If a cru name appears on the label expect 100% of the grapes to come from that cru region, so a Fine Champagne Cognac uses spirits from Grande Champagne (minimum 50%) and Petite Champagne. After this we find three core varieties, appellation control doesn’t require an age statement on the bottle, but here is a recommendation for each.
VS (or Very Special)
Also listed as 3-star, the youngest spirit in this blend can be two years old, pitching this at the more affordable end of the selection. It’s young, but there is still much to discover here, and while most will be appropriate for cocktails, the Pierre Lecat, (£30, Borough Wines) is an example of how you can also find sipping spirits at this age statement. There’s a soft, sweet balance here, the citrus fruit is present from the eau de vie, but expressing itself as a baked spicy pear that’s more pronounced than some VS equivalents.
Very special old pale
In the case of the VSOP, or Reserve, the youngest spirit in the blend is four years old Paul Beau VSOP – Grande Champagne Cognac (£50.45, Whisky Exchange) and from a family owned estate that uses traditional techniques across the entire production process. The oak influence is defined through leather and spice on the nose, along with nuts and caramel on the palate to balance the baked apples and figs on the palate.
We’ve leaped over the Napoleon, where the minimum age is six years, and gone direct to the XO, this category demanding the youngest in the blend is 10 years. It can vary, in that some will use a much older eau de vie and confusingly, the Hors d’age fits the same criteria but could include an eau de vie of 45 years and thus command a much higher price tag. As you move up the age you start to see the flavours fill out, become bold and stick around. The Martell (£134.74, Master of Malt) is a fine exponent of this category, the nose alone is compelling enough with fruit, vanilla and even cinnamon present. The themes develop in the mouth, rounded, super smooth and rich, and the warm spices really come through with cinnamon and nutmeg on top of dried fruit.
Since cognac is invariably a blend of ages, vintage cognacs are rare but if you find one know that it is distilled from one specific harvest only, with barrels selected and set aside purely for the vintage designation. More apparent are the Paradis, Grand Reserve or Family Reserve. We’ve enjoyed the outstanding Hennessy Paradis Impérial (£1950, Clos 19) this year, a cognac that expresses its incredible age with a balance of wood and subtle sweetness, incredibly still exhibiting qualities from the lighter Hennessy eua de vie. Created by Renaud Fillioux de Gironde, the 8th generation master blender at Hennessy who selects a mere 10 eau de vies from the 10,000 he samples each year, with ages going up to 100 years.
Ben McFarland and Tom Sandham are the Thinking Drinkers, award-winning writers and performers who will be hosting their comedy drinks tasting The Thinking Drinkers’ History of Alcohol at the Museum of Comedy in London from December 12-23. Each member of the audience sips five different drinks as the show explores alcohol’s influence on human history. Tickets and details here: www.thinkingdrinkers.com