"I am delighted to see that more and more businesses are recognising that education and well-trained staff are the foundations to better customer service and stronger profits," says the CEO, Wine & Spirit Education Trust (WSET). The WSTA concur stating that "consumers are increasingly favouring more premium brands". We have always maintained that spirits education is key to the sale of our luxury brandies. There is a specific Trade Training page on our website and regular newsletters and Blogs ensure up to date industry news is frequently publicised. Those wishing to go one step further will be interested in the new improved Level 2 WSET Award in Spirits. Also trying to educate the customer is the #ForwardDrinking campaign which launches next month. It aims to target industry taboos such as 'retros' (when brands pay for bar listings) and 'pay-to-play' schemes (when brands offer monetary incentives, or otherwise, to gain a retail listing). Maverick Drinks, who initiated the campaign, said "We don't want people using our product because there's a deal attached, we want them to use it because it's a great spirit". Hear, hear, just what we were thinking.
Learning about Brandy
Adding Water or Mixers
I wrote in my last Technical Topic about adding water to cognac, supposedly to enhance the flavour. Of course, we discovered that when drinking fine cognac, this is not the case. However, some people do like to add some form of mixer(s) to their brandy. For example, sugar and cream are added to change the flavour completely. In this instance, it is not a good idea to use an expensive cognac. Cognac is a rich drink and usually has a complexity of different flavours. This makes the experience of replicating an exact recipe more chance than judgement. Then there is this question of ice - but think about this. If water is difficult to mix with a spirit, a piece of solidified water is going to be even harder.
So, you ask, why don't we warm cognac to enhance the flavour? Well, you can, but we don't drink cognac like wine. Big mouthfuls are a rarity as the strength of cognac is three times that of wine and a small sip quickly develops to body temperature. We have been asked on many occasions about the use of brandy warmers and before we dump this silly idea, let me just explain. Driving the alcohol off by heating the cognac will, in most cases, totally destroy the flavour as the alcohol acts as a flavour carrier. When a cognac has 'gone off', it is because the alcohol has laminated from the spirit. This means that it sits on the surface of the cognac and escapes as soon as somebody releases the cork. Where this has happened, one never needs to ask if it has gone off!
When to Drink?
Much of the real appreciation of a fine cognac comes by tasting it at the time of day when one's taste buds are at their most receptive, usually around 11am - noon. Some people prefer to taste cognac as an aperitif before a meal. Certainly, it makes some sense to taste cognac as opposed to whisky before a meal if you are also drinking wine as one doesn't mix grape and grain. But for me, when looking for a small digestif to finish off a nice meal, drinking fine cognac is the best way to recapture the enjoyable events of the day.
During an average drinking year, we knock back all manner of different beverages without giving thought to what we have tasted, or when. Each drink we consume provides us with a completely different experience. Most are as memorable as getting out of bed each morning but none are as exciting as the sheer thrill provided by a vintage brandy. Even when we drink a glass of fine brandy do we ever give any thought as to the glass and aroma of its contents? So often we hear the words “it tastes the same out of any glass” but the experience of using the correctly glass can be hugely different. Specialist glass manufacturers devote years of research to finding the right shape for our enjoyment, perhaps we should use their experience and try to understand more about tasting cognacs?
The ideal cognac or indeed spirit glass has a wide bowl which tapers at the top, we call it a tulip shaped glass. More than 50% of the enjoyment of any brandy is in the aroma which subconsciously enhances the taste. Having the correct shaped glass allows the cognac to be rolled around the bowl releasing aromas which are then concentrated at the top of the glass. This maximum sensory effect of the glass’ contents can then be enjoyed.
Filling the glass to just over half way up the bowl is sufficient to allow the cognac to be gently rolled around the sides and reach as far up the glass as possible thereby exposing the greatest surface area. It is important however to remember that cognacs, like other spirits, are strong. Unlike wine they should never be swirled around the glass as this releases the alcohol which then sits on the surface of the brandy and blinds the very important aroma.
Of course drinking the golden nectar is the all-important test of appreciation. Taste is improved slightly if the cognac is not cold but brandy warmers are completely unsuitable. They are shaped to accept a brandy balloon glass, which is not good for tasting, and they also drive the alcohol away from the brandy thereby spoiling the taste. Indeed, the ideal temperature of cognac for tasting is room temperature. Remember, we don’t take large mouthfuls of brandy as we would do with wine. A small mouthful quickly reaches body temperature allowing the flavours to permeate all over the mouth. A well-known cognac writer once said that he “chewed” the spirit, it was good advice since this helps to distribute the liquid around the mouth and determine the level of balance. Tasting great cognacs such as our Hermitage 43 Year Old or 1914, to name but two, in this manner would give a lasting memory of the skills and generations who have devoted their lives to making the King of all Spirits.
Read more Technical Topics on our Brandy Education Page.
Glass containers and bottles are believed to have first been made around 1500 BC but serious use of containers made out of glass probably did not occur until around 100 BC. More practical applications for glass were established with the advent of glass blowing, probably around a thousand years later. Modern glass bottles are made in commercial moulds and most bottles that contain alcoholic beverages, including brandy bottles, are made of clear glass.
That however has not always been the case. The traditional brandy bottle started life as a green or, as in the case of cognac, black glass container. The dark colour may have been chosen to hide any sediment that had been left in the bottom of the barrel. Modern glass however is pure and bright which enhances the cognac in the bottle to the highest level. Today we use a wide range of such bottles, many of which are produced from recycled glass. Although the quality of the glass used varies considerably, we choose to buy all our bottles from Saverglass who have a large depot in Cognac.
The size of early hand blown bottles often depended on the quantity of glass the blower had on his pipe and so the quantity each bottle held was largely guess work. It has now become tradition that the cognac bottle is an upright 70cl size but the volume only became metric in the mid-1950s. Before that, all spirits were measured in imperial measurements. Strangely, European spirit bottles are now all 70cl whereas in the USA they opt for the slightly larger wine bottle size of 75cl.
Today, there is a general consistency of bottle shapes having developed from region to region and beverage to beverage. For cognac the very basic upright bottle shape is known as the “Cognacaise”. At Hermitage, we use the “Exception” bottle but also a range of carafes to which many customers are attracted. The traditional bottle shape for armagnac is the “Basquaise” which is round with flat sides and for calvados the longer necked “Normandy” bottle is still generally supplied in bottle green.
Read more Technical Topics on our Brandy Education page.
Chapel Down, the highly successful English wine producer, has just released a 23-Year-Old Grape Brandy made from grapes grown in Kent. The spirit was distilled in 1992 and then aged in French oak. According to one spirits writer it has “all the hallmarks of a complex armagnac or calvados but with its own personality”. By definition brandy is a spirit made from a fruit. Just like Chapel Down, armagnac and cognac are brandies made from grapes but they each have to be made under very strict conditions. Most importantly the grapes must be grown in one of the designated cru regions before being distilled according to their respective regulations. Brandy made in the UK is therefore a rarity. All the cognacs, armagnacs and calvados that we supply are produced and aged entirely in France, with one notable exception – ‘Early Landed’. Some smaller houses ship their barrels of young ‘eau de vie’ to the UK to be aged in cellars here. British cellars are colder and drier than French ones so the barrels absorb more of the spirit but the system saves money and sees some fine products such as Hine and Delamain cognacs being bottled in the UK. Not sure that the Chapel Down Grape Brandy will be able to compete with these fine nectars but hopefully the British will support this initiative rather than see it shipped to China along with most other grape brandies.
Online retailer, Amazon, has just launched a new Sommelier By Phone Service in Japan. Prospective purchasers can leave their phone number on the purchasing page of a specific bottle; they will then be telephoned by a sommelier who will answer questions and advise on flavour and alternatives; more information will follow by e mail. Another great innovation by Amazon – or is it?
Here at Brandyclassics we have been offering this service since our inception, a quarter of a century ago. Always happy to talk and advise about our handpicked products by phone or email, we think our experience and expertise provides an even better service than Amazon. So, if you have a question about our products, please contact us on 01225 863988 or email@example.com.
Many of us travel to France in the summer holidays and diligently search out local products which are unique to the area we are visiting and Pineau des Charentes, with its rich and often sweet properties, is perhaps the one which interests us most. We ask “what is it?” and the answer “Pineau” does nothing to reassure us. We ask, “is it a wine or a brandy?”, ”is it like a sherry or a port?” and the answer still comes back, “Pineau”!
Pineau is unique as indeed sherry or port are in their respective countries. It is a combination of freshly distilled Cognac, which we call ‘eau de vie’, and the indigenous grapes of the area and is available as either white, red or rosé. It is made by Cognac producers, often to use up their excess of newly distilled eau de vie as there are strict limits as to how much can be aged to make Cognac. Pineau is a combination of 25% eau de vie and 75% grape juice which is then aged in oak barrels and in France it is consumed as an aperitif.
The Cognac production region is known as the Charente and Charente Maritime, a part of France which overlaps with some of the most famous wine producing regions. As a consequence, it is not unusual to find grape varieties such as Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabinet Sauvignon and Cabinet Franc in addition to some of the cognac grapes such as Ugni Blanc and Colombard, being used in the production of Pineau. The individual choice of grape can have a big inflence on the colour and taste of the final product.
Muost of the Pineau des Charentes produced is sold at the relatively young age of 3 – 5 years old. However, some is aged for longer, up to 20 years, producing much richer and intense flavours and maybe sold as vintage Pineau. Indeed one red Pineau, produced near the Gironde estuary, has been compared to a fine cold port but this is unusual as most of the red is quite light in colour. The white Pineau will darken with ageing and is sometimes mixed with citric fruit juices and cognac, as in our Pineau Royale recipe, to form a delightfully fresh and cool cocktail.
Pineau des Charentes is a product of the cognac region but there are also similar drinks made in the Armagnac and Calvados producing regions. In Armagnac the product is called Floc and it differs in that it is not aged in oak whilst in Normandy, where Calvados is produced, it is called Pomeau and is of course made from apple juice. Both of these are rarely seen outside of France and even in their respective regions can sometimes be very difficult to locate.
Brandy has been the traditional spirit of Christmas since the sixteenth century and was immortalised by Dickens in Mrs Cratchit’s Christmas pudding, “blazing in half of half a quarter of ignited brandy”. But it is said that cognac was recognised in 1540 after a Chevalier du Maron took two casks of newly reduced or distilled wine to a local monastery near La Rochelle. The monks tasted one of them and found it to be fiery and tasteless so left the other cask unopened. Many years later they found the unopened cask, the contents of which had matured and were very fine. They named the drink after the town it had come from, Cognac.
Cognac has been used over the centuries in all sorts of ways including the preservation of food, in particular meat and fruit where the term “plumming” referred to soaking raisins in brandy. Both fruit and meat were often incorporated into puddings which were much admired by George I, also known as the Pudding King. So enthusiastic was he that in 1714 he demanded that “plum pudding” be served at his Royal Christmas Feast. Brandy was often used to flame the pudding before serving.
In more recent times, Cognac was the favourite drink of Churchill who often enjoyed it with a cigar. It was said by the last French owner of the cognac house Croizet, that during the war, bottles of their cognac were smuggled out of France by submarine for Mr Churchill. He favoured the fine citrus qualities of their Grande Champagne cognacs.
Today, Hermitage Grande Champagne Pure Vintage Cognacs offer the finest traditional values at Christmas, but we do recommend you enjoy them as they are rather than set fire to them on your Christmas pudding. Visit our Online Store to see the whole range.
Cognac Distillation - The Wine Reduction
In the 16th and 17th centuries, the brandies produced in the Charente were reduced by distillation as this made them easier to ship abroad. The risk of low alcohol wines going off before they reached their destination was avoided and the intention was to cut them back with water before they were consumed. But the Cognaçaise soon found that keeping the strong wines in barrels changed them for the better and so they started to learn the skills of distillation.
The basic concept of distillation is that you boil the wines, collect the vapours that escape and then allow them to condense back into a liquid. It sounds ridiculously simple but there are many things that can go wrong unless the process is carefully controlled.
Cognacs are double distilled, that is to say that after the first distillation the wines are re-introduced into the still to be distilled a second time. During the process most of the chemical changes in the wine occur, at a temperature of less than 40 degrees, during the first distillation. Careful consideration must therefore be given as to that which is put into the still. Most modern day cognac distillations include the lees; this is anything but the juice. Most lees used consist of the pulp of the grape. In some cases the skin is also added but the pips and stalks are not as they will introduce an unacceptable bitterness. Some purists will filter out the lees and distil just the juice but this provides a cognac with less flavour and ultimate complexity. It is the yeast in the wine that contains esters which enrich the cognac and provide more flavour.
The first distillation is regarded by many as the most important as this is when the essential qualities of the fruit are extracted. The slower the cooking the more thoroughly the flavour in the wine is absorbed into the resulting brouilli (a cloudy and non-descript liquid at a strength of between 28 – 32 degrees). The brouillis is undrinkable and it is quite impossible at this stage for the distiller to determine the qualities of the final liquid.
The second distillation is known as the Bon Chauffe (good heating). Not all the newly distilled liquid or eau de vie is used. The first quantity, of around half a percent, is known as “the heads” and is discarded as it is too strong and will probably clog with some of the solids. The last part of the distillation, “the tails”, will be too weak. They can be re-introduced into the still but this is in itself a major decision. If the tails are used they will be distilled twice more and will create a level of neutrality in the final spirit. The middle part, which is probably greater than 95%, will be stored in new barrels for a few months to provide the new spirit with an initial boost of flavour and colour. The distillation range of the second boiling must be between 67 – 72.4 degrees, above this range the spirit will be burnt and below it there will be insufficient refinement in the final cognac.
To read more Technical Topics go to our Brandy Education page.
The cognac distillation process is the most technical part of making the golden nectar. It is the stage where the wine is reduced to a spirit, which we refer to as 'eau de vie'. Distillation is carried out twice. The first time it changes the wine to a 'brouillis', a cloudy liquid with a strength of around 27 – 30% alcohol, and then it is distilled again. In this article we will consider the distillation equipment required and next month we will explore the process.
The complete distillation process is controlled by the Bureau National Interprofessionel du Cognac (BNIC) and every distiller must comply with the rules that protect the name of ‘Cognac’. The process usually starts at the end of October once the grapes have fermented and changed into a relatively low alcohol, acidic wine.
The bulbous, onion shaped, original design of the cognac still is largely accredited to the Dutch in the seventeenth century and has not changed significantly since. Sitting on top of this still is the chapiteau or still head. This is where the vapour rises after boiling and before continuing into the swan’s neck, an appropriately named pipe extending from the top of the still head. Eventually the vapour enters the serpentin, a large coil in a water tank, where it condenses before entering a tank ready for the second distillation.
Different still designs can influence the cognac’s final flavour. Firstly the size of the still is important. The smaller the still the more distinctive the cognac it produces whereas larger stills tend to provide more neutral flavours. The problem of neutrality is also created by the shape of the still head. Large, wide onion shaped stills allow the vapour to drip back into the still, a process known as rectification, and so the spirit is re-distilled. Conversely, narrow, shallot shaped heads allow the vapour to leave the still faster, with less risk of it condensing, before it has rounded the swan’s neck.
The other choice distillers must make is whether or not to use a chauffe-vin , a type of heat exchanger which sits between the still and the serpentin (condenser). This enables the warmth of the hot vapour to warm the wine before it enters the still for boiling whilst the initial temperature of the wine cools the vapours to initiate condensation.
Next month I will look at the Distillation Process. To read more Technical Topics, go to our Brandy Education page.