Claret is the liquor for boys, port is for men, but heroes aspire to drink cognac

HAPPY NEW Year everybody! Now that liquors have been banished to the sideboard for another year, let’s look at cognac.

• Hennessy V.S.
• Hennessy V.S.

Cognac is a brandy, but while other brandies can be made anywhere, cognac can only be made in the Charente region of France. The ‘star grading’ for cognac was the brainchild of Maurice Hennessy (Irish extraction), who also gave the world Hennessy Cognac.

• Three Star, or V.S. (Very Special), is the lowest quality blend and accounts for nearly 90 per cent of cognac. By French law, it has to be aged for at least three years in wood.

• V.S.O.P. or Very Superior Old Pale doesn’t mean much because although the law states that the youngest cognac in the blend has to be more than five years old, anything from 10 to 20 years average ageing might be included.

• Old Liqueur is the top range of Cognacs on offer. They will have been matured in cask for 20, 30 or 40 years, and will have titles like Grande Reserve, Vieux, Extra Vielle, XO and Napoleon.

Only three grapes are allowed in the making of cognac – Ugni Blanc, Colombard and Folle Blanche. If any other grape is found growing in any part of the vineyard, none of that crop can be used to make cognac. After distilling the wine, the eau-de-vie is matured in Limousin oak casks.  

It’s hard to credit, but up to 20 million bottles can be lost each year due to evaporation. This also happens in port lodges and distilleries. Known as ‘the angel’s share’, is it any wonder so many people want to get into Heaven?

• Old Liqueur XO
• Old Liqueur XO

Unlike wine, cognac will not improve once it’s bottled. If kept in cask more than 45 years, cognac will start to deteriorate, so it should be bottled before its 45th year. There are very few vintage cognacs produced, but if you do see one with ‘100-year-old Cognac’ printed on the label, in reality it won’t be any better than a 45-year-old. It will have spent most of its life in bottle and, once bottled, it ceases to mature. Whisky, gin, vodka and rum are the same. They will not improve in bottle.

Not the best known, but known by the best

Armagnac, although not cognac, is one of the finest brandies in the world. It is produced in Gascony, southwest France, and D’Artagnan – the Gascon Musketeer extolled the virtues of Armagnac all over France. Armagnac’s slogan is “Not the best known, but known by the best”.

Portugal produces its own brandies, known here as ‘aguardentes’. They’ve been made ever since the Moors ruled the north, but have very little resemblance to cognac. Like most brandies, many are scented with caramel and vanilla. Some very popular ones are Chancela Aguardente, Velha, Reserva; San Domingos, Velhissima Aguardente Vinica; Macieira Royal Brandy produced by Pernod Ricard; Constantino Fine Brandy produced by Sogrape and Brandy 1920 produced by Cockburn Smith. These are very good, but it does come down to personal taste.

Store bottles of cognac and brandy upright, not lying down as prolonged contact with the cork will result in its flavour being taken on by the cognac. If screw tops are used, then they can stand or lie down.

If you order cognac in a restaurant, make sure you get cognac, not a cheaper brandy. There is far too much cheating taking place where drinks are concerned. After all, you are paying for cognac, so why take something cheaper and increase the licensee’s profit?

Wine v spirits

The French are considering putting a health warning on wine labels. Monsieur Shabbier, a journalist and former alcoholic, is adamant it should be introduced. I challenge Monsieur Shabbier to produce documented evidence stating drinking only wine has ever caused serious illness. He didn’t become an alcoholic because he drank wine and only wine. In over 50 years in the business, I’ve met many alcoholics, but never met one whose problem had an exclusive wine origin. In fact, most alcoholics don’t like wine.

Putting health warnings on spirits maybe, but wine should not be compared to spirits. I’ve been drinking at least a bottle of wine a day (sometimes two) since I came into the business and I’m not an alcoholic. Neither are any of the many people I know in the business. Alcohol intake after one bottle of spirits is approximately the same as after three bottles of wine, by which time most imbibers would be asleep. And a wino on ‘skid row’ has probably added methylated spirits to the wine.

Sorry Monsieur, I don’t understand your argument. Let me quote Louis Pasteur: “Wine can be considered with good reason as the most healthful and the most hygienic of all beverages”.

This month’s play on spelling and words menu

Starter: Get The Big Car Out

Soup: Incontinent Member

Side Orders: Canal Boater brings Tears to the eyes

Main Course: Give the sheep a good talking to

Vegetables: Blooming Dog

Sweets: Philip Marlowe with Acne  

Wine: Milk of a Beautiful Woman

Liqueurs: Wee Drop

Answers to December’s Cryptic Menu, in menu order: Prawn Cocktail, Mock Turtle Soup, Anna Bread, Pork Chop, Red Cabbage, Gooseberry Fool, Champagne, Absinthe.

• Any suggestions, comments or questions? E-mail: [email protected]