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  • Writer's pictureRichard Murff

Cognac - Never the Twain Shall Meet

Brandy – the liquor, not the short-lived singing sensation – has two seeming incompatible image problems. Most people think of it as either the favorite of either a) the stodgy British upper class or b) a decidedly more urban hip hop sorts or their hangers on. Two demographics not normally grouped together.

As such, it never occurs to the great swathes of people who don’t think that they are either to try a snort. That’s a shame, because not only is good brandy great, it looks really cool in a great whacking snifter.

In reality, Brandy is not a product of England or LA. It can be made anyplace they make wine and, like wine, most famous (and some of the best) brandies come from France – with its suspect quasi-communist tendencies that lack the old money of the Brits and the new bling of the hip hop market.

On this side of the Atlantic, it was only in the former French colonies that much was imported. Until, in one of our spats got us into a trade war that spiked the price of cognac. Looking to fill the void, distillers of grain whiskey started charring the hell of the insides of their barrels to ape the properties of brandy at the request of the always lively liquor market of New Orleans. Those distillers of Bourbon County Kentucky were the early adaptors. If you are wondering, that story you’ll hear about Elijah Craig charring the inside of a barrel to remove the fish smell is a product of the Elijah Craig marketing department.

First things first, unlike whiskey, Brandy is not made from grain but from distilled wine. And again, like wine, the French have legally divided the producers into regions because the French are fussy that way. The regions producing the most brandies are Cognac and its southern, earthier neighbor, Armagnac. These come in a few grades, Grand Champagne and Fine Champagne (and here champagne means something akin to open field, not the stuff you drink at wedding and other events that are intended to terminate in sex). Don’t be a tosser and make a big deal out of this. Besides these guys have forgotten more about Cognac that we will ever know.

It will mix well, but you’ve got to be careful, because it is already sweet so avoid sacrileges like orange juice or Coca Cola unless you are just determined to be that guy and start a record label. As one of the ancients, the simple rules are the best. Like top shelf anything, you don’t want to mess with the delicate flavors of cognac too much: Keep it simple stupid, try it with a splash of soda.

Like a lot of the ancients, brandy does double duty. If you are what we call “an enthusiast”, there is the classic hangover cure found in the first of P.G. Wodehouse’s Jeeves & Wooster stories. In fact, it is precisely this recipe that secures Jeeves his job: In an old-fashioned glass, crack one raw egg, a slug of the stuff, a few dashes of Worcestershire and Tabasco each, stir until it doesn’t look like an egg floating in brandy. I’m not proud of it, but can attest to its dramatic effectiveness.

The other cure comes from that world-renowned holder of liquor and literary wit, the late Sir Kingsley Amis. It’s called the Corpse Reviver: A large dram of brandy, topped up ginger ale and Angostura bitters; no ice, quaff it.

As to which brand? Cheap brandy is dangerous, although I wouldn’t waste the good stuff on hangover cures or flambé. Hine is what Churchill drank, and he certainly didn’t skimp so that’s good enough for me. It’s solid and considered by many to be the best in its class. $50-55 for a 750ml bottle here in the states.


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