This essay appeared in the November 2005 issue of The American Spectator. To subscribe, please click here.
IN YOUTH, ONE BECOMES ACQUAINTED with the pleasures life offers. The rest of one’s days are spent attempting to resist those pleasures — because they are illegal, immoral, or fattening. But cognac offers pleasure there is no need to avoid — and many reasons for appreciation.
For example, it’s now been scientifically established that drinking makes you smarter. Recent research by the Australian National University in Canberra suggests that people who drink — in moderation, of course — have better verbal skills, memory, and speed of thinking than those who don’t drink at all. (They also beat out those who get falling down drunk on a regular basis.)
As someone who has taken up drinking — moderately — as part of my most recent mid-life crisis, I find that heartening news. But a serious drinker, it seems to me, needs to know a few things about the beverages he imbibes.
At the moment, cognac is my drink of choice. Having recently spent a few days in the Cognac region of France, tasting, touring, spying, I now consider myself both wiser and more knowledgeable — if less sober. Stay with me for a few minutes and you, too, can become a sophisticated drinker.
A Brief History of a Noble Brandy
THE FIRST THING YOU NEED to know is that cognac is a spirit, like whiskey, but it is a spirit made from grapes rather than grain so it has many of the characteristics of wine. Americans consume about 40 percent of all the cognac produced — and, unlike the sale of French wines, cognac sales in the U.S. have not sagged in recent years. On the contrary, last year sales reached 53.3 million bottles, a new record. Maybe that’s because while you can substitute an Australian merlot for a French merlot, cognac comes only from Cognac.
All cognac is brandy (from brandewijn, a Dutch word meaning “burnt wine”), but not all brandies are cognac. Brandy can be made from almost any fruit — and people have been making brandies for nearly a thousand years. Cognac, however, can be made only from the grapes grown in a small region in southwestern France, about 50 kilometers in and around the village of Cognac. The oldest cognac house in continuous existence is that of Martell, founded in 1715.
Most of the early cognac makers were not French. They were English or Irish, which is why cognacs carry such names as Hine and Hennessy. Even Jean Martell was born on the island of Jersey. It is said he learned French after marrying a local girl — a method surely preferable to that which Berlitz employs.
These pioneers had a plan: to make a product that would travel much better than wine and which they could ship abroad, especially to Britain’s far-flung colonies. They built their cognac houses along the banks of the Charente River, which meanders to the Atlantic Ocean.
Making Cognac in Cognac
CLIMATE AND SOIL ARE A BIG PART of what makes cognac distinct. Though Cognac is farther north than New York City, pines grow side-by-side with palms — and lemon trees. This microclimate is created by the Gulf Stream, which washes the shores of the region.
There are four distinct soils in the area. Two are nearly identical with the soils east of Paris where grapes are grown for the world’s great champagnes. (The word “champagne” means “chalky field.”) Cognacs made only from grapes grown in this soil are called “champagne cognacs.”
To make cognac, the grapes — usually Ugni Blanc — must be naturally fermented into wines that are distilled twice to make eaux-de-vie — “waters of life” — that are poured into oak barrels to age a minimum of two-and-a-half years, a maximum of about half a century.
The eaux-de-vie — sometimes more than a hundred of them, all different, depending on length of aging, vintage, and other variables — are then carefully “married,” blended into a finished product.
A man of faith in a godless age is hitting Americans where it hurts.
Mr. and Mrs. American Spectator Reader, let P.J. O’Rourke talk sense to your kids.
In Britain, defending your property can get you life.
The debacle of this president’s administration is both a cause and a symptom of the decline of American values. Unless Congress impeaches him, that decline will go on unchecked. An eminent jurist surveys the damage and assesses the chances for the recovery of our culture.
It won’t take long for conservatives to scratch this presidential wannabe off their 2008 scorecard.
The American Christmas, like the songs that celebrate it, makes room for everybody under the rainbow. Is that why so many people seem to be hostile to it?
Was the President done in by the economy, or by the politics of the economy?
H/T to National Review Online