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The Seduction of Cognac

You don't just drink this stuff. (P.S. You'll have to visit France.)

By 1.8.06

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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.

There are currently more than 300 cognac houses in and around Cognac and several -- including Martell, Remy Martin, and Courvoisier -- have visitors' centers and welcome the general public for tours and comparative tastings. (A serious tasting utilizes spittoons because you can only sample so much cognac before you begin to devise imaginative uses for lampshades.)

Particularly interesting is a visit to paradis -- French for "paradise" -- cool, dark cellars in which the barrels of cognac are left to age. Some old barrels are worth a million dollars each -- and some cellars contain as many as 500 barrels. Do the math.

From these barrels, cognac slowly evaporates: "the angels' share," which gives the cellars and warehouses a delightful aroma. The alcohol vapors condense on the walls and attract a microscopic fungus -- quite harmless but it turns the walls a velvety black.

Adding to the eeriness of paradis are the spider webs. They are not only left alone -- they are valued. The spiders eat insects that would otherwise munch on the oak casks. (Memo to film-makers: These cellars would be super for the climax of a thriller. Consider starting with a shoot-out -- eaux-de-vie pouring from half-million dollar barrels after each shot -- leading, of course, to a great, big cognac flambe.)

A young cognac is generally called a V.S. (Very Special). It's perfectly acceptable to use a V.S. in mixed drinks, e.g., cognac and soda, or cognac and tonic with bitters, or a serious cocktail such as a sidecar (cognac, Cointreau, and lemon juice).

The next step up is V.S.P. (Very Superior Pale). X.O. (Extra Old) describes a blend in which even the youngest eaux-de-vie will have been aged for six-and-a-half years. The cognac houses have other names for other blends -- generally, you get what you pay for -- the older and finer, the more costly. (Did you notice that all these designations are in English, not French? That's a legacy of cognac's Anglo-Irish heritage.)

The Nose Knows -- So Do the Other Senses

THE LAST AND PERHAPS MOST IMPORTANT thing you need to know is how to consume cognac as God intended for it to be consumed. "Really, you don't drink cognac," said Bernard E.T. Hine, whose family has been making Hine cognacs not just for several generations but for several centuries. "You appreciate it. And you appreciate it at least as much with the nose as with the palate."

Remy Martin's master taster, Vincent Gere, was even more emphatic: "You must deserve cognac," he told me. "You must seduce it."

As I learned from these and other masters, cognac is meant to engage all five senses. You start by touching the glass, gently warming it with your hand. But never use a candle. That will hasten evaporation and disperse aromas.

Also, the connoisseurs I spoke with tend not to favor big brandy snifters, which put too much liquid in contact with the air too quickly. Bruno Lemoine, Martell's cellar master, recommends smaller glasses, either chimney- or tulip-shaped to allow for slower oxidation and to funnel the aromas.

Hold the glass to the light to see the cognac's color -- from straw to gold to amber depending mainly on the ages of the eaux-de-vie in the blend.

Next, clink your glass with your companion -- listen to the tinkling sound.

Swirl the cognac gently around the glass, allowing it to "breathe." Older cognacs especially need to aerate a bit. Note the cognac's viscosity. It should coat the glass and, soon (be patient), the inside of your mouth.

Bring the glass just close enough that you can begin to detect the faintest aromas or "notes." Bring it closer and "nose" it properly: tilt the glass, insert your proboscis, and sniff -- gently.

Now be bold: Allow a few drops of cognac to wet your lips.

Just as aficionados of music can listen to an orchestra and separate the violins from the cellos from the violas, so a connoisseur of cognac can separate the aromas -- the flowers from the fruit from the spice. Try.

If you've done all that, you have the right to take a sip. A good cognac will provide a bouquet of flavors and aromas that will linger for an astonishingly long time.

Does all this seem elaborate? Only at first. You'll soon be amazed by how much pleasure you can derive from a very small quantify of cognac -- a pleasure you'll have earned and which there is no need even to attempt to resist.

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About the Author

Clifford D. May, a former New York Times foreign correspondent, is president of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a Washington policy institute focusing on terrorism and democratization.