Cognac?

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Cognac?

Postby Otto » Wed Jan 18, 2012 5:52 pm

Is there any chance that someone like me who actively dislikes the aromas of oak would ever like Cognac or Armagnac? I ask because I've been enjoying drinking some non-vinous beverages recently after I tasted and fell in love with Calvados. Since then I've been trying out other spirits as well - but I'm hesitating with Cognac and Armagnac because what I read seems to indicate that all the aromas are oak-derived. I've only tasted a few cheap ones before and they smelled of oak and tasted of sugar, so if you think there is a chance I might like a Cognac, do tell me some names to try. If you think I'll dislike the whole type of drink, do tell me that, too! :)
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Re: Cognac?

Postby Paul B. » Wed Jan 18, 2012 6:57 pm

Personally, I don't like overoaked wines, but I do like the odd Cognac.

To me, Cognac and wine are two completely different animals: whereas an excess of oak can mask or outcompete the fruit, in Cognac (and other cask-aged spirits) the oak provides much of the character of the drink, both in terms of aroma and texture. But, the two are different.

I find that the time spent in barrel actually rounds out the spirit and adds complexity. With wine, the best effects seem to derive from time spent in a mix of older and newer oak. Too much time in new oak, and a wine will end up clobbered by all the wood.
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Re: Cognac?

Postby Hoke » Wed Jan 18, 2012 8:11 pm

Paul B. says it pretty well.

You will never like cheap Cognac. If you do like Cognac it will be an expensive one, because it will of necessity be a well-aged Cognac and probably from a Grande Champagne/Petite Champage/Borderies blend---and therefor an expensive one. But if you like it, it will be worth the money.

Good Cognac is a concomitant of good grapes from the best types of soil, distilled carefully by a master to select only the finest hearts of the distillation, then aged slowly, then blended by a master's hand into the final assemblage.

Fruit is always at the core of good Cognac. Always. Without that it wouldn't be Cognac. But the oak aging is also important. Without that, quite literally, it can't be Cognac. So in a sense, yes, you'll always have oak (although various amounts and widely varying expressions of it.) But that need not be the single defining element of good Cognac.

There are four primary elements to Cognac; or another way of saying it is that Cognac reveals four stages or faces of itself: fruit, flower, spice and wood/maturation.

If you can afford it, try to find some Leopold Gourmel, for his style of sourcing and blending focuses on releasing individual Cognacs that show those four attributes clearly. And, trust me, the differences will be there, and will be apparent. But Gourmel is costly, so the experience will be dear.

For you, Otto, avoid VS and VSOP grade, start with at least the XO/Napoleon level. Two good places to start are Cognac Pierre Ferrand Ambre (roughly ten year old blend, so equivalent at least to an XO) for a good baseline. You might also try Camus, from the Borderies area, especially the Camus XO (although you might be able to find one of the new line from Camus, the Elegance line, which I'd recco also for entry level).

Each house maintains a distinct style in their blends, as determined by the maitre d'assembleur. So it comes down to which house style or expression you like more. For you, I'm guessing that Delamain Pale & Dry or perhaps Delamain Vespers might be the right fit. The Delamain tends to be much older cognacs in the blend, and with much, much less overt wood to it (older barrels + longer aging+gentle mingling before bottling).

Last note, then I'll stop: there is a development in Cognac...and every one is different...where the fruit and the wood and the age come to a certain point where the (I think) oxygenative element combines to create what the Cognacois call "rancio". It's difficult to describe: put five Cognacois producers together and they'll describe it five different ways, although they'll almost always be able to recognize it. Rancio is a concentration, a deepening, an umami-ish expression of richness and depth in an old Cognac. It can come across as dried fruit, or pickled fruit (like a fruitcake), with intense spice and profuse concentrated aromatics. Rancio is that tertiary character that happens with some, but not all, Cognacs. Something of a mystery, but a divine mystery, and always appreciated when it occurs.

(My own particular favorite Cognac on the threshold of what I can afford to drink is Cognac Pierre Ferrand Reserve des Anges. It's thirty years old minimum, and it's elegance and harmony in a glass, a Cognac as complete as I want it to be.)
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Re: Cognac?

Postby Rahsaan » Wed Jan 18, 2012 8:12 pm

I agree with Paul that cognac and oak are two different things when it comes to how oak affects the final product. But Otto's concerns are also one reason I find it easier to enjoy fruit-driven brandies.
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Re: Cognac?

Postby Fredrik L » Thu Jan 19, 2012 7:00 am

Otto,
I suggest you try Léopold Gourmel "Age du Fruit". I think you would like it.

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Re: Cognac?

Postby Craig Winchell » Thu Jan 19, 2012 11:34 am

I think it should be pointed out that we're not talking new oak here. Cognac is not like Bourbon, with a requirement to use new oak, in bourbon's case, American. And once we're talking about neutral oak, I don't know what the problem is. The raw distillate of a brandy has flavor, has aroma and mouthfeel even if not taste per se (and there I am talking about sweet, sour, salt, bitter, and if you will, umami, which are not present in a raw spirit), and these are brought out and matured in oak, but the flavors derive from the grape and the fermentation, and not necessarily the oak (although even using neutral oak, it would be incorrect for me to say there was absolutely no oak character exhibited). And with Calvados also, this is not a raw white spirit but one matured and brought out by the interaction of the spirit and the oak. For me, at least, the primary flavors of most distilled beverages, but typically all brandies, derives from the raw spirit.
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Re: Cognac?

Postby Bill Spohn » Thu Jan 19, 2012 2:40 pm

As others have said, oak doesn't manifest itself in spirits the same way as it does in wines, and too much oak in a spirit isn't the equivalent of trying to choke down another over-oaked California chard.

It IS possible to over oak a Cognac, but it takes a long, long time in contact with wood (decades) to get it to the point where it becomes, as the French say, boisé.
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Re: Cognac?

Postby Hoke » Thu Jan 19, 2012 3:45 pm

Wow, that's what Idahoans say too. Different accent though.

New oak is used in cognac. Used oak is used in cognac. Very old oak is used in cognac. Very old oak with a certain number of new staves put in is used in cognac. Smaller barrels and larger barrels are used in cognac. Each cognac may (or may not be) put in different barrels of different age and then stored in entirely different cellars (warm and dry, cool and humid)

And when the cellar master deems a cognac has seen all benefit it can in oak, and is possibly going woody, it is common practice to decant into large glass demijohns for storage until needed for blending.

Sources of flavor in cognac come from grapes (terroir implicit), water, fermentation, distillation, maturation, and blending. Whichever flavor source(s) dominate is up to the grower/fermenter/distiller/cellar---and these may be all the same person (although unlikely), or each person may be different. The person who ultimately determines what a cognac will taste like is the maitre d'assembleur or cellar master for the house.

The only other thing that can commonly influence flavor/texture is the final blending and cutting to proof with water. A common practice at that point is what the cognacois call 'vin faible', wherein a 'starter batch' of cognac is blended with water, allowed to sit and marry for quite a long period of time, then additional cognac is added to the vin faible until the process is completed. This may takes months, or years, to complete. Reason? The shock of putting cognac and water together often creates a soapy/oily taste and texture.

As I stated before, different cognacs are blended to create a particular style or to exhibit a particular taste spectrum that is loosely delineated as fruit/flower/spice/wood/rancio. Gourmel Age of Fruit is a good choice (if you can afford it) as a gamble for you, Otto, if you're trying to take a stab at a cognac you might like. Gourmel's four basic releases tasted together would be an even better sensory and intellectual exercise for you to determine what styles of cognac you'd prefer, as they provide a basic spectrum, with each emphasizing a different style (or what Gourmel describes as a reflection of the character of the cognac at a different time in its life).

Also as stated before, if you're looking for a less expensive way to attempt to get a range of style, try Camus Borderies and Pierre Ferrand Grande Champagne, two different styles from two specific key growing areas, and neither outrageously woody/oaky.
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Re: Cognac?

Postby Craig Winchell » Thu Jan 19, 2012 4:11 pm

Sure, Hoke, I will stipulate that new oak is used (much of the Limousin, which is hardly used for wine anymore, in favor of tighter grained wood). What I was saying is that unlike bourbon, there is no requirement to use new oak, and the overall manifestation of oak in Cognac is neutral, as a means of aging and not as a means of flavoring. Even with very strongly flavored spirits (such as typical Islay scotch), we don't see new oak being used as a flavoring component. In the case of the scotch, they use neutral oak for aging. As one who has tasted the effect of new oak in aging spirits, I can tell you that the extraction is quick and powerful. Cognac would be a different spirit entirely if new small oak were the primary source of aging cooperage.
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Re: Cognac?

Postby Bill Spohn » Thu Jan 19, 2012 4:15 pm

Hoke wrote:Wow, that's what Idahoans say too. Different accent though.


That's why I took the trouble to put in the accent, actually. You (linguistically) unruly ex-colonials have a tendency to butcher the English language, much less foreign tongues. Pronouncing 'Macon' to rhyme with 'bacon' would be just one glaring example.... Image

Might be a good idea for you to stop calling what you speak (and write) 'English' and call it the 'American' tongue (although I rather expect your response to this might involve a showing of the American tongue....) :mrgreen:
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Re: Cognac?

Postby Hoke » Thu Jan 19, 2012 4:35 pm

Bill Spohn wrote:
Hoke wrote:Wow, that's what Idahoans say too. Different accent though.


That's why I took the trouble to put in the accent, actually. You (linguistically) unruly ex-colonials have a tendency to butcher the English language, much less foreign tongues. Pronouncing 'Macon' to rhyme with 'bacon' would be just one glaring example.... Image

Might be a good idea for you to stop calling what you speak (and write) 'English' and call it the 'American' tongue (although I rather expect your response to this might involve a showing of the American tongue....) :mrgreen:[/quot

PBFFT!

You don't speak English. You speak Canadian (which at least is closer to English than Cajun). And some Canadians don't even speak that. Clean up that language mess you have in Quebec before you upbraid us REAL Merkins and our language. Hell, at least we started with the same playbook. You can't even get your Frenchies to speak English without being surly about it.

And haven't you ever heard about Macon, Georgia. Good honest straightforward English pronunciation, not Frog. No little tents over the letters required and no weird apostrophes going this way and that (and what's up with that anyway?)
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Re: Cognac?

Postby Hoke » Thu Jan 19, 2012 5:00 pm

the overall manifestation of oak in Cognac is neutral, as a means of aging and not as a means of flavoring. Even with very strongly flavored spirits (such as typical Islay scotch), we don't see new oak being used as a flavoring component. In the case of the scotch, they use neutral oak for aging. As one who has tasted the effect of new oak in aging spirits, I can tell you that the extraction is quick and powerful. Cognac would be a different spirit entirely if new small oak were the primary source of aging cooperage.


I understand the point you're attempting to make, Craig, but have to respectfully disagree with much of what you're actually saying.

Cognac is NOT neutral. It uses a spectrum of new and old oak in varying blends (and at a certain point, glass). That's why there is no stated requirement. If cognac were "neutral" in the sense of oak, there would be no required stipulation for the cognacois to utilize oak; and since it's so damned expensive to buy and maintain the barrels, they'd hardly be using it in an economical sense.

I derived much of this information from standing in the cellars, thieving the various and sundry barrels from countless, and discussing with the cellar masters; then going on to taste the blends and discussing even more. If you think that the effect of oak on cognac is neutral---I'm sorry; you're wrong.

Oak is used both for an aging vessel, and as a means of flavoring. To maintain otherwise flies directly in the face of what every single cognac producer in my recent visit to Cognac specifically told me. Also what I saw/heard at a local tonnellerie. A standard eau-de-vie cognac may be placed in any number and range of barrels, including brand new (although that is minimal; new barrels are introduced constantly, albeit usually with the result of that cognac going minimally into much larger blends, and usually for the youngest, brashest and cheapest cognacs.) It is an incredibly complex and multi-faceted system the cognacois have---but I can assure you, if you described any cognac/barrel/oak interchange as neutral, the cognacois would (politely but firmly) disagree.

As one who has tasted the effect of new oak in aging spirits, I can tell you that the extraction is quick and powerful.


As one who has tasted virtually every type of oak/spirits/wine, including copious amounts of French, American, Slavonian and others, from a dizzying array of cooperages, and including new, moderately used, toasted, toasted and charred, etcetera, etcetera, etcetera, almost ad finitum, I can tell you that yes, there is a a definite "quick extraction of flavors", and a powerful one. There is also a subtler, much longer lasting, effect from oak (and from oxidative aging while in the vessel, yes). A barrel, especially a charred barrel, does not exhaust itself and its capacities to influence the spirits inside in one year.

Are most cognacs aged in 'well used' barrels? Yes, sure, they've built it up that way. But you can only build up your barrel library by constantly introducing new barrels at the front end, and then getting rid of the totally exhausted and troublesome barrels at the other end.

Again, I understand the point you're making---and don't disagree with it entirely, as much of it has merit. But you're trying to oversimplify a very complex system, and that's difficult to do. Especially with cognac.

(We won't even go into Scotch and their use of once-used bourbon barrels---which still pack one hell of a lot of aging potential.)
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Re: Cognac?

Postby Otto » Thu Jan 19, 2012 8:30 pm

Thanks for the great replies! Unfortunately neither the bar I went to after work nor Alko had the names you mentioned (though the bar is famous here for its extensive and well thought out list of spirits).

On a recommendation from someone in Alko I purchased a small bottle of a more serious Cognac than the ones I have had before: Braastad VSOP Organic Cognac. Even though I remembered Hoke's advice to go for XO or Napoleon instead, this one sounded attractive from the way the shopkeeper described it. This is a drier style than many of the big names with only 7 g/l sugar as opposed to 12 that the big names apparently have. My first impression of the aroma is milk chocolate! Like I was told at the shop, the aromas do tend to veer toward the fruit and flower end of the spectrum despite that chocolate aroma. It is full bodied and broad on the palate, and though a drier style according the shop, I still feel a distinct sweetness on the palate. It seems like a wine with lots going on but which lacks an acidic backbone. And that is why, despite some interesting aromas, I grew bored with it before I finished my glass.

So, the best Cognac I have so far sampled, but still not one to win me over to the product. But I will certainly try to find some of these names mentioned to give the drink another shot.

One question, though: why was I told NOT to add a few drops of water like I would with whisky? I was naughty and did so anyway and the same thing happened as with whiskey: the aroma opened up and the alcoholic heat was diminished. Why is that a bad thing with Cognac?
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Re: Cognac?

Postby Hoke » Thu Jan 19, 2012 9:15 pm

Otto, shame you can't get the ones mentioned.

Not personally familiar with Braastad VSOP so I did a little research. The brand is big in Norway because part of the family is from Norway (m. to a member of House Tiffon and now Braastad). Curiously enough, Charles Braastad is the current director of Delamain, one of the finest of cognac producers; don't know if they are related, but as Cognac is a small place, I suspect they are.

The VSOP is purportedly a blend of Petite Champagne and Fins Bois---which means there's no Grande Champagne for profundity and depth, and no Borderies for rounding and graceful early-aging and mellowness. And I would suspect it is mostly Fin Bois with a bit of the Petite. So you're getting the florality of Petite Champagne, but the body of Fin Bois.

Also purportedly 8 years old. Which puts it better than the required 4 but less than the average of many of the grand houses.

Some comments referred to the floral qualities. Others to a sweetness. Others to oak, but in general balance. Other comments did say cocoa...which I would assume is possibly related to your reference to milk chocolate.

I'd continue the search, and again look for some older cognac, at least ten and up to about 30 may be attainable. And perhaps a "Fine Champagne", which means it is a blend of Petite Champagne and Grande Champagne with more Grande Champagne in the mix.

Oh, and the water? Unlike whiskey, cognac doesn't respond well to added water. Creates sort of a soapiness and an oily character sometimes.

A question for you: Does Alko list the sugar by grams in everything they list and sell?
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Re: Cognac?

Postby Victorwine » Thu Jan 19, 2012 10:27 pm

Hoke, correct me if I’m wrong, for Cognac production a percentage of the “spirit” must see some time in “new” oak mainly to obtain some “color”. Besides “flavor and texture” it’s the oak barrels (because of its physical properties), which gives the spirit its “wonderful” color.

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Re: Cognac?

Postby Hoke » Thu Jan 19, 2012 10:58 pm

Victorwine wrote:Hoke, correct me if I’m wrong, for Cognac production a percentage of the “spirit” must see some time in “new” oak mainly to obtain some “color”. Besides “flavor and texture” it’s the oak barrels (because of its physical properties), which gives the spirit its “wonderful” color.

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Yes, Victor, the eau-de-vie is, essentially a clear spirit and the aging container must have enough tannin (which is in the superficial layer of the oak stave) to give some coloration (there is also ligning in that superficial layer, which adds phenols of vanillin and syringol and thus the characteristic "vanilla oak" identification). The majority of coloration comes from deeper in the oak stave, in the hemi-cellulose layer, which is weaker than cellulose and more easily degradable.

That is why bourbon and other spirits that use new, charred oak barrels (over simply toasted) provide deeper color, because the charring breaks into the hemi-cellulose and the expansion/contraction of the spirit (primarily because of the diurnal heat/cold cycle) is pushed into contact with the hemi-cellulose to extract more than 400 compounds that can add color, flavor, and aroma to the spirit.

Thus Cognac is by nature a paler spirit than bourbon (Cognac is toasted but uncharred barrels, thus less color extraction). Bourbon is more colorful than Scotch, because Scotch uses a mixture of barrels, primarily pre-used but often charred barrels.

Obviously, the older the barrel the less extraction there is, and the less interchange, so the less color. To extend the usage life of an old barrel it can have new/newer staves put into it to replace older staves.

Having said all this, I have to (sorry) hasten to add that barrel maturation is SOOOOOOOO much more than simply putting spirit (or wine) into a wooden container and having the spirit leech out certain flavors. It is a significantly more complex process, or series of processes, that is going on, and to think of it as simply spirit/wood interchange is wrong.

For instance, one of the major of the four components of maturation is reactive oxidation...the amount of head space in the barrel as wine and water molecules evaporate over time). Incredibly important to the maturation. It can also be controlled, through topping, if desired. If topping is not used, you get the massive concentrative effects combined with the oxidative effects combined with the wood effects working together to create some of those massive treacle-like old dark aged rums (which are an experience unlike any other!).

Factor in the cellar conditions. Factor in who made the barrels and how they were made. Rick drying or kiln drying? Quick rick or 3 years of rick? And on and on.

And aren't you sorry you asked. :D

PLEASE NOTE: I am not a chemist of any description, nor a botanist. I go off what I've read and been told by experts. I may have construed things wrongly, or I may not know what I should know in its entirety (likely, that). Keep that in mind when I pontificate, please.
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Re: Cognac?

Postby Victorwine » Thu Jan 19, 2012 11:35 pm

Thanks so much Hoke!

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Re: Cognac?

Postby Otto » Fri Jan 20, 2012 7:59 am

Hoke wrote:A question for you: Does Alko list the sugar by grams in everything they list and sell?



Yes they do. And thanks again for everything you've written!
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Re: Cognac?

Postby Oliver McCrum » Sat Jan 21, 2012 3:27 pm

Hoke,

I think we're overlooking something; Cognac is allowed to include caramel coloring and 'boisé', an oak extract, both of which darken color without positively changing the spirit. (Sugar is permitted too.) The Cognacs that are said to omit these adulterants (Gourmel, Hine, Ferrand) tend to be much paler than the more commercial examples for a given age...This tends to be true of Scotch, too; I'm drinking a 12 y.o. Cardhu that is very pale in color, as is Glenmorangie, another favorite.

Otto, if your taste in wine is any indication, which of course it is, I would try to get brands that are in the unadulterated camp. I prefer Armagnac to Cognac anyway, personally, and there are more small-producer examples around, at least in my market. I do hope some of them are available in your market.
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Re: Cognac?

Postby Hoke » Sat Jan 21, 2012 3:58 pm

Oliver McCrum wrote:Hoke,

I think we're overlooking something; Cognac is allowed to include caramel coloring and 'boisé', an oak extract, both of which darken color without positively changing the spirit. (Sugar is permitted too.) The Cognacs that are said to omit these adulterants (Gourmel, Hine, Ferrand) tend to be much paler than the more commercial examples for a given age...This tends to be true of Scotch, too; I'm drinking a 12 y.o. Cardhu that is very pale in color, as is Glenmorangie, another favorite.

Otto, if your taste in wine is any indication, which of course it is, I would try to get brands that are in the unadulterated camp. I prefer Armagnac to Cognac anyway, personally, and there are more small-producer examples around, at least in my market. I do hope some of them are available in your market.


You're absolutely right, Oliver. Caramel color is indeed permitted. Didn't mention the sugar earlier, as Otto did and I had queried him about it. Good to know Alko lists sugar grams in all their listing.

I would add Delamain to your short list of Cognacs that avoid caramel coloring (i.e., Pale & Dry, their most well known)

Scotch allows caramel coloring as well...although some of the better ones do avoid that. It's quite a surprise to some people as they work their way through the Scotch constellation, and especially in the rarefied zones of the top single malts, to discover that many of them (including some rather big, bold, brawny, smoky monsters) are almost as pale as water, for they have not added caramel, and the cold and damp aging conditions, along with used barrels, tend not to add too much color.

Likewise Rum and Tequila. Both allow caramel coloring for consistency. Some of those dark brown rums that look naturally old and thick and syrupy? You'd be surprised, perhaps at how young they can be and how much coloration affects your perception of them (not yours, Oliver; you know what I mean).

It's only Bourbon, and those who follow the bourbon standard, who don't allow caramel coloring. All the color in bourbon must come from the process of barrel maturation. The only thing you're allowed to add to bourbon white dog before it becomes whiskey is water. And the barrel.
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Re: Cognac?

Postby Mike Filigenzi » Sat Jan 21, 2012 4:31 pm

Well, if there's one thing I can say it's that you definitely paid attention on that trip out to Cognac, Hoke! :wink:

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Re: Cognac?

Postby Hoke » Sat Jan 21, 2012 4:33 pm

Mike Filigenzi wrote:Well, if there's one thing I can say it's that you definitely paid attention on that trip out to Cognac, Hoke! :wink:


Hey, you know how excited I can get with learning stuff! :lol:
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Re: Cognac?

Postby Oliver McCrum » Sun Jan 22, 2012 3:03 am

Right, Hoke, Pale & Dry is excellent and widely available.

As far as I'm concerned, the situation with Cognac is rather like the situation with Champagne, which is to say that very good examples from small houses are often sold at the same price as commercial c**p from the bigger houses.
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Re: Cognac?

Postby Tim York » Sun Jan 22, 2012 4:44 am

Otto Nieminen wrote: I ask because I've been enjoying drinking some non-vinous beverages recently after I tasted and fell in love with Calvados.


I have also had Calvados with strongly caramelised taste. But I agree, Otto, that the best Calvados, e.g. from Roger Groult or Famille Dupont, are wonderfully pure yet complex spirits which at least equal, IMO, any Cognac, Armagnac or Whisky which has passed my lips.

Thanks, Hoke, for your informative posts on Cognac. I too am a big fan of Pierre Ferrand whose Cognacs are on sale at a nearby wine merchant.

I am also a big fan of Islay whisky but no one else in my entourage likes it complaining about its "fishy" flavour. Though the descriptor is inadequate, it is this unique flavour which, for me, brings extra freshness and finesse masking the strong malty notes that bother me in a lot of Speyside.
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