Wednesday 15 September 2010

Brandy and Cigars: A Match Made in Heaven?

Alexandre with the XO. He is very French

It’s the end of your fantasy evening and for what do you bellow? Brandy and cigars, of course.

Imagine how my curiosity was piqued when I was invited along to a cigar-and-brandy event last night at the Stafford Hotel in St James’s. The cigars were Cohiba Siglo VI courtesy of Hunters and Frankau and the Cognac was Remy Martin VSOP and XO. These brandy categories indicate age, but not anything terribly specific: the cognacs are blends of spirits of different ages. “VSOP” requires a minimum of four years (in practice the Rémy VSOP consists of eaux de vie aged between four and 14 years) and XO six years (though from 2016 this will rise to ten).

These acronyms actually mean nothing in French—they stand for English phrases “Very Special/Superior Old Pale” and “Extra Old”, reflecting the dominance of the English market at the time they were devised. Rémy does actually produce a VS product too, we are told by Alexandre Quintin, the Rémy ambassador (who is very French and even looks like a character from Belleville Rendezvous). It’s a grade below VSOP, but is sold only in America. Make of this what you will, but it’s interesting to note that while the US is now an important market for cognac, the demographic has shifted dramatically from affluent white drinkers to urban black consumers, who now represent 60–80 per cent of sales. In studies many purchasers have confirmed that their choice of drink is specifically an endorsement of their favourite rap artist. Do not underestimate the power of hippety-hop.

Rémy are very proud of the high proportion of grapes from Grande Champagne and Petite Champagne, the two more prestigious crus for cognac. A blend of the two, with at least 50 per cent Grande Champagne, is known as Fine Champagne and 80 per cent of all of this is made by Rémy. In fact their VSOP is 55 per cent Grande and the XO 85 per cent.

The Stafford event was originally scheduled to take place in the vaulted wine cellars, where I hung around twiddling my thumbs before discovering that it had moved to the courtyard. (I’m glad I saw the cellars, though, as they are a shrine to their WWII function as bunkers, filled not just with dusty wine bottles but old signs, helmets and other mementoes; perhaps worthy of further investigation.) Needless to say the weather whipped up and the heavens opened, leaving us huddled under canvas canopies. Hurricane conditions aren’t ideal for appreciating the subtleties of a stogie—the boxes of long cigar matches liberally scattered were of little use and I relied on the generous loan of a multi-jet turbo gas lighter (imagine lighting your smoke with a pocket-sized Death Star) from a fellow guest. Initially they plied us with Prosecco, which I thought was a surprisingly delicate flavour to risk against the leathery Old-World fumes of the cigars, but perhaps not—I was reliably informed by the Hunters and Frankau rep that certain cigars go very well with Champagne. Don’t believe me? I might arrange a Club event to investigate this assertion once and for all…

The story goes that an exceptional cigar roller, Eduardo Rivera, devised a particular long thin cigar for the private used of himself, family and friends. One of those friends was Bienvenido Perez, who happened to be Fidel Castro’s bodyguard. One day Castro was out of smokes and asked his minder to sub him. He enjoyed Rivera’s cigar so much he set the man up up with a team of five to produce them for the president’s exclusive use. (The name Cohiba came from the ancient Taino Indian word for the bunches of tobacco leaves that Columbus saw the original Cubans smoking.) Indeed it was not until 1982 that a range of Cohibas became available to the public; ten years after that the Linea 1492 range was added to celebrate the 500th anniversary of Columbus’ discovery of the New World, in five gauges dubbed Siglo (“century”) I to V. The relatively fat (a 52 in cigar gauges) Siglo VI, which we were smoking, didn’t arrive until 2003. Two of the filler leaves in Cohiba cigars undergo a tertiary fermentation in cedar barrels to impart smoothness. Apparently the Cohiba flavour is most often described as “grassy”, though I’m not sure I picked up on that. 

OK, cigar aside, what was the brandy like? I  must have tasted at least the VSOP before but coming to it fresh I was hit by an unexpectedly pronounced apple note. In fact if you’d given it to me blind and asked me what it was I might even have suggested that it was Calvados (Normandy’s apple brandy). After that, as you get your snout deeper in and then sample the palate, I got broader, spicier notes, but still all very lively and pugnacious. It may be an old world drink but it was still bouncing around on its toes. (The Rémy website claims you should be getting “the impertinence of wild flowers”. Don’t you just know that’s been translated from French?)

I then switched to the XO and immediately got a softer, wider, preserved-fruit barrage. Alexandre likened the flavours to Christmas pudding—it was figs and plums, very characterful but more like subtle woody memories, in which you want to wallow nostalgically, than the darting VSOP. 

I’m no connoisseur of cigars but I have enjoyed a few and I was interested to see if it was true that they could be meaningfully partnered with drink. Just because they are commonly associated doesn’t mean it works: after all, Champagne and chocolate are often sold together, yet make a foul gustatory combination. However, it won’t surprise you to hear that Cognac and cigars to do work. Just like a food and drink combination, the flavours of each emphasise aspects of the other. The sweetness of the brandy seemed to be brought out, a sugar cane quality that perhaps filtered any bitterness in the smoke, leaving smooth, rubbery, Reisling-like, petrol notes and aromatic woody hints. The two jostled and occasionally sparked: at one point I got a burst of mixed, candied fruit peel (back to Christmas pudding again, I suppose).

Hunters organise regular events of this kind but you’ll have to keep looking at their website: they are not allowed to do mail-outs, as this constitutes advertising. Rémy meanwhile are organising a “speakeasy” themed night next week, with Champagne reception, three-course meal and lashings of Cognac and cigars (is that really what speakeasies were like? I’m thinking more bathtub gin and raucous jazz). But this will set you back £140. In fact my evening was very much one of sampling the high life—while Rémy Martin VSOP is typically around £30, the XO closer to £90. Cohiba Siglo VI are around £22–25 singly.

So what other flavour combinations are there out there we should investigate? Chablis and chewing tobacco? Champagne and chewing gum? The Institute is at your service. Mind the monkey on the way out. He was testing our homemade puffer fish bitters last night and I think he’s still sleeping it off…

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