From our Man on the Street- TommyG
I am a big fan of bourbon and scotch, but cognac and brandy has always escaped me. Oddly enough, cognac was the subject of my first real foray into alcohol. I was 17 years old and on a flight to Moscow for a high school exchange trip. One of my classmates bought a bottle of cognac from the in flight duty free shop and several of us split it on the plane. Being young and inexperienced, all I knew was that it burned like hell and left me feeling a little queasy. That, and having a hangover in Finland while you are waiting for the next leg of your flight was pretty weird stuff.
Throughout the next 13 years of my life I would occasionally try brandy in various forms. It would always leave me feeling unimpressed and queasy. People would always serve it to me at room temperature or slightly warm- and I just found it too strong, too aromatic, and too unsettling to the stomach. I always drink my whiskey on the rocks though, so to be fair I do have the same complaint about whiskey when it is served neat. I just find it too harsh to be enjoyable. With a little ice the flavors are smoothed out, mellowed, relaxed. It no longer feels like my mouth is being raped. Many people insist that neat is the only way to drink their whiskey and if that is how they like it, then more power to them. It’s not my thing and it basically has the same effect on my body as drinking ipecac.
Now brandy is known for pairing well with cigars. I like cigars, so it only goes to follow that I should like brandy. Transitive law of mathematics, right? Further, if single malt scotch is the king of whiskeys, then cognac is the king of brandies. So rather than trying to drink swill brandy I decided to jump in head first and buy some cognac. I was either going to learn to love it or continue to hate it. I decided to start with a bottle of Courvoisier, the so-called “cognac of Napoleon” (hey, if it’s good enough for Boney, it’s good enough for me right?) Last night I was to meet some friends at 9th Street Hookah Lounge in Columbia, MO and they have a BYOB policy. So it was time for dueling experiments, 1) If brandy pairs well with cigars, does cognac pair well with hookahs? And 2) can I find a way to drink brandy without making me violently ill.
During my research into brandy and cognac, I found that served neat into a tulip shaped glass is considered the norm. People often then cradle the glass to slightly warm the drink with their body heat. This activates the flavors and aroma of the brandy and gives the drinker a fuller hit of its aromatic goodness. Yeah, no way in hell I’m doing that. I did further reading and found that often this makes the brandy unpalatable to some, and that many people prefer to drink it cooler (like around 60 degrees.) That was more my style. I even read that Asians often serve their brandy on the rocks, but I decided to refrain from doing that. So as a compromise move I put my bottle of Courvoisier in my fridge to chill it down cold. I figured by the time I took the chilled bottle out, drove the hookah lounge, and spent a few hours smoking and sipping the temperature of the cognac would run the gamut from cold to cool to room temperature and I could experience the full range of flavors.
Now before I go any further, I want to give a shout out to the 9th Street Hookah Lounge. I have been to the lounge a handful of times, and it always a very pleasant experience. The place is cozy and fairly quiet. It has a very intimate atmosphere and it is a great place to connect with some of your friends over your choice of flavored shishas. Total for hookah rental varies, depending on how many people you have. But its about $17 for two people and $5 per each additional smoker. A session will last you about an hour and half of delightfully flavored smoke and stimulating conversation. Customer service has always been excellent every time I visit. If you are in the mood for something different in Columbia, I cannot recommend this place enough! Seriously, go there and try it.
I decided to try the melon flavored tobacco that night, as it has always been my favorite shisha flavor ever since college. Sadly, it seems like I am the only person who likes the flavor as I got the last little bit they had on hand and it sounds like they are not restocking. But there are dozens of other excellent flavors to choose from, so I am certain that next time I go I will find something else to pique my interest. The smoke from the hookah was sweet without being overpowering. This is nothing like the harsh chemical taste that you get from smoking a low grade product like Swisher Sweets; it was more nuanced, and the flavor and the mouth feel felt more real, less synthetic, with rich earthy organic overtones yet still managing to maintain an ephemeral quality that makes inhaling the smoke seem smooth and completely natural. And an even more interesting point- all these qualities were also found in the cognac.
I poured the cognac into heavy rocks glasses. I know that you are supposed to use tulip shaped tumblers of fine thin glass; the tulip shape allows you to swirl the cognac around and let some of the aromatic esters dissolve, and the thin glass allows the heat transfer from your hands to slightly warm the drink. However, as I was bringing the tumblers out of my home bar and into public, I needed something that was transportable and not easily breakable. Also as a whiskey man most of my drinkware is in the form of short, stout, glass tumblers. My favorite ones have a nice heft to them and have little geometric designs etched into them. Classic. Solid. Heavy. When you are drinking out of these, you FEEL it. The tactile feeling of holding onto a substantial tumbler is important to me when drinking whiskey. I have a few fluted crystal whiskey tumblers, and it’s nice for doing some sipping every now and then… but I really need heavy straight-sided glass in my hand to feel right.
So after pouring the cognac, I leaned in and took a heavy sniff. Immediately I knew that it wasn’t whiskey. The smell was more complex, and in a way more organic than I am used to. While it smelled sweet like bourbon, it also smelled nothing like it at all. It had almost a fruity character to it, but not overpoweringly so. Its color was intriguing, almost like old polished leather or really old, really well kept wooden furniture. And like antique furniture just by gazing into a glass of cognac you can feel the weight of history pressing back at you. That night I was drinking Courvoisier, the so called “Champagne of Napoleon.” That in itself is a dubious distinction, as the company was founded in 1835, and Napoleon of course died in 1821. But the legend goes that in 1811 Napoleon himself visited a warehouse that the Courvoisier family was using to store their cognac and found that he was awfully fond of their product. Several kegs of the spirit were supposedly taken to St Helena during his final exile, and it was the Brits who declared the drink the “Cognac of Napoleon.” Truth or fiction, the moniker stuck and Courvoisier is running with it. And truth or fiction, I don’t care; as I sip the chilled cognac I felt that I was sharing a drink with the Corsican tyrant himself. Just as drinking bourbon evokes feelings of the American South and the rugged individualism that goes with it; just as drinking single malt scotch evokes images of sitting in a smoky, wood paneled tavern, toasting old friends and regaling new friends with ribald tales; cognac to me evokes a sense of continental style, class and charm. If James Bond drank scotch (okay, I know that vodka martinis were his drink, but he also seems to be the type that would enjoy a good single malt), Indiana Jones would be a bourbon man-- And Horatio Hornblower would drink cognac. If bourbon is a hunting rifle and scotch is ceremonial dirk, then cognac is a pair of black powder dueling pistols. And a set of pistols that has certainly been used to send a man to its grave as that.
How could Napoleon’s favorite cognac come out a decade after his death? Easy, he was a time traveler.
The inevitable sick feeling that I always get when I drink brandy did not make an appearance that evening. Like the shisha, the cognac was both smooth and complex, earthy and ephemeral, substantive and easy to drink. It was a contradiction, it was elegant, it was in essence everything French. I learned two things that night, one is that cognac does indeed pair as excellently with a hookah as it does with a fine cigar. But more importantly I learned that I can enjoy a cognac as much as any other liquor; and that a whole new world of fine spirits has been opened to me.