From our Man on the Street- TommyG
I am a big fan of bourbon and scotch, but cognac 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 cognac in various forms. It would always leave me feeling unimpressed and queasy.
During my research into 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 cognac 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 cognac on the rocks, but I decided to refrain from doing that. So as a compromise move I put my bottle in my fridge to chill it down cold. I figured by the time I took the chilled bottle out, drove to 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.
I poured the cognac into heavy rocks glasses. 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. 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 at that.
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.