Wednesday, 14 August 2013

Sipping on ‘yak’…

My kit for blokeish heaven*

Although cocktails based on Cognac are among the oldest created, it’s no surprise that major brandy players are keen to get hip to the “Second Golden Age of the Cocktail” (which we’re in, if you hadn’t noticed) and persuade the young and cool that Cognac is for hipsters, not just for septuagenarians in gentleman’s clubs.

This time last year Courvoisier created their multi-room, immersive “Institute of Grand Cocktails Experience”, where each room was meant to be “like stepping inside a cocktail”. Their Courvoisier Exclusif expression was actually developed as a cocktail ingredient, and in London Cocktail Week 2010 they sponsored a seminar on that most ancient of mixed drinks, punch.

Now Rémy Martin have taken a more blokeish approach and are sponsoring the GQ Men of the Year Awards ceremony on 3rd September, which will include the special Rémy Martin Breakthrough Award for newcomers. Rémy cocktails will be served through the ceremony and afterwards the brand will be running a bespoke bar at the after-party on the Royal Opera House balcony.

Rémy’s mixologists apparently kept coming back to a signature combination of Cognac and ginger, so the house cocktail will be the R&G, Rémy and ginger ale. The sample kit I was sent included a bottle of Fevertree ginger ale, so that is clearly the preferred brand.

An R&G cocktail
50ml Rémy Martin VSOP
Ginger ale top
Lemon peel garnish
Build over ice and garnish with a lemon twist

With that twist it reminds me of the classic Horse’s Neck cocktail, which was in essence a soft drink of ginger ale with a long spiral strip of lemon peel—just like in the R&G photo—and bitters; but from its inception it has been regularly spiked, sometimes with bourbon but originally with Cognac. I’m sipping an R&G now and I can confirm that it is a good combination. The Rémy has aromas of oranges, bananas, almonds and hazelnuts and an underlying warmth that is indeed like ginger.

On Rémy’s website you’ll find a host more recommended cocktails—five of which contain ginger. Moreover, they have created a special drink just for the GQ awards, called, naturally the R&GQ. It likewise involves ginger but also, in a stroke of blokeish genius, contains beer!**

The manly R&GQ cocktail
35ml Rémy Martin VSOP
20ml Lemon juice
15ml Bottle Green Ginger and Lemongrass cordial
Very cold British ale
Build in a chilled half-pint glass tankard

Since they are not too specific about the ale, I figure that a Pale Ale style would be best, as these are often intended to be served cold, or at least cool (I plump for St Austell Cornish Pale Ale). I’ve never tried making a cocktail with beer before, and it is quite a revelation: for a start you can taste everything, the ale with its bitter hoppy finish, the sour lemon juice, the warm date-like Cognac and the fiery ginger (the lemongrass perhaps getting slightly subsumed into the lemon juice). It retains the quaffability of beer, but with a complexity and the typical sweet-‘n’-sour extremities of many cocktails. It feels a bit like drinking an 18th-century drink, like spiced, mulled ale (although it is cold) or punch. Fascinating. I’m definitely a convert.

The Rémy Martin Cognac house itself goes back to 1724. The spirit is distilled from grapes, mostly Ugni Blanc, grown exclusively in the Grande Champagne and Petit Champagne regions of Cognac. Barrel ageing is an important part of the Cognac process, and the spirit in the VSOP*** is a blend of batches between four and 14 years old, all aged in barrels of French Limousin oak.

The version I have here is the VSOP Mature Cask Finish: after the final blend of aged spirits is made, the mixture is rested for a further year in small oak casks, all more than 20 years old. Apparently this extra time in small casks (with a proportionally greater surface area) increases the gentle exposure of the brandy to the air, through the permeable wood, while presumably getting relatively little of the heavy vanilla character of fresh oak. This is said to increase the peach and apricot notes. I get the impression that this last stage is a relatively new development.

Sampling the Rémy neat, I get wafts of berries and the afore-mentioned stone fruit, plus vanilla from the oak and something sweetly floral like rose. It’s quite a complex nose, with unexpected things in the mix like ashtrays and sticking plasters too. Bring it up to your lips and the apricot nose intensifies. These flavours continue on to the palate, with little sparks of other things, like tobacco and figs, and on to a relatively smooth, warm finish.

I put the Rémy head-to-head with some of Sainsbury’s own VSOP Cognac that I happen to have, on the grounds that they are both VSOPs, though the Sainbury’s brandy is £21.50 a bottle and the Rémy is about £34. The Sainsbury’s has a big, soupy nose with a host of flavours, including raisins, dates, chocolate and copper, jostling with each other. It’s bold but a little chaotic. The Rémy, by comparison, has more refinement, poise and clarity. On the palate the Sainsbury’s is about as smooth as the Rémy, with some latent Christmas cake flavours, but a bit flabby and unresolved.

Rémy on the rocks, anyone?
My Rémy Martin Man Kit comes with a handsome highball glass, a sturdy bar spoon and, interestingly, a little ice bucket just the right size for a 35cl half bottle. (I later discover from the PR that it is actually intended for chilling the ginger ale!) Now purists will be perplexed and outraged at the idea of serving Cognac chilled, but a few years ago Cognac became the drink choice for hippety-hop hipsters in the clubz, presumably because of its traditional association with opulence and wealth, and I wonder if the preferred presentation in this environment became to serve it on ice. In any case, it reminds me of a conversation I had with a Rémy rep after a Cognac and cigar evening some years ago, when he talked about arranging a tasting to match Rémy VSOP and XO with various sweet and savoury foods—in some of these pairings the Cognac was served on the rocks, or even from the freezer. So clearly chilled Cognac is not just a nouveau riche affectation but something with the aesthetic endorsement of Rémy themselves.

Some other classic Cognac cocktails you might like to try include the Sidecar (Cognac, Cointreau and lemon juice), the Champagne Cocktail (Champagne, Cognac, bitters and a sugar cube), and, if you must, the Earthquake (equal parts Cognac and absinthe). Or for something a little more obscure but surprisingly effective, try the Ritz, which I believe may have been invented by Dale DeGroff:

Ritz Cocktail
¾ shot Rémy Martin
½ shot Cointreau
½ shot maraschino
½ shot lemon juice
Champagne/sparkling wine top
Orange peel garnish
Shake the first four ingredients with ice and strain into a coupe glass. Top with Champagne or sparkling wine and garnish with a squeezed strip of orange peel.

* This issue of GQ comes with five different (and doubtless highly collectible) covers, featuring the different members of One Direction, outlining how “heavier…rockier…cooler” One Direction's New Direction is. I hear that 1D's army of female teen fans have been so incensed by some of the less than hagiographical things that the GQ journalists say about the band that a barrage of death threats has been launched against the magazine's staff. That's how edgy a GQ bloke's life is.

** In fairness it has been trendy to make cocktails with beer for some time. I'm sure it gives the mixologist the chance to specify obscure craft ales and boutique porters…

*** Stands for Very Special Old Pale or Very Superior Old Pale. The categorisation requires that everything in the blend must be at least four years old, though as in this case, the average age will usually be higher than this.