My 2017 Cocktail Resolutions, Part 2: Going Beyond Bourbon

Though my home bar sports a few dozen different bottles—whiskeys, gins, vodkas, brandies, amari, and on down the line—I fully admit that the ones that get emptied fastest are the bourbons (and sometimes the ryes). I make no bones about American whiskey being my spirit of choice, and my knee-jerk cocktail is often bound to be a whiskey sour, a Paper Plane, or a Manhattan.

But woman cannot live on whiskey alone, so my second cocktail resolution this year was to challenge myself to branch out a bit and turn to other types of booze when mixing drinks.

Into Brandyland

As part of my efforts to learn more about brandy (so I could share that knowledge with all of you, natch), I spent some time in that world in February and March, so much of my branching out happened in that particular family tree.

There were Sidecars, of course, and they were predictably delicious, but I also went a bit farther afield.

The Saratoga cocktail from Julie Reiner's  The New Cocktail Hour

The Saratoga cocktail from Julie Reiner's The New Cocktail Hour

So, yes: the Saratoga from The New Cocktail Hour by Julie Reiner does in fact have rye in it, but it also has cognac, sweet vermouth, and orange bitters, so I'm totally counting it in my not-just-American-whiskey tally, especially since it was delicious. (I'm sure these charming pressed glass Nick and Nora glasses enhanced the taste even more.)

Andrew Friedman's Bardstown

Andrew Friedman's Bardstown

Next up was the Bardstown cocktail from Seattle bartender and bar owner Andrew Friedman. I picked this one while flipping through the book West Coast Libations because, let me be honest here, it was the drink that required the least effort (no infusions, no emulsions, no special syrups), and for which I had all the ingredients on hand. 

Was one of those ingredients rye? Yes. Yes, it was. You might sense a theme here. But what if I defend myself by noting that this beauty also has applejack, and thus fits with the whole brandy theme?  (Bonus: I served it in one of these classic "bamboo stem" coupes.)

Bardstown

By Andrew Friedman of Liberty Bar, Seattle; from West Coast Libations by Ted Munat

2 oz. Rittenhouse 100-proof rye

1 oz. Laird's applejack

1/2 oz. Cointreau

1 dash orange bitters

1 dash Angostura bitters

Long orange twist, for garnish

Stir all ingredients with ice. Strain into a cocktail glass and garnish with the orange twist.

 

The A.J. cocktail: just crazy enough to work

The A.J. cocktail: just crazy enough to work

I wrapped up my time in Brandytown with a cocktail called the A.J., from Mittie Hellmich's Ultimate Bar Book. The A.J. combines applejack, grapefruit juice, and grenadine, and, on paper, looks suspect at best. (Applejack and grapefruit??) But friends, somehow it works.

Last Stop: Campari

I wish I could tell you that beyond my tinkering with various brandies I got into some truly creative stuff, and finally figured out what to do with that bottle of Ramazzotti, or that crazy-ass coca leaf liqueur my friend Rob gave me for my birthday back in, um, 2011, or that rhubarb liqueur that's been all but untouched for years now. 

In fact, I did none of those things. But I did keep putzing around.

Tequila, let's do this.

Tequila, let's do this.

On one of the coldest nights we had all winter (yes, that's a relative measure in Northern California, but still), I dusted off my bottle of silver tequila, squeezed a grapefruit, and made Palomas. Tequila is a spirit that has never excited me (and sorry, mezcal, but smoky just isn't my thing), but in the Paloma, I can start to see its appeal.

Celebrating St. Patrick's Day a la Dale DeGroff

Celebrating St. Patrick's Day a la Dale DeGroff

St. Patrick's Day here at In Our Cups world HQ involved not green beer (or, in fact, any beer) or terrible shots, but instead a round of Wild Irish Roses, Dale DeGroff's take on the Jack Rose, which subs Irish whiskey for applejack. That bottle of Bushmill's at the back of my bar hadn't seen so much action in years. (Love those Libbey Royal Fern glasses? Find 'em here.)

Tally ho, sbagliato!

Tally ho, sbagliato!

Finally, I rounded out March with the Negroni Sbagliato, the "mistaken" version of that classic with Prosecco standing in for the gin. (And check out those charming Libbey Tally Ho lowballs!) If I'm drinking something bitter and bubbly, there's a 99% chance it's an Aperol Spritz, so, hey, double pat on the back for a cocktail that's neither a spritz nor features American whiskey. 

I've got plenty more exploring to do over the coming months—I will open that bottle of falernum! I will figure out something to do with cachaça other than make Caipirinhas! And dammit, Ramazzotti, I'm coming for you. And let's be honest: I didn't actually go way out in left field with most of my cocktailing over these last couple of months. 

But it did feel good to crack open some infrequently used bottles, and to get myself out of my whiskey-first habit for a bit. If you, like me, have neglected bottles hanging around your home bar, I definitely encourage showing them some love.

Booze School: Brandy 101

Class is in session! Welcome to Booze School, a new occasional series dedicated to demystifying spirits, sharing some fun facts, and giving you enough smarts about booze that you're confident in your ability to pick out a bottle or order a glass you'll dig.

Because it's the spirit that most befuddles me, I decided to start with brandy.

OK, What Exactly Is Brandy, Anyway?

There are so many things that fall under the brandy umbrella that, if you're anything like me, it's easy to become baffled by what the spirit actually is. In the most basic terms, brandy is a spirit distilled from fruit, and occasionally from herbs. (And without re-muddying the waters, I also tried a nettle brandy while in Croatia last year, but let's ignore that for now and stick with the fruit thing.)

The most common fruit used in brandy, by a mile, is grapes. Cognac, Armagnac, grappa, pisco, and many American brandies are grape-based. There are some differences in how different grape-ish brandies are distilled (grappa uses the skins, seeds, and stems left over from winemaking, for instance, while pisco, cognac, and Armagnac use grape juice or wine), in the grapes used to make them, and in how they're distilled and aged—hence the vast differences in the end products.

There are plenty of other brandies that rely on other fruits: Armagnac comes from apples, kirsch from cherries, slivovitz from plums, and Hungarian palinka from apricots, to name just a few. I've yet to hear of brandy made from bananas, pineapples, mangos, or other tropical fruits, but otherwise, if it's a fruit, there's a solid chance there's a brandy (or eau de vie, or schnapps, or rakia) made from it.

When Is a Cognac Not a Cognac?

Though the whole world of cognac can get complicated quickly (more on that in a moment), one aspect of it is pretty straightforward: cognac is simply grape-based brandy from the Cognac region of France. In the same way that all Champagnes are sparkling wines, but not all sparkling wines are Champagnes, all cognac is brandy but not all brandies are cognac. 

Same basic deal with Armagnac: it's brandy from a particular area in France, so not every brandy can be called Armagnac, but all Armagnac can be called brandy. Because it is. Capice?

VS, VSOP, XO, WTH?

Unlike other brandies, cognac has a grading system that indicates how long the youngest bit of brandy in each blend has been aged. (Like non-vintage Champagne, cognac from different years is blended, so a barrel of cognac will contain brandy that ranges in age.) Those abbreviations you see on cognac bottles? They tell you things.

  • V.S. (Very Special): A cognac blend in which the youngest brandy has been aged for at least two years in an oak cask.
  • V.S.O.P (Very Special Old Pale), also sometimes called Reserve: A blend in which the youngest brandy has been cask-aged for at least four years.
  • XO (Extra Old) or Napoléon: A blend in which the youngest brandy has been cask-aged for at least ten years. Prior to 2016, the requirement here was six years of aging, so presumably if you were to go out and buy a bottle of XO cognac right now, chances would be decent you'd be buying a six-year, not a ten-year.
  •  Hors d'age (Beyond age): The national cognac bureau in France (yes, there's such a thing) officially says that Hors d'age is the same as XO, but in practice, distillers sometimes use it to indicate cognac that's been aged beyond the ten years at which the scale tops off.

There are other bits of potential bafflement on cognac labels, just as there are on many wine labels, but we're sticking with the basics here. Want to nerd out? The Wikipedia entry on cognac is happy to oblige.

How to Drink It

Brandy is delicious in cocktails (but of course); stay tuned for an upcoming blog post in which I dive into that very subject. Perhaps the most famous of this lot is the Sidecar, with cognac, triple sec, and lemon juice, but if you do some digging, especially into older cocktail books, you'll find plenty more.

Some would argue that where brandies—and cognac and Armagnac in particular—really shine is sipped on their own. Do you need brandy snifters, with their big, balloon-like bowls and narrow mouths? Not necessarily. Their shape is designed to warm up the spirit a bit as you hold the snifter in your hand, thereby releasing more of its aromas, and then preventing those aromas from escaping by narrowing the glass toward the top. So while something like a coupe wouldn't be great if you want to sit down and slowly sniff and sip your brandy, a stemless wine glass would totally work. 

There's a delicious and incredibly varied world of brandies out there. Get sipping!