Friday, 18 January 2013

Out with the old [brandy], and in with the new

Last night I said a final farewell to the litre bottle of St Remy that Mrs Cake had brought back from Paris, and a quick perusal of my previous posts shows that I barely even acknowledged its existence. Well, that’s not fair. Once I’d gotten past the incredibly sturdy cardboard box and the plug-ugly bottle, and then allowed its charms to grow on me over a few weeks, it proved to be a very enjoyable brandy. So I’d like to pay it a little tribute today.

“Rémy XO is a brandy of character with complex aromas and a robust taste. It is recognised for its elegance, smoothness and the way it lingers on the palate. Enriched by a multitude of flavours that make it irresistible to the connoisseur, St-Rémy should be savoured at leisure in an intimate setting, as an aperitif or after-dinner drink”

So says St Remy cellar master, Martine Pain and yes, I could go with that – robust taste. It’s certainly preferable to the Courvoisier VSOP that, due to its bitter aftertaste, I keep being so disparaging about. No such problems here.

luminous amber?
The website claims it’s a luminous amber colour, again showing how much variety there can be in shades of amber – and indeed, luminosity. Does this look luminous amber to you? I would say it’s dark. I don’t know; really fricking dark.

In terms of nose, it’s supposed to be “mature… followed by a… woody and vanilla aroma” then with ripe fruit, jam and honey. Once again I failed to detect any of that. On the palate: “gingerbread, candied apricots, dates, figs and nuts… subtly spicy and aromatic”. Gingerbread?

I was thinking for a while that a litre of it was going to be hard to shift (the last time Mrs Cake brought me a bottle of brandy back from holiday, it stuck around for 3 years), so I took it on my golf-related stag do to help account for a bit of it, but it came as some surprise yesterday when I could tell by the trickle emerging from the bottle that it wasn’t much longer for this world. I hate dark bottles  – I always like to e able to see how much is left.

Now that I’ve had time to properly appreciate it, I think for the time being I am going to have to award this brandy the accolade of “Best Brandy I Have Owned So Far”. No, it doesn’t have much competition, but as you will see, I intend to work on that. I’d have to say the Cardinal Mendoza is a challenger, but I was still drinking my spirits with ice when I had a bottle of that (imagine!). In fact, I had thought this was only good enough to drink with ice at first. How wrong I was.

It’s good stuff. As I say, it may not be the most enticing bottle in the Duty Free shop, but you could do a lot worse. I’m sure it didn’t cost much (Mrs Cake wouldn’t want to waste too much money on it), and it’s probably one I would never have picked for myself, but I’ll keep fond memories of the short time we spent together: Me, holding the glass up to the light and admiring it. That brandy wore its glass like lingerie. It looked good, and it tasted soft and sweet, but also a little fiery - like a beautiful lady. Mmm…

Sorry. Did I type that out loud?

 I didn’t even ask Mrs Cake to bring me any brandy (though I was going to), so it was a nice surprise when she did. And now it’s gone, I can move on to my next one.

I’ve always thought that brandy is an easy spirit to like in comparison with other spirits. Whisky, for instance, can take a bit of getting into. In my experience, people don’t even try to like vodka or tequila – they just treat them as fasttracks to getting drunk. As for gin… well, that’s just for drinking with tonic, isn’t it?

I do have a healthy appreciation for brandy already, but I’m nowhere near as experienced in it as I am in the field of whisky, so with my next purchase it was time to tread some new ground.

I don’t want to get all factual on your ass here - as ever, if you want to know factual stuff, you’re on the internet already, use it. Wikipedia is a decent place to start. No, this is a blog, not an encyclopaedia…

There are numerous countries that produce brandy, but French brandy seems to fall into three categories, Cognac and Armagnac – named after the regions that produce them - and… other. St Remy falls into the other category.

Having tried one or two brands of Cognac previously, I decided to keep an eye out for some Armagnac. If you look in the supermarket though, most types of brandy available are cognac – that’s your Courvoisier, Remy Martin, Martell etc.

Cognac is distilled twice in pot stills, and is bottled fairly young. Armagnac on the other hand, is distilled only once, in column stills, and as a result is known for being a less smooth spirit, though it tends to be aged for longer, allowing for development of the spirit and certain aromatic elements. Presumably this makes for a more complex spirit. I’ll be the judge of that!

It is produced in smaller quantities than Cognac, and tends to be made by independent producers, as opposed to the giant brands that dominate Cognac production.

Really, that information was more than enough for me. You had me at ‘less smooth spirit’. I made sure to stop by the booze aisle in the big Tesco the last time I was there, and had a look around. As I say, I saw five or six varieties of Cognac and, hidden away, underneath the shelf all the other brandies were on, and at the side, next to one of those large labels that sticks out saying “Whisky”, was a single bottle of Armagnac, £20. It didn’t look like much – in fact, it looked more like a bottle of balsamic vinegar. The label was tatty, and it said “Tesco” on it, so this was clearly the bottled for Tesco variety. I decided I didn’t really want to risk that.

It wasn’t until a couple of weeks later that I got my next chance. This time I’d called into the Marks and Spencer supermarket in town, armed with £9 in vouchers that were the reward for using my credit card so profligately.

Well, they had an Armagnac and it came in a nice box with a picture of a very attractive teardrop shaped bottle on it. It was 20 years old and £33. Most importantly, it looked interesting enough to part with my cash for – and at 20 years old, that meant that I would be beating my oldest spirit record by 2 years within a couple of weeks of setting it. I had to go for it really – particularly since I found another voucher offering £3 off purchases of food and wine. I asked if brandy counted as wine, and the cashier said it did.

I’ve been wondering since the last time I had a look at the booze in Marks and Spencer, whether their own brands are any good. Every supermarket has its own brands, but you’d generally expect them to be pretty poor. Marks and Spencer have a bit of a reputation for quality though, and when I saw they have their own brand of Islay scotch for around the price of an actual bottle of Laphroaig, it made me wonder. In this instance though, £33 seems far too cheap for a 20 year old spirit in a fancy bottle…

What a bottle though! Look at that! I love that solid glass bit at the bottom. I let it sit on the coffee table for a few hours, just so I could keep looking at it. It reminds me of the body of a beautiful electric guitar, curvy and solid.

Now, a couple of weeks have passed since I wrote the St Remy tribute, and followed it up with the story of how I came into possession of my 20 year old Armagnac, so I’ve easily had plenty  much chance to ease that oversized cork out and splash it out into a glass. It certainly made Christmas with the family easier to handle! Just being a bit flippant there. I did take it with me, and enjoy it on a few consecutive nights, playing Trivial Pursuit and watching Preppers UK on the unbelievably annoying SKY box.

Do you know? I know what they mean by ‘rougher spirit’ too. It really is, but it’s no less enjoyable for it. It has an unusual mouthfeel, but also a complex taste. I can’t make a direct comparison with any particular brand of Cognac, since I passed the last of the Courvoisier onto someone else some time ago, but I can be fairly certain that I’m enjoying this one much more. It isn’t as sweet for a start, nor is its aftertaste bitter. In addition you get a nice burn, which I think is an essential part of any spirit drinking experience – though I’m sure real aficionados will disagree with that.

There’s still just about more than half a bottle to go, so it’s a good sign that I like this one so much already. Long may it continue. I read on Wikipedia that once opened, Armagnac stays drinkable for years – unlike scotch that is supposed to oxidise after just 3 months – so I don’t need to hurry on this one, which is a good thing because I’ve opened a few bottles of special whisky recently, and I need to start polishing them off.

It could be a while before I actually take a risk on M&S own brand scotch, but at least I’ve been able to find out what their Armagnac is like, and maybe that will be a suitable barometer. It makes me wonder though, what’s the Tesco Armagnac like? I suppose I’m going to have to get that one now as well.

It’s just occurred to me that perhaps I should offer some comparison with the St Remy that opened this article. Well the reason I hadn’t before is that I don’t really consider them all that comparable. It’s almost as if they are a completely different spirit. Brandy comes in many guises – the Armagnac being a kind of amber colour, while the St Remy was more of a dark ruby, and in terms of flavour… sure, they’re both unmistakably brandy, but they belong to different genres. I’d like to be able to break it down to constituent flavours for you, but I’ve still got a lot to learn in that regard, and I’ve got nothing for you at the moment. Which is best? It’s all a matter of taste, isn’t it? The St Remy, I’m sure, is better value for money, but the Armagnac comes in that impressive bottle, and that’s got to count for something (a lot). I’m going to have to hold off on the matter of flavour. There’s still half a bottle of Armagnac to go, and I’m not going to make the same mistake I always do where I judge something too soon. I’m just going to enjoy it.

Now, as I write this we’re just approaching the weekend once more, and once again it has the potential for being a good one. What have we got going on? Well, I’ll tell you. First, you should know that Drink it How You Like it has joined the 21st century, and now has its own Twitter account; @alcothusiast, so you can follow me, and keep up to date with what’s going on there. I’m not really sure what the point of it is yet, or how I’m going to use it, but I understand lots of people are using it to their advantage. I’ll probably just use it to let you know what I’m up to, and maybe throw some random thoughts out there, see what comes back.

I can’t say I was particularly bothered about joining all the younger generation and the celebrities in this whole Twitter debacle, but The Manchester Whisky Club that I blogged about last week was holding its first Twitter tasting event last night, so I figured I’d join up for that. You can read more about it on Twitter (#mcrwc), or in a future Drink it How You Like it post (presumably).

What else is going on this weekend? Well, I’ll be meeting up with some friends for my latest pub crawl, which has been christened birthdaywinesuitchops - presumably because it’s someone’s birthday, but also because last time we were out we thought it would be fun to do a pub crawl where we all drink wine instead of beer, and wear suits. The ‘chops’ part relates to the fact that one of the group has finally given in, and decided to grow some sidies. I’m not sure whether I’ll stick to the part that says we have to drink wine, but we’ll see what the mood is like on the day.

This pub crawl thing is getting pretty desperate now. We need a new town or something. When you have to start drinking wine and wearing suits just to make it interesting, something’s wrong! It would definitely be better if it were summer.

Finally, there’s just one more thing I want to promote. My friend Rob Riot’s band, PreciousMcKenzie has a free gig at Gulliver’s on Oldham Street (Mcr) tomorrow, so I’m considering popping in for some of that. Perhaps I’ll see you there.

Have a good weekend then, and I’ll see you on Twitter and back here next week for another post. Nice.


  1. Thanks in favor of sharing such a fastidious idea, piece of writing is nice, thats why i have read it completely.


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  3. Hello stumbled upon your post there and very much enjoyed the read. I first heard about Armagnac on the TV show Frasier and thought I must try that. I'm a whiskey lover and I am thinking that I must branch out with my spirits...So have you tried the Tesco one yet? Paul

  4. Hi Paulie, thanks for stopping by, and especially for the kind comments. Sadly the Tesco Armagnac hasn't tickled my fancy quite enough to make me actually buy it yet. It's funny, but even when I do buy brandy, it tends to sit untouched on my booze shelf for a long time. I'd always rather drink something else.

    I actually been watching a lot of re-runs of Frasier recently, and have noticed how he's always got something special to try... though he drinks sherry a lot more than I would ever think of doing - another genre I haven't really touched upon yet.

    Good luck with your branching out!