La crème de le cognac
by Kate Zimmerman for Vancouver Sun: In Good Spirits column

“You don’t choose Louis XIII cognac. Louis XIII chooses you.”

That’s one of the messages brand ambassador Jason Bowden flew to Vancouver from Cognac, France to deliver. In other words, we must not mistake Louis XIII de Rémy Martin for your average plonk.

No worries there. At $2,031.70 a 750-ml. bottle, we’re hardly going to use it to swab snakebites.

Bowden described this top cognac, which comes in a hand-blown Baccarat crystal bottle with a fleur-de-lis stopper, as “aspirational.” Like items from luxury purveyors such as Hermes and Chanel, that means it especially appeals to people who seek status -- people like hip-hop artists.

They’re a relatively new demographic for the drink they call “yak.” The market needed refreshing, so Rémy Martin was pleased to welcome new playas into the fold. The use of cognac as a post-prandial has traditionally been the bailiwick of affluent oldsters, who inevitably die off. Yet the market for Louis XIII has always been, as Bowden said, people who are “prepared to pay for what they enjoy.” If that group is now made up of the ball-cap and bling crowd instead of tweed-draped aristos brandishing cigars, so be it. The hip-hop artist Jay-Z is such a cognac fan that his Manhattan club, 40/40, features a “Remy Lounge.”

A little background before you consider re-mortgaging your condo: All cognacs are brandies, but all brandies are not cognacs. A brandy can only call itself cognac if it is made in the Cognac region of France.

Cognac is derived from the “lees,” the dregs of wine-making, in the Grande Champagne growing region. These lees are distilled twice into a clear liquid spirit, an eau-de-vie that is then stored and aged in 100-year-old barrels made from native Limousin oak trees. For Louis XIII, the cellarmaster takes samples from 1,000 cognacs, 40 to 100 years old, blending some of the most aged cognacs with the more youthful versions.

As a result, Bowden said, “The variety of flavour within this fine champagne cognac is extraordinary.” He believes Louis XIII is best served neat at room temperature in a balloon glass.

Meanwhile, lower-priced cognacs -- though not cheap at $75 or so per bottle -- have gained fresh life in mixed drinks. In Europe, in Quebec, in Asia, and, increasingly, here in Vancouver, Rémy Martin V.S.O.P. (Very Superior Old Pale) is now used in such cocktails as the Rémy Centaur, which mixes it up with ginger ale and a Mojito-like fresh mint base. Meanwhile, in the U.S., young black people reportedly buy 60-85 per cent of leading brand Hennessy cognac’s stock and enjoy such cognac-based cocktails as “Thug Passion” (cognac and Alizé liqueur).

“What we’ve found is that different parts of the world have different ways of drinking,” said Bowden, who grew up in Manchester but spent his childhood summers with family friends who were cognac makers. “So that if you’re in Asia, then you’ll have it with food. We put a bottle of wine on the table, they put a bottle of cognac on the table….

“In Europe, it might be (served) neat, it might be in long drinks, with tonic, ginger ale, even Coca-Cola sometimes. Here, it will be neat, or here it will be very much in cocktails, as well.”

This burgeoning diversity of consumption is more good news for Rémy Martin. Still, the big cheese ‑ Louis XIII ‑ stands alone. Nobody proposes using it to add some zip to a Coca-Cola Zero.

Needless to say, there are obstacles to overcome in marketing such an exclusive product. Bowden calls the intimidation quotient of $2,000 cognac “the fear factor.”

“Once you get over that fear factor, there’s a whole new level of enjoyment,” he said.

Actor Jamie Foxx must have leapt the hurdle. Remy Martin presented him with an award just before this year’s Oscar ceremony, the one where he won the Best Actor category for his depiction of musician Ray Charles. According to Bowden, the powers that be at Rémy Martin felt the actor deserved its recognition because of his 20-year body of work, as well as his extraordinary performance in Ray.

Bowden was sent to L.A. to present an inscribed decanter full of Louis XIII to Foxx in front of the actor’s best friends and relatives, and gave Foxx and his friends a whirlwind tasting. He describes the experience as one of the highlights of his own career.

“He’s a very sincere, modest guy,” he said of Foxx. A modest guy who now, presumably, understands what Bowden means when he says of Louis XIII, “It’s not a cognac. It’s a moment.”

And “All That Jazz”

Brad Stanton, bar manager of Yaletown’s Blue Water Café & Raw Bar, has been toying with the idea of putting a cognac cocktail on his menu for some time. Asked for a recipe for something those of us who weren’t chosen by Louis XIII could make at home, Stanton came up with the following pumpkin-coloured drink. It’s now on the menu at Blue Water.

“It’s a variation of a Sidecar, really,” said Stanton.

RECIPE: "All That Jazz "

6 segments Chinese mandarin oranges
One-quarter of a Madagascar vanilla bean
One-quarter ounce Grand Marnier
1 dash Orange Bitters
One and a half ounces François Voyer Terres de Grande Champagne (or Rémy Martin V.S.O.P.) cognac
Three-quarters ounce fresh lime juice
One half ounce Giffard Gomme syrup

Place the mandarin orange segments in the bottom of a cocktail shaker glass.

Scoop out the vanilla bean with a demitasse spoon and add its seeds to the oranges, along with the Grand Marnier and the bitters.

Muddle the ingredients with a wooden pestle in the shaker glass.

Add ice, cognac, lime juice and syrup.

Shake well and strain into a chilled martini glass.

Garnish with a twisted orange peel.

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