Margaret Swaine’s Spirits Review – December
A Gift of Spirit for the Holidays
by Margaret Swaine
The holiday season and Christmas will be upon us before we know it. I always feel a slight frisson when December hits knowing that there will be too much to do and not enough time. To make your gift giving a little easier, here are some suggestions for those spirit lovers on your list. Brown spirits and especially Cognac really max out in popularity during the winter months. The high end XO level for example sees almost half of its annual sales in November and December in many markets.
The city of Cognac in southwest France lies 110 km north of Bordeaux, close to the Marrenes-Oléron Atlantic basin where half of France’s oyster beds lie. The town thrived in olden days as an established centre of the salt trade, an activity which dates back to the 11th century. The Charente River winds through giving access to merchant boats. Early on the traders of northern Europe discovered the thin acidic wine which they brought back from there after delivering salt, survived the voyage better if distilled, and even more so when held in oak barrels. This improved “burnt wine” named after its city of origin is so much in demand today that most of it sells outside of France.
The top growing areas (crus) are named Grande and Petite “Champagne”, after the chalky whitish calcium rich soil. Beyond these two crus (known as Fine Champagne when combined in the bottle), are the Fins Bois, Bons Bois, and Borderies. Ugni blanc is the main variety grown, a grape generally best when distilled. The young, always double distilled, grape spirit gives off floral aromas. Oak from French forests, toasted by fire when the barrels are made, add their aromas of vanilla, brioche and cocoa. Then slow oxidation in these barriques puts the final touches of mushroom, Roquefort cheese and leathery/nutty “rancio” to the mix.
Rémy Martin, founded in 1724, is the sole great cognac house to use only eaux-de-vie from the two best crus of the region namely Grande Champagne and Petite Champagne. Their latest product launch is the 1738 Accord Royal, named after the decree granted on that date to King Louis XV to plant new vines on his Fine Champagne land. Rémy Martin XO Excellence Cognac is an opulent blend of 85 per cent Grande Champagne with 15 per cent Petite Champagne containing up to 28 years of vintages.
Hine located in Jarnac and founded in 1763, is one of, if not the biggest Cognac house outside of the big dominant four of Hennessy, Martell, Rémy Martin and Courvoisier. Its vintage-bent also gives it a caché. (I have a vintage bottle from my birth year given to me when I toured the distillery with Bernard Hine, a descendent of the founder. It’s a rarity I’m savouring slowly. A barrel from this particular vintage was named the vintage of the century by cellar master Eric Forget and bottled as Hine 250 to celebrate that anniversary of the company. Check out what vintage was selected for Hine 250 and you’ll know mine.)
H by Hine VSOP in an elegant long bottle housed in a beautiful metallic red box is ready made for gifting. It’s a harmonious blend of 20 cognacs aged for a minimum of 4 years, from grapes grown in the Grande Champagne and the Petite Champagne. Hine Rare VSOP a Fine Champagne blend of over 25 cognacs (more than fifty percent from Grande Champagne) is sophisticated and elegantly fruity.
Chabasse is an historic 17th century cognac estate in the depths of Saint-Jean d’Angely. This family run business is in the hands of Réné-Luc Chabasse, the ancestor of the founder of the estate, Jean-Baptiste Chabasse. The Chabasse XO is big, full and delicious with toasted hazelnut and toffee notes.
The cognac house Meukow was acquired by Michel Coste in 1979, who created the panther bottle – today the emblem of the brand. Still a family business now run by son Philippe Coste, the famous logo of the luxury cognac brand, the black panther, can be seen on all its products. Meukow Feline is ultra-smooth and creamy textured.
Those who want to gift a special Canadian brown spirit should look no further than our own good old Crown Royal – namely the new 75th Anniversary Limited Edition Canadian Whisky. In 1939 the Royal Couple, King George VI and Queen Elizabeth, made history when they became the first reigning monarchs to journey across North America, travelling the vast distance by train. To honour the pair, a Canadian entrepreneur crafted a whisky to suit the occasion by sampling over 600 blends and reviewing hundreds of different types of glass, labels and caps. He cloaked his perfected blend in a purple bag to represent the purple robe of royalty and called the whisky Crown Royal.
Seventy five years later, Crown Royal’s master blender has created a velvety smooth limited edition whisky to commemorate the brand’s monumental anniversary. Crown Royal 75th Anniversary Blend cloaked in an embroidered silver bag combines hand-picked whiskies from the brand’s extensive stock including that from the historic Coffey rye still, in Gimli, Manitoba.
They may not like our tar sands oil in the US but they like our traditional whiskies. Crown Royal is the number one selling Canadian whisky brand in the US by value.
In the single malt scotch category, there’s a fascinating newcomer. It’s the Glenlivet’s first crowd-sourced whisky, “Guardian’s Chapter” chosen exclusively by The Guardians of The Glenlivet. Tastings were conducted in 19 markets, including Canada and over 3,500 votes were cast to select The Guardians’ Chapter Single Malt Whisky. Some critics say it’s the proverbial camel horse made by committee. I say it’s a triumph but not for the weak of heart.
Not all like a dark spirit. For the white spirit aficionados on your gift list there are several Canadian top-drawer newbies. This is a bit of a tease as they are available only in their province of origin or via the distillery online but what could be more local than that.
Eau Claire Distillery is Alberta’s first craft distillery located in Turner Valley, not far from Calgary. The distillery uses locally-farmed ingredients and clear water from the nearby Rocky Mountains. Summer 2014 marked its first-batch release. Eau Claire Three Point Vodka, its initial product launched in June is creamy smooth and crystal clear. For the moment you’ll have to go to Alberta to buy it via the distiller or in Calgary liquor retail stores such as Willow Park.
In Ontario Dillon’s has come out with Dillon’s Pear eau-de-vie that’s made from locally grown Niagara Bartlett pears that is soft and gently pear. From Quebec comes Quartz Vodka, a joint venture with Domaine Pinnacle and Lise Watier. Crafted from ESKA water sourced in northern Quebec, it’s micro-distilled five times.
I’ll leave you now with my favourite cocktail recipe of late. It’s not new, but it’s a classic that’s been overlooked for too long. Slightly green in hue, it’s right for the festive moment and a knock out on all levels. It’s called The Last Word and it is. Be warned two of these and you’ll be flat on your back. But with no regrets in the morning or at least you won’t remember enough to be sorry. That’s my story.
A balance of sweet and sour with a strong herbaceous tone, it’s made with equal parts of gin, fresh lime juice, maraschino liqueur and Chartreuse. You won’t go wrong with Hayman’s London Dry Gin and Luxardo Maraschino Liqueur for the other spirits. Divine. Decadence. Merry celebrations.
To find these and other picks at stores near you, click on: Margaret’s Whisky and Spirits
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