Let’s say you’ve just had one of the best meals of your life. Maybe you started with Champagne and caviar, went on to Sancerre and lobster and paired your roast pheasant with a great white Burgundy. Then you enjoyed the saddle of veal with your favorite Bordeaux, had some impossible to find cheeses with an equally impossible to find red Burgundy and finished with crème brûlée and Sauternes. Or, instead of a six-course repast fit for a king, maybe you opted for a simple but perfectly grilled rib eye and a great California Cabernet.
In either case you would be one very lucky, hopefully very happy, person. Also, in either case, you might still be in the mood for a perfect punctuation with which to end the night. Several options spring to mind. The ones I’d like to explore here are after dinner drinks, specifically spirits such as brandies and whiskies. We’ll save cordials and liqueurs, which tend to be less alcoholic and sweeter (like some of my favorite people), for another day.
Brandy, which is wine that has been distilled and then aged in wood, has been popular since the sixteenth century. The most famous type of brandy is Cognac, which is produced only in the Cognac region of France, in the same way that Bordeaux wine is produced only in Bordeaux. Cognacs are similar to Champagnes in that both beverages are generally blended, and each producer has its own style and personality. Each maker will also have several levels of Cognac within his line ranging from VS (very superior), VSOP (very superior old pale), XO (extra old), etc. indicating more age, refinement and cost. Perhaps the only drawback to Cognac is that it’s not a cheap date. This news should be balanced with the fact that, like any spirit, it won’t spoil after it’s opened, and a bottle will yield about sixteen or more generous portions. A good value and introduction is Courvoisier VSOP ($35). While some less expensive Cognacs can be harsh, this one is pretty pleasant. Courvoisier’s style is rounder, richer and has more caramel than most and at this level those characteristics really help.
I know of no beverage more intense or elegant (not a common combination). It’s unique in the world of brandies: clean, smooth, complex and rich, but without the slightest hint of any meretricious meddling. It’s a real aristocrat, and the perfect glass to end a perfect day. Another great Cognac is Martell Cordon Bleu ($100). It’s the flagship of a house that is known for nicely rounded, nutty Cognacs. It has enough age that some rancio is evident, a desirable trait present in fine, older Cognacs that has been described as musty walnuts.
Spain also makes some interesting brandies. If Cognac is too austere for your taste, try Gran Duque d’Alba ($46). Fattened up with the Pedro Ximenez grape, the same grape used in the production of sweet Sherry, it is a luscious, rich, round, fruity, mouth-filling brandy that, though short on elegance, can still be just what the doctor ordered.
Bourbon is America’s own whiskey. Distilled in Kentucky from mostly corn, and unblended (like a single malt Scotch), it’s known and loved the world over. While some people don’t like Scotch’s smokiness, it’s relatively easy to enjoy Bourbon. On a good night it’s smooth, full, and with a little imagination, really tastes like sweet corn. There are many great Bourbons available but a personal favorite is Knob Creek ($20). At 100 proof it’s best enjoyed with a splash of spring water or an ice cube, partly to just calm it down and partly to allow the flavors and aromas to be appreciated without the glare of an alcoholic force field in the way.
Scotch can be a fascinating subject to the right person, but even if that person isn’t you, it’s helpful to realize that there are a lot of different styles of Scotch, and that they are based on geography. The softest, mildest Scotches come from the Lowlands. A nice example is Glenkinchie ($41). Even those who don’t love Scotch sometimes like this whisky. It’s not aggressive, exhibits an almost fluffy maltiness, has a slightly sweet finish, and is unencumbered by the smoke, peat and sea that some find too challenging in other Scotches. A bigger Scotch is Oban ($54), from the Western Highlands. It has generous amounts of fresh peat and a hint of the sea, but is smooth and well balanced, with a pleasantly rounded, medium body. It’s a great introduction to single malts for someone who already enjoys blended Scotches. To go to extremes try Laphroig 10 Year Old ($40) from Islay (pronounced “EYE-luh”). It is a great choice for someone who already loves Scotch and is looking for the ultimate in a medicinal, oily, seaweedy, salty exclamation point to end their meal with.
What if your incredible meal was more Southwestern than Northeastern and you don’t want to shift gears at the eleventh hour? How about an aged Tequila? Tequila isn’t just for breakfast, I mean Margaritas, anymore. A premium Añejo Tequila like Patron’s ($50) can be a great experience at room temperature in a wine glass. The nose has tremendous tropical fruit, like Corton-Charlemagne with a strong Mexican accent. On the palate it is smooth, full, complex and dry, with a vibrancy and finish that will continue as long as you want it to.