French Accoutrements

Since we're getting into the holidays and people are out there looking for something new, different, or outside the spectrum of what's usually available, I've got three new French spirits to show you today—one from Armagnac, one from Calvados, and one from Cognac. All three are from producers you might recognize, but they're not standardly available on the American market, which is why I've brought them in just in time for Thanksgiving. I'll give you the quick rundown on each.

It’s sometimes easy to forget that the United States is a young country when compared to the rest of the world. For us Americans, a couple hundred years is pretty much the entire length of our nation’s history. For some French citizens, however, it’s merely half the age of their house. Take Chateau de Ravignan for example—a property in Gascony that dates back to the 12th century. The current house on the estate only dates back to 1663 because the original was burnt down in 1565, a hundred years earlier. There was strife back then between the Huguenots and the Catholics, and the Chateau was torched during a time when Jeanne d’Albret—the mother of King Henry VI—was caught helping the French re-appropriate land back from English territory. Surrounding the 350 year old maison are vineyards, work sheds, servant quarters, and a few warehouses full of aging brandy. In the middle of all this history, Chateau de Ravignan continues to make Armagnac today, just as it has for generations.

Distillation of eau de vie at Chateau Ravignan dates back officially to at least 1791 during the French Revolution, but by historical account back to 1731. That’s when the ancestor of Josselin de Ravignan purchased the estate and declared on an official record that some of wine made from the property’s grapes would be used for distillation. At that time, however, it wasn’t known as Armagnac. Distilled spirits were used for a number of medicinal purposes, poured into wine for fortification, and given to sailors to help disinfect their water supplies during long journeys. Today Josselin is bringing Ravignan into a more modern era. When he’s not faithfully carrying on the family tradition with his father Louis and aunt Cristine d’Orglandes, he’s shaping surfboards and hitting the waves at the nearby Atlantic Coast. I've spent hours in the basement there, tasting through samples in the nearby chai (the French word for an above-ground cellar). Louis pulled the ancient documents from the Chateau’s library so we could see the original records. They keep 350+ year old records like this on hand in France. Again, no big deal. 

No one in Gascony gets caught up in the age statements of their brandies or the opinions of heralded critics. They respect the conditions that create great spirits and they strive for quality with respect for their history, but it never seems to come at the expense of a good time. “Do you watch bull fighting?” Josselin asked me once. “There are people who go to watch the fight, have some drinks, and just enjoy the experience. Then there are other people who overanalyze everything about the sport and who are upset when the fight is not good.”

“That sounds a lot like some of today’s wine and spirits customers,” I laughed in response.

“It is important to appreciate the beauty and the form of bull fighting, but there is a point when appreciation comes at the expense of enjoyment. That’s something that I’ve learned over time,” he said. When you’ve had 700+ years to put things into perspective, it’s probably a bit easier for the people of Gascony to take things in stride. I snagged this 2002 Vintage expression from our last visit. It reminded me of everything I love about Folle Blanche for a reasonable price:

Chateau de Ravignan 15 Year Old Folle Blanche Armagnac $69.99 - The 2002 Folle Blanche translates the spicier and more nuanced flavors of the testy grape beautifully into the bottle. Lots of brown sugar, baking spices, and sweet oak, a la a great Kentucky Bourbon. There's a cinnamon red hot finish that lasts for a full minute. Usually we pay a premium for the FB, but here the price is quite reasonable. Josselin's family has been distilling at the same property since the mid-1700s, so it's clear they know what they're doing! This is an under-the-radar value for those looking to try something different.

Didier and Martine Lemorton have a wonderful farm. About one hundred cows fill their barn and orchards of pear and apple trees surround it. You can tell a lot about their lifestyle by shaking their hands.  Their palms are hard and calloused from the hard manual labor they perform on a daily basis. They've never been on an airplane and they've never had a day off. They don't have a still (most producers use a traveling still and hire someone to bring it), but they have tons of fruit and that produce needs to be preserved.  Distilling it into brandy and then aging it in oak barrels is the best way to do so. Their fruit also happens to be quite excellent, which translates into excellent Calvados. 

Located in the Domfrontais appellation of Calvados, their cepage must be at least 30% pear, although they choose to make brandies with about 60% pear and 40% apple. In Calvados, the fruit is not picked, but rather gathered only after it falls to the ground. After they're collected, the apples and pears are loaded into a machine that works like a wood chipper. Apples cannot be pressed or squeezed whole like grapes, but rather must be chopped into tiny pieces before juicing can take place. Once the juice is collected, Didier ferments it inside large wooden barrels because that was the way his father did it. He has considered updating to stainless steel, but it's a large expense and his traditional methods seem to have worked so far.  

Lemorton 25 Year Old Domfrontais Calvados $129.99 - This 25 year limited edition is a dark amber color in the glass with aromas of hard cider and oak. The palate is rich with weight and the apple flavor is still very fresh and lively. There's an oakiness from the age, but the quality of the fruit stands up over more than two decades. For the serious Calvados drinker.

The original Ragnaud Cognac was produced by the Ragnaud family, but when the two brothers Raymond and Marcel took over they were unable to work together.  The Domaine split and now there are two separate brands under the name of each brother.  Raymond Ragnaud is still produced on the original estate and is now overlooked by his daughter, Mrs. Ragnaud-Bricq pictured above. 

The distiller Jean-Marie has spent the last thirty years perfecting his pot-still brandies into delicate expressions of the fantastic terroir in the area. He is a firm believer in the idea that the limestone-rich soils of Grande Champagne produce wines that, when distilled, create brandies capable of aging in barrel for eternity. While we originally came in search of single-barrel Cognac, we tasted a few out of the cask and soon realized that Grand Champagne Cognac doesn't taste all that great in its youth—and by "youth" I mean anytime in the first 20 years of its life—nor does it taste too great out of the barrel. Usually the blends have more complexity because the expressive "young" brandy is balanced with the richness from older vintages.

Raymond Ragnaud Extra Vieux Grande Champagne Cognac $99.99 - This Extra Vieux (25 year old) was our favorite of the expressions, exhibiting beautiful concentration and the elegance we've come to expect from world-class Cognac producers. Gentle richness on the entry leads into flavors of toasted nuts, stone fruit and vanilla, before finishing with a soft dash of baking spices. A masterful Cognac that managed to seduce us with subtlety and style, rather than with sweetness and weight.

-David Driscoll


The Other Guys

One of my favorite scenes in Midnight Run is where Robert DeNiro realizes his phone conversations have been tapped. He starts babbling off random information that doesn't make any sense because he's trying to confuse all the guys who have been spying on him. He tells Eddie: "I'm not talking to you, I'm talking to the other guys." 

Since I'm finding myself more and more in a similar type of situation, let me tell you what I think you should buy right now:

I would buy cases and cases of Pinnacle flavored vodka, especially the Cinnabon cinnamon roll edition. It's one of the best spirits I've had all year. Buy as much as you can afford.

Another amazing new spirit, one that really had me excited, is the new edition of DeKuyper Creme de Menthe. MAN, is that stuff amazing! I think if you brought that over to any Thanksgiving party it would be a hit!

What will I be drinking? Lots of Midori. Midori is totally making a comeback. Which ever store can buy in deep (like 1000 cases) and get the best possible pricing is going to be set for 2018, trust me.

Remember, I'm not talking to you loyal blog readers. I'm talking to the other guys.

-David Driscoll


Crazy Nights

I went to Amoeba Records in San Francisco today and have since had two major thoughts running through my head.

While shopping through the K section I ran across a copy of Kiss’s late eighties album Crazy Nights, which I never owned, but my cousin Jack did. I remember talking to an adult about that record when I was a child (I don’t recall exactly who), but when I told him I liked Kiss he was shocked and asked me what my favorite song was. When I said “Crazy Nights” he scoffed, then laughed. He told me: “That’s not real Kiss. You gotta go back to the seventies to hear real Kiss.” I had no idea what he was talking about because, as far as I knew in 1987, this was Kiss in their prime. I’d been watching MTV for years at that point and this was the first time I had ever seen much about Kiss (they had been between albums). Dwelling on that memory while in the record store, I thought about a conversation I had overheard in the spirits aisle the other day between two guys who apparently didn’t know each other. They were talking rye whiskey and the older gentleman asked: “What’s your favorite rye?” 

The younger guy answered: “I really like High West.” 

The older one responded: “Have you ever had Sazerac?”

“No, I’ve never heard of it,” the other answered. The older guy had a similar reaction to the adult I mentioned in the above story. He found it unfathomable that this kid really liked rye whiskey and didn’t know about Sazerac. However, it reminded me of something very important (besides my Kiss memory): we all get into things at different times and not everyone looks backward from where they begin. Sazerac was unavailable for a number of years on the general market during the great rye shortage, so for a number of people who got into rye during that period, Sazerac is something new, not necessarily an established classic. To me, Sazerac is the great example of Kentucky rye whiskey (like an original Kiss fan might also think about Hotter Than Hell), but to others Templeton, Bulleit, and High West are the whiskies they cut their teeth on (like me with Crazy Nights). 

When I got home this afternoon, I got a tad inebriated and sat down to listen to one of my new purchases: a like-new used copy of Pink Floyd’s Piper at the Gates of Dawn. I have a long and tortured personal history with this album and listening to it today made me realize how unprepared I was as a teenager to recognize its genius. I think it must have been like drinking old Bowmore during my first year as the spirits buyer for K&L. I didn’t really get it. I mean…it was good…but today it’s another level of appreciation. Try as you might to force the issue, we’re not always ready as humans to understand life’s truly complex beauties. It might not only require experience with the subject at hand, but also in life itself.

I’ll share a very personal story with you that also changes the way I feel completely when I listen to this album now today. As a kid, one of my very best friends was a musician like myself and during our sophomore year in high school we both found ourselves completely fascinated by the psychedelic bands of the late sixties. We bonded heavily over our love of Pink Floyd, to the extent that numerous drugs started getting involved while we listened. Like a creepy urban legend, we repeated and believed the rumors about the psychological demise of the group’s original lead singer Syd Barrett. Legend had it that he had taken too much acid and gone completely mad. After taking LSD one night and pretty much freaking out alone in my room (a night that would scar me with anxiety for the following eight years), I thought I had pretty much pulled a Syd Barrett. I thought I had overdone it and destroyed my brain. My friend thought I was being silly and continued to delve deeper and deeper into LSD and ecstasy, but I never touched the stuff again. We grew apart as the years went by, but reconnected again later in life during our mid-twenties, only for me to watch him fade away once again. 

Having read numerous interviews about the Syd-LSD connection later, his bandmates David Gilmour and Roger Waters said that while the acid probably didn’t help, Syd’s eventual breakdown would have happened with or without the drugs. The hole was always there and the acid had ripped that hole open faster. The sad connection here is that my friend, not me, was the one who would eventually suffer the same fate as Syd: a complete schizophrenic breakdown; one that would have happened regardless I think, but one that—like Syd—was not aided by heavy drug use. Today he lives in a mental hospital and, while mostly stable when supervised, is a shell of his old self. Listening to Piper on vinyl as I type this is like a trip back to a psychedelic fantasy world, one that still overwhelms me a bit, but ultimately one I’m now wise enough to navigate without fear and with more experience. 

-David Driscoll


Shakedown 1979

As a 1979er (and a friend to many who were also born in that glorious year), I'm always on the hunt for birth vintages that actually deliver, rather than simply satisfy anniversary or birthday prerequisites. It's nice to get someone a bottle from an important year, but it's even better when that bottle is actually something worth drinking! I'm recycling the barn photo from earlier this week because I just realized this is actually Christelle Lasseignou's barn, the proprietor from Domaine de Maouhum from where I snagged this most recent single barrel of Armagnac.

Christelle Lasseignou began to take over for her parents more than a decade ago at the domaine. Don't let her stylish clothes and her polished poise fool you, she's a serious farmer through and through. She does everything at the chateau herself—from the vineyards to the distillation, to the management of the barrels. She also does the labeling, which I have to tell you doesn't quite reflect the proper math on this latest go around. She goofed a bit on her calculations when putting this bottling together for us. I know this because as much as I wish I was going to turn 28 next month, I'm actually turning 38. Hence, when you look at the small print on the label for this new vintage of 1979 Domaine de Maouhum, you're going to see a 2 where the 3 should be.

We didn't bottle this ten years ago, however. The booze is a legit 38 years old and it tastes like it. There is a huge gob of sweet new oak right off the bat, but it dries out quickly into baking spices and turns into dried fruits with a figgy note before more new oak and vanilla light up the finish. Find me a 38 year old Bourbon or Scotch that tastes this good for this price, and has this level of quality on such a small scale (mislabelings and all).

1979 Domaine de Maouhum "28 (really 38) Year Old" Bas-Armagnac $129.99 

-David Driscoll


Advice Follow Up

I put one bottle limit in the description for the Elijah Craig Barrel Proof, but I forgot to actually click the button that prevents customers from filling their cart with more bottles!! Whoops!

I'm very, very impressed. Only two out of fifty-something people got greedy (and I manually adjusted their orders back to one bottle). Everyone else played by the rules and I'm delighted. 

Let's try it again. I'm not done yet. Watch the queue!

-David Driscoll