Spirits and the Modern Meal

I'll never forget some of the meals that David and I had in France last year while looking for brandy imports. Not so much because of their quality (many were indeed amazing), however, but rather because of the awkwardness with which some of them began.

"Cognac and soda?"


"Would you like a Calvados and tonic?"

Excuse me?

"Here you go!"

Thanks. A warm Cognac and soda with no ice. Wow. What a nice way to start a meal.

This is weird. "Oh, did I say that out loud? I meant this is delicious!"

I live in the Bay Area - a place where people wear exercise clothing to the movies and where steakhouses have vegan menus, therefore my experiences and commentaries may perhaps be a bit out of touch with the rest of the world. That being said, the French countryside seems to be experiencing a little of the California health movement itself. Recent heart disease levels have people rethinking their five hour, butter and cheese-soaked dinners and the French government has lowered the blood alcohol percentage limit for legal driving in order to crack down on excessive drinking. This has resulted in a new generation of the traditional French meal - a meal that isn't quite as caloric, goes without dessert, and does not finish with a glass of Cognac.

Cognac sales are down in France. Armagnac sales are down. Calvados sales are down. People are no longer beginning with Champagne, switching to Bordeaux, transitioning to Port, and finishing with brandy. They're becoming more conscientious about what they put into their bodies. This is putting the fear into spirits producers throughout France. They need to find a way to adapt, to make themselves relevant before the meal even begins. They need to find a cocktail or an aperitif they can exploit. They must find a way to survive. Therefore, Calvados and tonic, anyone?

At our Thanksgiving dinner last night we had Champagne to start, white with the salad, and red with the main course. We had dessert, but at that point people were switching over to coffee. Parents needed to drive their children back home. Young professionals like myself had to work in the morning. There was no more room for any more booze. There was an open bottle of Balvenie 1401 Tun on the counter (the same one that was leaking at K&L Redwood City last week and therefore had to be opened and tasted by the staff - hee hee) and a few of us took a nip with our pumpkin pie. However, it was merely a curiosity for most of my family members. They were more concerned with both their health and their potential hangovers than indulging in one of the most exciting single malts of the year. The final course is simply too much for many modern drinkers to handle. It's the difference between "I'm good" and "What happened?" Responsibility has taken its place and some particular spirits are taking the hit as a result.

American whiskey seems to be in no present danger. The renaissance of the cocktail scene with a strong preference for Manhattans and Old Fashioneds has more than made up for the dessert course. Single malt drinking societies and the passionate collectors have given a boost to the Scottish whisky industry. French spirits, however, much like French wines, have always been tied to the meal. Bordeaux is a food wine, not a sit-around-and-talk-to-your-friends-on-the-patio wine. It goes with hearty, rustic meals full of beef and organ meat. Burgundy is served along side fowl and rich cheeses. No one is giving up those traditions just yet because, really, who wants to only eat salad everyday? Instead of eating the whole goose, however, they may just have a drumstick. Instead of finishing the bottle of pinot noir, they may just have a glass. Dessert isn't necessary. Spirits aren't even considered.

Cognac and soda, anyone? It's a great way to whet your appetite!

-David Driscoll 

David Driscoll