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March 1, 2013

Cognac Tasting and a Very Unusual Bar Crawl

By Spear's

To learn more about cognac, Sophie McBain toured the Rivoli Bar at the Ritz, the Langham’s Artesian Bar and the Churchill Bar at the Hyatt Regency returning with the recipe for a perfect Sazerac cocktail.

AS FAR AS bar crawls go, you could do a lot worse than start at the Rivoli bar at the Ritz, before merrily sauntering to the Artesian Bar at the Langham and then having a final night cap (or, in my case, four night caps) at the Churchill Bar at the Hyatt Regency. It was a glorious step up from my student days, and the traditional punitive end of term crawl.

This wasn’t billed as a bar crawl, of course, but a bar ‘tour’ — and its purpose was to teach participants about Courvoisier cognac. To do this, each bar would blend its own Sazerac, that classic 1800s New Orleans cocktail, and offer tastings of different blends of cognac paired with food. This was one lesson I was more than happy to take part in.

And so we began at the Ritz, where the barman has infused his Sazerac with orange, lavender and vanilla to bring out these notes in the cognac. The effect was beautifully sweet, mellow and floral. Our first cognac — the Courvoisier XO — was paired with a delicate slice of mousse-filled chocolate cake, with toasted hazelnuts and brown sugar ice cream.

I was sceptical. It feels odd to eat dessert at 7pm, and even odder to wash it down with cognac. Like many a late convert, however, I’m now a fanatic. It turns out that cognac and bitter dark chocolate marry perfectly, with each helping to enhance the other’s flavours.
The Rivoli Bar at the Ritz
IN FACT, I was surprised at how versatile cognac can be. The Artesian bar at the Langham showcased its characteristic flair and sense of fun by matching Courvoisier Exclusif with rich and earthy baked mushrooms, smooth, creamy foie gras ‘lollypops’ encased in thin fruit jelly, and a delicate lobster and mango salad.

The barman solemnly instructed us to close our eyes (I peeked, of course) and delivered steaming teapots to each table, inviting us to inhale the floral vapours, recalling the summer mornings in Champagne country — where Cognac is made. The Artesian bar serves a great Sazerac too — it’s less sweet than the Ritz’s, with a bold aniseed kick.

We ended our evening at the Churchill Bar to sample some of Cognac’s most exclusive blends: the Courvoisier 12 Year Old, the Courvoisier 21 Year Old and finally L’Essence de Courvoisier, a blend of rare cognac reserves, some dating back to 1900.

We ate the first with goat’s cheese and soda bread — if you’re going to serve bread with your cognac, soda bread is the only one to go for, says Rebecca Asseline, the UK’s ambassador for Courvoisier (what a job!). With the second we went for steak tartare and quiche — the tartare worked brilliantly, the quiche less so. And, to accompany L’Essence de Courvoisier we had honey truffles and mini-almond cakes.

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There’s something a little strange about saving the show-stopper blend for the very end of a bar crawl, I mean tour. By this point in the evening a certain level of silliness had descended on the party (by which I mean, me) — but then it helped to know a little more about cognac before trying this final blend, where each sip takes minutes to unfurl on your tongue, revealing every flavour associated with cognac, but amplified and refined.

I may have pickled quite a few braincells, but thankfully I had the foresight to ask for a Sazerac recipe before I left. Here goes.

Courvoisier Sazerac

50ml Courvoisier VS
5ml sugar syrup
3 dashes Peychaud’s Bitters
5ml Absinthe
Lemon zest

Pre-chill a short glass with crushed ice and put to one side, mix ingredients well in a Boston Shaker glass without ice. Add the ice and stir for 20 seconds. Empty the short glass, add the absinthe swirl to coat the glass before discarding, then strain mixture into short glass. Garnish with a zest of a lemon.
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