Conquering Cognac

After spending the last two years sampling Scotland’s finest spirits for our annual man-trip, this year we dusted off our berets and set out for the south of France.

Despite Rick Steves’ warning,* we chose Bordeaux as our base camp for exploring three different cognac distilleries (in one day) and the adorable St. Emilion, whose vineyards date back to the second century.

Before we arrived, most of us didn’t know anything about cognac, which, like champagne, is named for the region from which it comes. (The same spirit produced just outside this area is called brandy; champagne produced outside of the Champagne region is still called champagne.)

We discovered that although cognac and whisky are produced in a similar manner (distillation of an alcohol - wine and beer, respectively), the semblance stops there.

As opposed to whisky distilleries, which start with raw materials like malts (some even grow their own), most of the major cognac producers just buy the spirit directly from the farmers and simply age and blend them.

The disparity between the tours themselves was also evident: At the Lagavulin distillery on Isla, we learned about the process from Ewan, who had worked there for 40 years and got his start as a cooper, whereas most of the cognac tour guides were contractors not necessarily employed by the parent company.

The cognac guides definitely knew their stuff, but we still didn’t get an answer for JR’s infamous methanol question, although one did actually come close). And despite the differences, we came away with an appreciation for some booze that was definitely out of our price range.

When we weren’t sipping on the region’s sweet eau de vie (water of life), we passed the time by taking turns choosing tracks from our airbnb host’s extensive vinyl collection, which included everything from Eminem to Bob James (no relation to Rick), and watching Joseph and Jason perform burpies in their underwear to AC/DC – pretty much your standard weekend in the French countryside.

2012: Isla; 2013: Speyside; 2014: Cognac; Next up: the Bourbon Trail?

(*In a rant on the best and worst of Europe, Rick Steves said the following about Bordeaux: “Bordeaux must mean boredom in some ancient language. If I were offered a free trip to that town, I’d stay home and clean the fridge. Connoisseurs visit for the wine, and there’s a wine-tourist information bureau in Bordeaux, which, for a price, will bus you out of town into the more interesting wine country nearby.” Ouch. I think he might have changed his mind had he rolled with us.) 


Celebrating the best of both worlds

Last week I turned 38.

It’s one of those awkward ages where you either have to constantly remind yourself how old you are or do the math when people ask.

(In my experience, it makes you look even older when you have to pause to calculate in the air with your finger).

This year, I decided to combine some Bavarian traditions with some best practices I picked up in Hawaii.

Instead of being fawned over by your friends and family on your birthday, it’s German tradition to host the party yourself and provide everything, to include baking your own cake.

It’s like you’re giving folks a reason to celebrate you and I think it stops just short of actually buying them gifts.

In addition, some Germans actually avoid coming into work on their birthday so they don’t feel obligated to provide refreshments for their co-workers – now that’s commitment.

When we lived in Hawaii, my former boss, Aiko, who, for the record is the hardest working supervisor I’ve had the pleasure of working with, introduced me to the idea of taking “mental health” days.

The idea is to take a pre-emptive “sick” day to relax and get a break from work before you decide to bring in that AK-47.

Mental health days are particularly helpful when used midweek or on, say,  a Thursday, which my birthday just happened to fall this year.

So combining these ideas, I struck out for Bamberg, a sleepy little Franconian town I didn’t even realize was my favorite until I arrived that morning.

With nine breweries in the city center, which is also a UNESCO world heritage site, Bamberg has the medieval charm of Nuremberg with the elegance of Wuerzburg or Dresden.

Bamberg is also famous for its rauchbier, a smoky beer with an almost bacon-y aftertaste (I know).

My plan was simple: bop around Bamberg, provide quality control for its breweries, and catch up on some correspondence at each stop.

For the record, I caught up with at least 6 of you, but you won’t know who you are until next week.

My mental health day culminated with a fantastic sushi dinner with my frau. 

Then, this past weekend, Molly and I hosted a brunch (German style), where I got my brefuss bake on and she made some killer green onion and carrot French toast. We all gorged ourselves and took a leisurely Sunday walk through the woods – even Sky got in on the off-road action.

In all, it made for a weekend more memorable than my age, which I have already forgotten.