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.
(*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.)