The Best of Booze

6 September 2011 By Peter Grogan

The tantalus was a sort of chastity belt for those besotted with their booze. A decanter stand with a lockable bar across the top, preventing servants from removing stoppers, was a similarly cruel device. However, as the price of the oldest Scotch whiskies have blasted through the roof in recent years, these devices might start making a comeback. But what other tantalizing liquors for your guests deserve the lock-and-key treatment?

Brandy is the first port of call for most when it comes to something rich complex to roll around the tongue after a great meal. Most brandy drinkers seem to have a preference for either Cognac or Armagnac. In the glass (and make sure it's a big “balloon” glass), Cognac is the more austere of the two, drier and lighter, while Armagnac’s charms are bustier, bolder, darker —“rustic” often is the word that pops up. But, as I recently found out at a tasting with Bernard Hine, any fair comparison of the two must  take into account the fact that top Cognacs take 50 years to reach their peak, but Armagnacs get there in about half the time. Hine talked me through several vintage-dated bottles (back through the 1980s and 1970s), but it was only when we hit the 1960s (these bottles cost around US$350) that things became truly life-enhancing.

However, not much Cognac is vintage-dated, so it's important to get a handle on the rather opaque labeling system. Forget VS (very special) and VSOP(very superior old pale), even though the latter typically spends 10 to 15 years in barrel. With prices starting around $100, head straight for XO (have a guess) and "hors d'age" (donkeys' years). These terms have at least some meaning while "Napoleon," "Extra" and "Vieille Reserve" appear to have none. The four biggest brands, Courvoisier, Martell, Rémy Martin and Hennessy, dominate Cognac and all make very good premium liquids, but the smaller producers like Hine, Frapin, Tesseron and Delamain shade it for me. Tesseron has bottled an unearthly blend of 100-plus-year-old vintages as Master Blend 100 ($1,300 at Zachy's).

Janneau is the nearest thing to a brand in Armagnac, where Aubade, Baron de Sigognac, Delord, Monbel and Tariquet are a handful of the many excellent small fry varieties. (The most expensive of which are termed Arm-and-a-leg-magnac). Berry Brothers & Rudd have a run of vintage-dated bottles from Nismes-Delclou ranging from 1991 ($100) back to 1927 ($1,300).

I've never had a single-malt Scotch whisky that I didn't enjoy and the venerable ones can hold their own with France's finest, but I've got a bee in my bonnet about prices. Okay, so they're rare, and it's the law of supply and demand, but 50-year-old whiskies from the likes of Highland Park cost around $15,000. It seems crazy when you consider how good their 16-year-old counter parts are for a mere $75 and even crazier compared to Cognac.

But while we’re on the topic of liquor, let’s not forget rum. The best are right up there and it's surprisingly easy to confuse a 15-year-old Barbancourt or El Dorado ($40-50) with an Armagnac. I was at a dinner party recently during which guests were served "blind" and asked to guess what they were partaking in. Thankfully, I had only just returned from a trip to the Zacapa distillery in Guatemala and probably had more rum circulating in my veins than blood, so my blushes were spared.

Lucky for those who enjoy fine spirits, the marine environment doesn’t pose much of a threat when storing these drinkable delights. Though, it might be a good idea to rig up a tantalus or two, just in case someone wants to taste a bit of the expensive stash without permission.