Despite my unpleasant experience with gin and tonic, I was not deterred from finding a spirit that works for me. I took to reading Wikipedia to find out about the different types of spirits that exist. I’m sort of a nut for history, and I quickly found that my interest in hard drinks are strongly tied to the history of those drinks (for instance, I wanted to try gin because of my British ancestors).
From what I found, brandy is actually distilled wine. According to Wikipedia, it is thought that brandy was first created as a way of decreasing the volume of wine for the purposes of transport (and avoiding the taxes that were proportional to volume*). Brandy is at least a few hundred years old and has a long and interesting history, and there are some interesting technical details about brandy that could definitely allow me to geek out and get all pretentious about it if I like it.
So the first time I went to a liquor store, I picked out some brandy I wanted to try. There was one kind on sale with a tag on it denoting that it was popular and well-liked by the store’s patrons: E&J Brandy XO.
So in terms of technical details, the French have a complex system of rating the quality of Cognac (a specific type of brandy made in France) that has been appropriated for describing brandies. The following comes from dummies.com:
A.C.: Two years old. Aged in wood.
V.O., Very Old: Aged a minimum of four years.
V.S., Very Special: Three years of aging in wooden casks. Very often called Three Star.
V.S.O.P., Very Superior Old Pale: Minimum aging is eight years in wood for the youngest in the blend. Industry average is between 10 and 15 years old, which is why it’s sometimes known as Five Star.
X.O., Extra Old: Also called Luxury. Has a minimum age of eight years.
If anyone can explain to me the difference between V.S.O.P and X.O. that would be great. It seems to me that both require at least eight years of aging?
In any case, this stuff wasn’t too expensive and it was an X.O. so I decided to take it home. I was also intrigued by the description on the label: “We handcraft E&J XO to bring out the sweet vanilla, creamy toffee, brown sugar and soft maple characteristics of toasted oak. Hints of lavender and hibiscus entice the nose, with complementary flavors of dried pears and figs. E&J XO is lusciously smooth with a bold, complex finish.”
Well wowee zowee, that sounds pretty good! Who doesn’t like vanilla, toffee, brown sugar, lavender, hibiscus, pears, and figs? I actually think vanilla is one of my favorite flavors ever. My nose wants some enticement! I was just so struck by the high-class pretensions of it all. I’m already completely fascinated by the concept of marketing hard drinks, but maybe I’ll write about that more later.
I poured a tiny bit into a tumbler and took a very, very modest sip. I was still a bit scared because of the gin experience, but this time I had a better idea of what I should expect as far as the taste of alcohol goes. One would think that I would have tried diluting it with juice or something, but I just wanted to see. The liquid hit my tongue and I rolled it around in my mouth for a bit.
Only wouldn’t you know, I loved it!
This is probably a bit odd, because of two things:
- In terms of all the fancy shmancy stuff on the label (toffee, vanilla, caramel, unicorns, 24k gold, melange, Italian white truffles, etc.), frankly I couldn’t taste much of that at all. Maybe vanilla? Caramel? I’m guessing it will take quite a bit of experience before I can pick out all the “notes” and “hints” in hard drinks. If I could ever do that.
- I looked up other reviews of this stuff online and found that people generally don’t think it’s that great. My favorite review is titled “Gross and Undrinkable.” The general sense I get is that it’s cheap stuff and “you get what you pay for.”
So what gives? Why do I like this stuff so much? Well, to me, it tastes like warm, spicy caramel without being sweet. It just fills my mouth with just a pleasant warmth that doesn’t taste much like wine or any other drink I’ve tried.
After trying it straight, I decided to mix it with something. All I had was cherry Juicy Juice (which happens to be my favorite juice) so I put a little in there and tried it. Still delicious! It was my favorite juice, only this time it’s warmer, with a kick of some kind of spice. Since then I’ve mixed it with apple juice with the same pleasant results.
I am really digging this stuff. Maybe it’s really low-quality stuff, but I find it to be versatile and… comfy? This probably indicates that there are other brandies or Cognacs that I might like even more. But actually, I have an Orthodox friend that I invite over for dinner now and then who is much more experienced with alcohol than me, and ever since he tried this stuff, he’s had it every time he visits. I guess I better finish the bottle before he does.
Which means… SUCCESS! I found a hard liquor that I really, really like. Gin didn’t work for me, and neither did bourbon (I’ll write about bourbon later, even though I actually tried it simultaneously with the brandy), but brandy seems to be my kind of drink. Is this particular brandy a fluke? Might I actually like other kinds of brandy better? We’ll see!
Rating: 4/5 stars (not higher, but only because I’m leaving room for something else to come along and really knock my socks off)