SpiritsDale DeGroff’s Distillations Of Distinction

Premium spirits are at the heart of many of the greatest cocktails. Dale DeGroff, King of Cocktails, gives an overview of some of his personal favourites.

Premium spirits are at the heart of many of the greatest cocktails. Dale DeGroff, King of Cocktails, gives an overview of some of his personal favourites.


In 1985 when I went to work for restaurateur Joseph Baum, first at Aurora Restaurant and later at the Rainbow Room in New York City, he was looking for a classic bar programme featuring authentic recipes made with fresh, quality ingredients. The menu I developed at the Rainbow Room Promenade Bar included drinks that had not appeared on a menu since the 1930s, as well as a changing seasonal component.

The menu caught the attention of the press and then the public, igniting a spark around the city and eventually around the country. We were on the way to the return of the essential cocktail with real ingredients and classic recipes, but this time there was a twist. Ingredients usually found only in the kitchen began to find their way into the cocktail. First, a basil leaf and a strawberry, mashed together with a bit of lemon, honey, and gin. Then more exotic ingredients like hot chillies and yuzu-lemon juice, until at some restaurants it became hard to tell the garde manger station from the bar.

A great many of the cocktails that have made a come-back, along with many innovative new cocktails, they have as their underlying ingredient a great premium spirit—whisky, gin, vodka, cognac, rum, and tequila.


Here’s Something Different…

For those on the lookout for something different, check out a recent newcomer to the world of single malts. This is a spirit from Cornwall—Hicks & Healey Cornish Single Malt Whiskey—the county’s first single malt whisky in over 300 years. This comes from St Austell Brewery, who tell us, ‘Following the amazing reception for the first batch in September 2011, the second batch, consisting of casks 31 and 32, has been bottled and is ready to be dispatched. Only 381 bottles are available in this batch, each individually boxed and numbered and supplied with two tasting glasses.

Innovation is rare in the traditional world of malt scotch but John Glaser an American expat living in London is quietly changing that. In 2000 John registered a new whisky company in Great King Street, Edinburgh Scotland called Compass Box; John began a journey that push the boundaries of blended single malt Scotches and blended Scotch.

Since 2000, Glaser has released a series of Limited Edition Scotch whiskies and a Signature Range. John simply refused to follow the pack and it has ruffled some feathers; he released a whisky in 2005 called Spice Tree that employed a very non-traditional aging technique. A blend of malts from the highland villages of Brora, Carron and Alness were aged in American whiskey barrels with toasted new French oak staves mounted inside the barrel. The resulting whisky showed clove and ginger notes as well as the traditional dill, ash and coconut notes that are signatures of American oak aging.

The Scotch Whisky Association pounced claiming that the words Blended Scotch Malt Whisky should not appear on the label. John capitulated, no need to create animosity, but the whisky was worth fighting for and he found another way around the SWA. John used the American whisky barrels but removed the barrelheads and replaced them with new French roasted oak heads. Spice Tree is back and available as one of the Compass Box Signature range whiskies; it is a special bottle that brings a new twist to an old category. John’s talent as blender and his mastery of maturation are opening new doors for the whisky aficionado.

John blends single malt scotch whiskeys and bottled malt and grain whiskies have captured the attention of whisky lovers and cocktailians around the world. Asyla is a blend of 50% of the finest malts in Scotland and high quality grain whiskey aged in American Bourbon Barrels. The lighter style of Asyla is ideal for serving as a cocktail whisky straight but craft bartenders are using Asyla as a base for a range of cocktails.


Brandy For Heroes

‘Claret is the liquor for boys; port for men; but he who aspires to be a hero must drink brandy.’ So said Dr Samuel Johnson in the 18th century, thus ennobling brandy with this very special accolade. In the 21st century, brandy or cognac retains this special place on the shelf, as the following article reveals. Brandy is also an important ingredient in haute cuisine and this famous distillation may also be considered to have purposeful medicinal benefits. There are numerous types of brandy, as the following article will show, with the finest cognacs sipped from large balloon glasses after a notable dinner, to the vital ingredient of, for example, the charming Champagne Cocktail.

Is it right to use this noble distillation in the cooking pot? Connoisseurs of the finest cognac no doubt raised their hands in horror when they read that a chef for The Savoy hotel in London had soaked Christmas pudding in a 200-year-old cognac. The puddings were made to serve 12 people, and the cognac? Of the year 1810, one bottle is valued at £10,900. And the pudding, will all the trimmings, including a solid gold coin, cost the consumer £23,500 each. A pudding for heroes, indeed!


A Luxury Commodity

The very best cognacs available to the discerning connoisseur have a distinctly aromatic flavour that combines floral, fruit and spice notes. And for this, we might look forward eagerly to a decent measure of Rémy Martin’s most prestigious Cognac, XO Excellence.

Rémy Martin, one of the world’s most respected cognac brands, transforms grapes from the Grande and Fine Champagne zones into delicate spirits that are prized by aficionados around the world, particularly in China.

We can also note that Le Voyage de Napoleon Courvoisier XO is consistently recognized as one of the finest XOs in the world. This premium brand is a very old blend of fine and well-matured cognacs.

Cognac is deeply rooted to the French soil from which it comes, adding to the uniqueness of this fine spirit. Distilled from the thin, acidic white wines of the cognac region and aged to maturity in French oak barrels, this special brandy is a strictly controlled appellation. The many rules and regulations that surround cognac production help to maintain the quality—and exclusivity—that make this spirit a coveted luxury commodity.


The World’s Oldest

Cognac is also famous for its development during what can be a very prolonged aging process. What is thought to be the world’s oldest cognac is dated 1767. According to The Wellesley Hotel, the 70cl bottle of Coutanseaux 1767, worth approximately £100,000, was discovered in an ancient cellar in France by a cognac collector.

Guests at The Wellesley, based in Knightsbridge, London, could, until recently, buy a measure of the cognac for £7,000. All now sold.

‘Cognac is one of the passions of The Wellesley, we are constantly in search of the finest and most unique vintages in the world to offer to our discerning guests,’ said Giuseppe Ruo, director of food and beverage at The Wellesley, adding, ‘We have been very excited to welcome cognac enthusiasts to experience an outstanding addition to our distinguished collection.’

The Coutanseaux 1767 was added to The Wellesley’s rare cognac collection, which includes expressions from 1789, 1783, and a Boutelleau 1800.


What Is It?

Cognac is, technically speaking, a type of brandy. That means it’s made by distilling wine, and then aging the resulting spirit (known in France as eau de vie) in wood barrels.

The main difference between cognac and brandy is that the cognac label can only be applied to the spirit produced in a specific geographic region (an Appellation d’origine contrôlée)—which is the region called Cognac, in western France, a couple hundred miles southwest of Paris, and just a bit north of Bordeaux.

The Cognac region itself is divided into numerous smaller regions, which have different soil characteristics capable of producing different-tasting wines and eaux de vie. While an argument can be made for the virtues of grapes that come from each of the regions, the most sought after tend to be grown in the Grande Champagne, Petite Champagne, and Borderies regions. In fact, many cognac houses will brag about pulling their supply from these specific sought-after zones.

Read more about the world’s greatest premium spirits, what’s new, and where to buy them via the pages of the new issue of Matthew Fort’s Drink Hamper magazine. Featuring special cocktail recipes from the Savoy, fine wine expertise from Selfridges, and a feast of fine food recipes from Matthew Fort. 

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