Savouring Spirits at Merridale Ciderworks
The grapes for Merridale’s Cowichan Cognac were picked the same year I learned to drive, 2006.
The Cognac was aged in french oak barrels for ten years, waiting; waiting to be released from its oaken prison, which finally occurred on Oct 21 at a special evening that began Merridale’s Harvest Dinner Series.
Before I was invited to this evening I knew absolutely nothing about cognac, but it did conjure up images of an older man in a rustic library, smoking a cigar and swirling the amber liquid in a crystal snifter. Cognac, as it turns out, is a specially refined style of brandy made only from grapes. As an appellation cognac can only officially be made in a specific region in France, which is why the new spirit from Merridale is a ‘Cognac Style Brandy.’ The rapidly growing distilling industry in BC is producing a broader range of specialty spirits, which is allowing producers and consumers to be creative and experiment with distilled alcohol.
Merridale’s Cowichan Cognac, is smooth, extremely fragrant — in a warm, comforting way — and a whopping 47% alcohol. Aged for 10 years, the Cowichan Cognac is the oldest craft cognac in British Columbia and probably even in North America. The 2006 cask only produced 350 bottles and because it isn’t in a regular rotation at Merridale, if they choose to produce it again you’ll have to wait at least a decade for another taste.
I know very little about what makes alcohol good or bad, except for personal preference. Luckily for me, and probably others, Merridale’s distiller and co-owner, Rick Pipes, was available in the tasting room to walk us through how to taste and enjoy this delicious spirit.
I learned from Rick that the specific flavours each person tastes in the cognac is based on their taste memory, which was developed in childhood. So one person may find almonds prominent while another tastes vanilla. It can take several tastings to get the full range of flavours in this well-aged cognac.
For me the alcohol was very smooth and warm, with tastes of butter. Several times before actually trying it, I listened to Rick explain the steps of tasting. I wafted, smelled, touched to my lips, then tongue ever so slightly, and still it made my eyes burn on that first sip. This is not a shooter. It should be enjoyed smoothly and slowly. I’m at the beginning of my liquor tasting days so I have little to compare the experience to, but I can say that sitting in the Merridale bistro under the string lights the cognac was warm, comforting, sweet smelling, and smooth tasting.
The dinner was a special cognac-infused menu for the launch that included cognac candied bacon and vanilla cognac steamed pudding. The next morning all I wanted was more mushroom pine nut stuffed chicken balontine, but surprisingly I have none of those ingredients on hand.
The Cognac launch kicked off the Harvest Dinner Series, which takes place Friday through Sunday from now until Nov 25. Each night, the dinners change and focus on the best of the Cowichan Valley harvest: if you are into delicious food and finely-crafted alcohol, all made locally, then an evening at Merridale is definitely worth your time. I suggest going early and doing a tasting of their wide variety of artisan ciders.
Cowichan Cognac is ten years old, lovingly distilled, and in limited supply. This is a spirit to savour. If, like me, purchasing one of the 350 bottles isn’t in your budget, still stop in at Merridale and give it a taste before it is all gone!
HOW TO TASTE
At 47% alcohol, this isn’t a drink you want to take in too quickly. Here are the steps Rick outlined to guests tasting the cognac for the first time.
Waft the aroma with your hand up to your nose without inhaling too deeply.
Pick a nostril, “your favourite nostril,” and gently smell with just one side of your nose.
Go in for a full smell.
Touch the cognac to your lips with your mouth closed. Lick your lips and breathe in some air. The air will open up the flavours in the alcohol.
Take just a little sip and let it rest on your tongue. Breathe in more air.
Have a full sip, you mouth and nose are now ready for the alcohol for the rest of the night.
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