I've learnt so much in researching this review ! I'm still far from being an expert but, until Three Barrels sent me a bottle of their V.S.O.P. Brandy to try, the nearest I had come was finishing off a bottle of cherry brandy I found tucked in the back of the cupboard one Christmas !
Now, as most of you know, despite his very English-sounding name, my husband Mike is a Frenchman. I told him his skills as a brandy-taster would soon be required and asked him if that was the same thing as cognac. The French love to finish off their copious meals with a "digestif", aimed to aid digestion, and often opt for a "café-cognac" - a glass of cognac accompanying their very strong black coffee.
Well, I went off to investigate and discovered that cognac and armagnac, two drinks I'd heard of but never tried, are both types of brandy. Wikipedia explains : "The European Union legally enforces Cognac as the exclusive name for brandy produced and distilled in the Cognac area of France, and Armagnac from the Gascony area of France, using traditional techniques. Since these are considered PDO (Protected Designations of Origin), they refer not just to styles of brandy but brandies from a specific region, i.e. a brandy made in California in a manner identical to the method used to make cognac, and which tastes similar to cognac, cannot be so called in Europe as it is not from the Cognac region of France." Well, as the Three Barrels website explains, they are a genuine French brandy and are based in the town of Cognac itself so they can certainly use the cognac designation with pride !
The next thing that puzzled me was the abbreviations on the bottles. What's the V.S.O.P. all about ?! Well, Wikipedia to the rescue again ! "Brandy has a traditional quality rating system, although its use is unregulated outside of Cognac and Armagnac. These indicators can usually be found on the label near the brand name : A.C.: aged two years in wood ; V.S.: "Very Special" or 3-Star, aged at least three years in wood ; V.S.O.P.: "Very Superior Old Pale" or 5-Star, aged at least five years in wood ; X.O.: "Extra Old", Napoleon or Vieille Reserve, aged at least six years, Napoleon at least four years ; Vintage: Stored in the cask until the time it is bottled with the label showing the vintage date ; Hors d'age: These are too old to determine the age, although ten years plus is typical, and are usually of great quality." Right, it suddenly all seems so much clearer. Enough of the theory and on to the testing !
Now, I have already said that I am a total novice when it comes to brandy but I've always seen people cupping their hands around the glass and swilling it around to warm the liquid and release the flavours. However, according to Wikipedia, this is all wrong. They say : "Grape brandy is traditionally drunk in western countries at room temperature from a tulip-shaped glass or a snifter (so that's why we say, "I'll have just a snifter" !), while in the Orient it is usually drunk on the rocks. When drunk at room temperature, it is often slightly warmed by holding the glass cupped in the palm or by gently heating it. However, heating brandy may cause the alcohol vapour to become too strong, so that the aromas are overpowered. Brandy has more pleasant aromas and flavors at a lower temperature, e.g., 16 °C (61 °F). In most homes, this would imply that brandy should be cooled rather than heated for maximum enjoyment. Furthermore, alcohol (which makes up 40% of a typical brandy) becomes thin as it is heated (and more viscous when cooled). Thus, cool brandy produces a fuller and smoother mouthfeel and less of a "burning" sensation."
As this "burning" sensation is the biggest thing that has always put me off drinking brandy, I was keen to put this new information into practice. Mike did the usual glass-warming method and, even though he looked at me like I was a total heathen (!), I cheekily popped a single ice cube in my glass. Sniffing Mike's glass made my eyes sting and water whereas my glass did indeed seem smoother and more pleasant to drink. It's obviously all down to personal taste though, as Mike actually likes the warming sensation.
Three Barrels say : "Carefully handcrafted, aged in French oak, and bright mahogany in colour, Three Barrels VSOP has a superior smooth and velvety taste with hints of almond and walnut, and a long finish of candied fruits and ginger". (They also have an XO Brandy, which they describe as : "Carefully aged in Limousin oak barrels with a recognizable bright amber colour and a level of maturity far above its stated age, Three Barrels XO aged 15 years reveals scents of vanilla, port wine and walnut. It seduces the palate with a velvety taste, an outstanding finish of plum and prune, blended with subtle spicy notes such as cardamom and cinnamon".) I have to admit that I can never manage to detect any of the individual flavours that professional wine-tasters pick out but I have to admit, drinking brandy was a much more pleasant experience than I expected. I'd always thought of it as a drink that standoffish men drank in parlours while smoking a cigar as the womenfolk were dismissed to the kitchen (!), but I have to admit that my Three Barrels tasting session has changed my opinion.
If you still find pure brandy a bit too strong for your liking, it can also be incorporated into a wide range of cocktails, including the festive Three Barrels Mulled Wine Cocktail - "the perfect winter treat to enjoy with friends and family around a roaring log fire" - a recipe that I have posted here. It is also a traditional ingredient to create a really flavoursome French Onion Soup which is absolutely delicious with small pieces of cheese on toast floated on top. It's also great for deglazing sauces after cooking meat.
If (like me) you think you really don't like brandy, you really should give it a go, especially in the delicious mulled wine cocktail or in cookery. It's a lot more enjoyable, pleasant and above all versatile than I expected.
star rating : 4.5/5
RRP : Three Barrels XO £21.29, Three Barrels VSOP £14.79
To learn more about Three Barrels and its authentic French heritage, and for creative serving tips, visit, http://www.three-barrels.com/
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