Cigar Aficionado

Part Three: Las Vegas Big Smoke Sunday Seminars

The Brandy Bunch

Jack Bettridge, Cigar Aficionado's senior features editor and spirits writer, has one rule he lives by when it comes to Cognac: XO or above. Attendees sitting down to the Sunday spirits and cigar pairing got more than their taste of that rule with a special lineup of Cognac that featured Martell Cordon Bleu, Remy Martin XO and Hennessy Paradis Extra.

The Cognacs were paired with two cigars -- a Carlos Toraño Exodus Gold Tubo and a La Flor Dominicana Ligero L300 Oscuro Natural -- and by the time the crowd had settled in after the Roll Your Own cigar contest, there wasn't an extra seat to be found.

"I don't often say this," said Bettridge in opening, "but Vive la France!" A huge round of applause followed and, like every year's spirit tasting at the Las Vegas Big Smoke, it was obvious the crowd was eager to slake their thirst with what Bettridge described as "three of the best Cognacs available."

Attendees wait to dive into the lineup of Cognac.
After Aaron Guenther, the director of marketing for Toraño cigars, introduced the Exodus Gold Tubo -- a Honduran-made cigar measuring 6 1/2 inches by 46 ring gauge with Honduran wrapper and binder and a blend of Honduran, Dominican, Nicaraguan and Costa Rican filler -- Bettridge began discoursing on the essence of Cognac. Bettridge described the process of distilling wine to make the spirit, the important aspects of blending and the various name and age designations: VS, in which the youngest brandy in the blend must be aged more than 30 months; VSOP, or Very Special Old Pale, in which the youngest brandy must be aged more than four and a half years; and XO, in which the youngest brandy must be aged at least 10 years. He also noted that all Cognacs are brandies, but not all brandies are Cognacs. To be called a Cognac, the spirit must be distilled in the French region bearing that name.

The first Cognac tasted was the Martell Cordon Bleu, which is distilled in the area known as the Borderies and retails for $160. Martell, which was established in 1912, was the first upmarket Cognac and remains the oldest Cognac house in France. This gives the company an advantage in that it has more eau-de-vies, or distilled wines, to blend. Martell is also the first house to use Trancois oak barrels to age its Cognac, rather than the more standard Limousin oak. The result is a delicate, but complex spirit with a nutty nose and savory hazelnut flavors.

Each spirit was given a careful inspection.
Second in line was the Remy Martin XO. Retailing for $150, it is described on the bottle as "Fine Champagne Cognac," though Bettridge was quick to alert his tasters that this has nothing to with the sparkling wine. Rather, Champagne translates to "chalky field" and the wines that are grown in this region. For Remy XO, the average age of eau-de-vies is 23 years, with the oldest being 37 years old. Unlike the Martell, which was predominately nutty in flavor, the Remy XO was fruity and flowery with lots of licorice notes.

Last but not least was the Hennessy Paradis Extra. Hennessy owns the largest stock of vintage eau-de-vies and by blending up to a hundred vintages and then further aging them in a cask for another two years so flavors can marry, the company has come up with an exquisite Cognac, which Bettridge likes to describe as "a symphony in your mouth." The nose is floral and perfumy, with hints of walnuts and citrus. On the palate, one tastes light spices, licorice and complex fruit flavors.

Cigars were part-and-parcel to the tasting.
By the time Cigar Aficionado senior editor David Savona introduced the La Flor Dominicana -- a dark cigar measuring 5 3/4 by 50 with Dominican filler and binder and an Ecuadoran wrapper -- it was time to taste all three Cognacs again. In the end, the Paradis was voted the best, with the Remy and the Martell a close second and third, respectively. As for the cigars, the participants decided that the Toraño paired best with the Remy, giving the Cognac more sweetness and bringing pronounced wood and licorice notes to the cigar. With the La Flor Dominicana, the Paradis was picked as the best match, in that it held up well to the complex flavors of the Cognac while being enhanced by its rich flavors.

As has become tradition, the seminar ended with Bettridge quizzing the audience for the bottles of Cognac that were left over. While only a few people went home with a bottle, most left the seminar with a new appreciation for the wonderfully delicious spirit that Cognac is.

Photos by Camilla Sjodin