Review: Hennessy V.S.

When I speak of cognac, I bet it conjures the same image for 84.2% of you; old wealthy industrialist by the fireside with an oversized snifter, lounging in his overstuffed chair, smoking jacket on, stock ticker rolling in.  Probably a bear skin rug.  That, my friends, is what Jung referred to as the collective unconscious.  Well, here I am folks, young and buried in debt, sitting by the woodstove with my normal sized snifter with the logo of my overpriced education.  I’m wearing a shirt with revolutionary implications and trying to decipher the Greek shipping information of the lot of the vintage sunglasses I desperately hope to turn a profit on.  It’s basically the same thing.  The sentiment is the same at least; cognac is good, damned fine on a chill night by the ambience of a fire.  The financial imagery is similar as well—the industrialist probably has a lot more to gain though—also probably didn’t buy his cognac because it was on sale though.  What can I say, the buried in debt thing is true–which is why I need this whole “buying a bunch of NOS 1950s French sunglasses to make money,” thing really needs to pan out, otherwise it’s back to E&J for me. So, right, score of the night: Hennessy VS.  I’m not going to go over the whole rating system of brandy again, we’re all on the internet, we can all read Wikipedia. But let us examine a secondary rating system, that’s right, I’m stuck on money.  See, I think cognac actually has a pretty ingrained rating, at least on its lower end.  Compare the V.S. Cognacs you see at your local: Courvoisier, Hennessy, Remy Martin being the most common.  The prices ascend correspondingly about $4 per name and, interestingly enough, I think that the quality ascends similarly.  Maybe that’s just how my tastes align, and to be honest I’m not doing a side by side because, well, given all you’ve already read do you think I could afford all three?   Screw you, I could. It would just be detrimental to my personal liquidity.  Right, back to the point.  I got this Irish sounding French cognac on sale for some $26 I think (live free or die!) and you want to know how it tastes.  Before I go into it, if you do hope to compare use the search function thingy and read my Courvoisier article, then come back.  Better yet, finish this, then read that.  Now, to indulge.

First off, let me state that with cognac, like with wine, I feel like there is a good deal of benefit to letting your pour sit a bit.  A magic 15 minutes really, to oxygenate, really open up a bit.  When you can smell it from 5 or so feet away, you’re probably good to go.  Also like wine, and probably like the image in our collective unconscious, it’s a good idea to use a snifter or similar aroma focusing glass.  Even doing the prick-like cognac swirl it good for that aroma. You smell it, dontcha?  You’re drooling on the keyboard you bleeding prole! Right, so pretend you’ve done all that— now you’re ready to drink.


Oh, that luscious aroma. Well rounded with light caramel and effervescent vanilla—just a hint of the dry oak, which gives it a buttery chardonnay note and I get of hint of something that maybe of bit of citrus, grape must even?

The mouth does not belie the nose, with a supple entry of warm sweet entry with almost a touch of baking spice and a somewhat woody foundation.  It’s soft and beautifully smooth, with not a touch of bitterness and a full finish that feels like a slick coat of honey from the tip of the tongue alllll the way down.  Ahhhh, that feeling after a long day of exploiting the masses and insider trading… now I can finally loosen my ascot.

Perhaps I made a snap judgement before in stating that Hennessy is better than Courvoisier, not because it isn’t subjectively true to me, but because it can’t really be objectively proven—and mostly because it doesn’t matter.  Lovely, affordable cognac is a thing of beauty, and at anywhere from $22-$32 you can probably afford to buy any number of lovely cognacs to take you through your fall evening—regardless of whether or not you’re a short sale millionaire, a waitress, or a disability claims case manager…and possible vintage sunglass mogul.

Single Shot, Bam!—Jameson Black Barrel

The newest member (I’m pretty sure) to Jameson’s diverse line of Irish whiskies.  I have previously noted the role of the Irish in introducing me to the wonderful world of whiskey, and I’ll admit to quaffing my fair share of their main spirit, which is perhaps America’s best known Irish.  But I’m not reviewing that.  I’m reviewing the Black Barrel, Jameson’s more rebellious and slightly more expensive next step up the ladder.  I say next step up because there are so many products in their line that I have really lost track. Anyways, what distinguishes the black barrel is its considerable age jump over your standard Jame-O to 12 years, and the time that it spends its hibernation time splitting time between a bourbon barrel and a sherry barrel…like a somewhat damaged child of divorce.  That got dark (pun intended.)  So yeah, full disclosure, this is a single shot review, because dear ol’ dad and I drank the rest.  In the spirit of the single shot review, and in the furtherance of ending my sober rambling, down the hatch!


Nose: Sweet, with vanilla, cherries, a bit of must, partly from the barley I suspect.  Maybe some spice too.

Taste:  The entry is very soft with some light vanilla and some nice round fruity notes, maybe that cherry I smelt, I suspect, and maybe something a bit lighter…apple? Pear? The flavor fades out clean with a bit of grainy grassiness before leaving just the slightest tad of oak on the tongue.

Final thoughts? A worthwhile jump from the $23 standard to the $35 Black barrel.  It’s delicate, infinitely quaffable, and while it has a level of complexity it’s very approachable, both in flavor and price; which I think is the point.  If you’re used to thinking of Irish Whiskey as a shot, perhaps this could be a nice next step on the ladder to appreciation for you.

Author’s note: I don’t actually down drinks for the single shot series—I’m a liar and a phony, and kind of need to take a few sips to get my thoughts straight. 

Embitterment Part Deux: the Rising

So ladies, gents and lady-boys (this is a safe place, we don’t judge,)  tonight I had the honor and undistinguished pleasure of having a Skype conference with an unemployed poet and a consultant…or something.  Undistinguished now, I say but their story is one of those potentially impending Horatio Alger rags, the American dream—ambition, dedication, alcoholism and luck.  What is it that these two young men have?  Bitterness.  First off, if you haven’t read the first part of this article series, get the hell out of here.  And over to the other article, then back here.  Welcome back.  Now that you’ve read my first masterpiece you know I’m talking about Ethan and Eric, the guys behind the art and the agony of Embitterment.

Over more than a couple of cocktails, the E’s (Ethan, Eric, Embitterment) and I awkwardly alternated between looking straight at the webcam and down at the screen, while discussing what drives educated young men to take their spare time and money and mix a bunch of herbs with liquor.  The beginnings of this story, as with any dramatization of real life events, were humble, young friends graduating from Gettysburg College, moving to the nation’s capital with the dream of not starving under the weight of immense student loan debt.  While Ethan decided to take a career that kept his creditors at bay, Eric kept digging, recently earning his master’s in poetry from U Maryland at College Park.  In the meantime, something was brewing, kind of in a literal sense.  See, these gents are both foodies, and both with a love of the tipple—to which I can relate.  For Ethan, this interest led to a variety of alcohol related experimentation—infusing gin, making limoncello and, finally, making bitters.  The bitters hobby seems to have stuck, no shit, because finally these two star-crossed former liberal arts students decided that, this perhaps may be something worth trying to take seriously.  Or something like that.  Really, they just started perfecting the recipe, building a website, and getting the word out…until two weeks ago.

Scene two:  Close up on ginger, sweating in rented kitchen.  Ethan wipes his brow.

Anyways, I asked Ethan to explain exactly how his little kitchen experiment start, and what exactly it takes to make bitters.  The makers of many of the world’s fine food products are notoriously tight lipped about these things, notably the makers of Angostura bitters.  Ethan was glad to spill the beans.  Basically, he explained, their bitters are made out of the same stuff as all the other bitters out there.  Aromatics, anis, vanilla bean, cardamom, yada, yada, yada—and bitters, gentian root, worm wood and yada.   What makes their bitters unique?  Well notice I didn’t, as I usually would, say that their bitters are made out of the same shit as other bitters.  Rule 1: Focus on quality.  Embitterment has done this by ensuring that they are consistently getting the best quality of organic ingredients they can afford, and for now, they’re paying out of pocket—sacrificing to ensure their product is, and remains, the best it can be.  Another aspect of this purity, which those who read the previous article will likely have forgotten, can be seen in the fact that they do not add artificial ingredients—hence the fact that they’re clear bitters.  Quality means cutting the crap.  The final secret, at least as far as I can tell, is strength.  Let me conjure a familiar image for you.  Ever notice how sugar dissolves a lot faster in hot coffee than iced coffee?  Same principle applies, but instead of heat, I’m talking hooch.  Ethan and Eric source suicide strength 190 proof liquor to help extract every bit of flavor from their high quality ingredients.  So, long story short: High quality ingredients + rocket fuel – bullshit x 20 days sitting around in jugs in a DC apartment = Embitterment.

As I alluded to before, Embitterment has just hit the market in the last two weeks, yet, we spent a surprising amount of time talking vision.   That’s primarily my fault; it’s the romantic in me.  When I first starting speaking with Ethan about all this, corresponding as former college anarchist comrades, Ethan explained that he and his friends were seeking to enter the bitters market with a locavore’s intent.  Embitterment was to be a part of the DC cocktail community, a local company with intentionally local limitations.  It hasn’t taken long for that vision to change.  After an opening at a massive farmer’s market type event and presumably some drunken conversations, Embitterment came to some realizations: getting out there as an artisan bitters supplier was going to take a lot more than a farm stand, people at large don’t know jack about bitters, and those far and wide who know bitters are gunna want these suckers.  The vision changed.  The E’s explained it this way:  In the last decade cocktail culture has been undergoing a renaissance, led by a vanguard of producers, bartenders, and mainly consumers.  This renaissance took place primarily in culture centers such as New York, San Francisco and Portland, with the driving force, the consumers, being much like the patrons of the great artistic renaissance.  Fat rich pricks who are willing to fork over $18 to some pretentious wanker who is charging you extra to keep his moustache finely waxed.  Where does Embitterment fit into this all?  They’re the Molotov cocktail to your Dom Perignon, baby. Renaissance, meet revolution.

Embitterment’s vision is simple.  “Make the world a more bitter place.”  No bollocks. I think that second bit may actually be a registered trademark, sorry Newcastle.  What Ethan and Eric see as the goal of Embitterment is to make a product that’s of a higher quality and more reasonable price than their competitors—and that’s not just the big boys, that’s the artisans too.  They want to make the highest quality bitters, sell them at far lower price, and spread the gospel of bitter.  Amen. The people’s bitters, populism in action, something like that.  That’s not just talk either.  Remember, I know Ethan from drinking to excess and ranting about revolution and the corruption of American politics at the hands of corporations and oligarchs—that spirit isn’t dead.  Not only does Embitterment want to sell their bitters to spread the word, they want to educate.  Embitterment’s website, Eric’s love child, as to be the preacher and temple of the bitter—and at the current they have posted not only drink recipes, but food recipes, presenting a variety of mediums for the expression of the bitter truth.  In our discussion tonight they noted their plans for the education of the masses, to include a comical youtube instructional series that takes the mystique and the snobbism out of the cocktail.  The goal?  A world where getting a good old fashioned or Sazerac does imply having some *#%& in suspenders with an armband looking down at you over his turned up moustache.  Embitterment wants to be in your local bar, your liquor store, your grocery store, and foremost—on your home bar, in your hands, in your mouth.  Viva la revolución.

When I first envisioned this article series, I saw it as a trilogy.  Tonight, after looking at how depleted my liquor cabinet is, and forcing my thoughts to segue. I have determined that I shall put the Embitterment philosophy into action, I shall revolt against the cocktail as pretensious art, and put a bit of garage rock improvisation into making some fine cocktails with Embitterment bitters, and whatever I haven’t drank yet.

First off, the classique, the cocktail that is so simple, so historical, so revered—we know it only as the old fashioned.  This is what I was drinking over my interview with Embitterment—they were drinking Scotch—and it is my completely not time tested recipe.

Old-Fashioned Ingenuity

The simplest iteration of an old fashioned involves sugar, rye or bourbon, and bitters.  A lot of people will expressed some citrus by an orange peel or drop of orange juice, many version will use simple syrup, use water, muddle cherries, even, the horror, dilute it with seltzer. Given my current supplies, here’s what I decided to do…

  • 2oz Four Roses Bourbon ( I used a rye during the conference earlier)
  • ½ tsp light brown sugar, muddled heavily
  • 5ish dashes of Embitterment Orange Bitters
  • 3 dashes of Embitterment Aromatic Bitters ( I really like bitters, if you hadn’t realized)
  • A quick drop of Sweet vermouth (untraditional, optional, but I like the little bit it adds)
  • A chunk of un-crystallized candied ginger for garnish (I’m deranged, but it actually adds a nice element.)

There are great mixologists who are currently sharpening the knives they use to peel their garnish fruits, just so they can cut my throat for that abomination. Welp, come at me you elitist swine, because I have had some very expensive old-fashioneds in some very chic places that have nothing on this. In lieu of actual citrus around the orange bitters provide a wonderful and rich orange oil note that can be felt at the note and all the way through, the brown sugar and the rich, dark flavors of the aromatic bitters interplay nicely coming out with heavy with crème Brule and vanilla at the nose and finishing with a lovely anise and maybe, just maybe, a hint of ginger.  Honestly, this couldn’t have been simpler. Didn’t need to be shaken, didn’t require any order or technique, any special ingredients, and not even any real mental acuity.  Seriously, the original old fashioned was rock candy, bitters and rye.  Honor that tradition.

Manhattan A La New Hampshire

Look, I may live in the middle of nowhere in a state not exactly known for being urbane, but I’ve been to Manhattan, and I’ve had many Manhattans.  In fact, I always make it a point to have a Manhattan, when I’m in Manhattan.  Fun fact, they really aren’t better there—possibly because they’re sick of tourists like me ordering them.  Anyways, here’s my Manhattan, one of my favorite classic cocktails.

  • Rye, Old Overholt, 3 oz. This actually deserves its own article, because this bottle was only $13 or something and it’s well balanced, rich, a bit bready but full of spice and warmth.  $13 goddammit.  Cocktails, meet populism.
  • 1 oz sweet vermouth
  • Shit ton of bitters (4 aromatic, 2 orange…maybe?)

(Stir with ice briefly then strain. Garnish with something that vaguely resembles fruit, if you want.  I have friends who still think a Manhattan should be treated as a shot, don’t garnish theirs, they’ll choke.)

Give me a little bit, I’m still working on that old fashioned…Okay, now I’m ready.  No, wait, still chewing that delicious booze soaked ginger garnish.  Okay, maybe now.  Yeah, let’s do this shit. So I served my Manhattan up in a Glencairn glass, partly because I really wanted to get some aroma, partly because I didn’t want to wash another glass, and partly because I’m a rebel.  I must say, this is a very unique Manhattan.  I’ll be honest—I may not have aced this.  It’s delicious, no doubt, the rye comes out very bready using just sweet vermouth and given the hefty portion of bitters.  Given the chance I’d go perfect on it, half dry vermouth too, it would really let the rye shine a lot more…maybe the rebel in me is using the wrong glass too.  I failed you all.  But not really, because this is pretty damn delicious anyways, it’s kinda like a dessert Manhattan…I’m happy with that.

My final for drink tonight, a cold weather New England classic—with a twist—hot cider and rum…Embittered.  Now when the boys were talking, this was mostly Eric’s bag, about cooking with Embitterment, the phrase I heard was liquid allspice.  He said a lot more, but I’m not a real journalist, so I remember what I wanted to hear; kind of like Fox News.  Anyways, this cocktail is the most perfect expression of that, in the sense that it’s a beverage that is more or less a food stuff…with booze…and bitters.

Cider & Rum  (not sure this has a proper name…)

  • 6 oz cider
  • 2 oz spiced rum, I went with the leftovers of a bottle of Mt. Gay…
  • Tonsa bitters, again

Liquid allspice was right.  Look, this was never meant to be a well-balanced cocktail.  It’s a lovely, warm, delicious, beverage with just the perfect amount of sweet and spice.  This was never meant to be a high class cocktail.   This is a way of subtly making a holiday cocktail give you a buzz, an anti-fogmatic and just a nice way to end a cool evening.

I’d meant to try a few more cocktails tonight with Embitterment.  Unfortunately, in the yearning time between the liquor store and deciding to write I hath dranketh my bar dry.  Fortunately, I’ve had close enough to my fill tonight, but let me warn you, there is more in the pipe-line.  More stories, more drinking, more bitters.  I have some teasers that there will be seasonal bitters coming my way (hint: spring is a lovely lavender), and I know this story won’t be done until you’re at your local grocery store buying Embitterment and telling me how terrible my assessment was. Finally, the Embitterment boys mentioned that they were looking to create a signature cocktail, something they could work on within the DC cocktail community as a signature, but yet be completely theirs… They had an idea, they that shared with me.  We’ll hold that one close to the chest for now, until we can try it…