Smooth operators: in search of the perfect digestif
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The digestif doesn’t suit the pace of modern life. Ordinarily, everyone’s too busy rushing around meeting deadlines, making trains, relieving babysitters and generally smashing it to stick around for one last drink. But maybe this winter will be different. With no one to see and precious few places to go, perhaps 2020 will see the revival of a more leisurely style of drinking.
I love savouring a dram after dinner. Sometimes that dram is a whisky, but just as often these days it’s a rum. Because the rum scene has been transformed in the past few years – at the top end it’s now possible to find sipping rums with all the nuance and finesse of single malts.
If you want to see what this spirit can do, try the Cask Selection series from Barbados distillery Foursquare. Limited-edition, often cask strength and/or vintage, and aged in a variety of casks, these are rums that speak the language of whisky. The newest release, Diadem, is aged for 12 years in a mix of ex-bourbon and ex-madeira casks and bottled at a serious 60 per cent abv (so you might want a drop of water). It’s intense and complex – bitter chocolate, ginger, dried figs, molasses – with a burst of mouthwatering cape-gooseberry acidity that takes you out on a high.
A sure sign that rum is on the up is the fact that Moët Hennessy, owner of Krug, Dom Pérignon and Hennessy Cognac, now has a sipping rum too, called Eminente Reserva. Distilled and aged in Cuba, this blend – aged for seven years and up – expresses most elegantly the drier, more restrained style that Cuba is famous for: it opens with a roasty-sweetness, like an espresso with brown sugar, followed by tingly orange oils on the finish. The rippling, crocodile-skin glass bottle – a reference to the creature this island famously resembles – should by rights be totally tacky. But I think it’s rather glamorous.
A host of rum luminaries, including RumFest’s Ian Burrell, were involved in the creation of “the world’s first Afro-Caribbean rum”, Equiano – another fine addition to the sipping category. Made from a blend of rums from Mauritius and Barbados, this voluptuous spirit manages to be indulgent without being sickly – a moreish feast of toffee, toasty oak and dried fruit that would go very well with a square of chocolate. The sleek, decanter-style bottle is also very distinguished.
Cognac has, at times, seemed branded to the point of blandness – but lately it, too, has got a lot more interesting, as more houses focus on producing cuvées that highlight the factors that make their brandies different: things like vintage, ageing conditions and terroir. Founded in 1762, Delamain is one of Cognac’s oldest houses. But the family-run company has proved itself to be at the forefront of this trend with the release of Pléiade, a series of ultra-luxe, ultra-limited, single-cask cognacs. Some are very old indeed, but true to the house style they retain extraordinary finesse; despite lying in a cellar above the family crypt for 50 years, the Collection Apogée Verrières 1965 boasts exuberant apricot and tropical fruit notes, a fine texture and the kind of biscuity sweetness you find on the crumbly edge of a tart.
Another excellent cognac in this vein is Hine Bonneuil 2010. Made solely from estate-grown grapes from a single harvest (most cognacs are a blend of terroirs and years), this spirit gives the lie to the claim that spirits can’t have vintage variation. For a bit of fun, you could line up all four Hine Bonneuils – 05, 06, 08 and 10 – and taste them side by side.
If you feel like ringing the changes for the cheese course this Christmas, might I suggest Afon Mêl Heather Mead from Wales as an alternative to your usual Sauternes? Fermented, according to tradition, from nothing but the farm’s honey, it has a golden hue and a gorgeous orange-blossom perfume that could rival many a dessert wine.
Louis Roque’s barrel-aged plum brandy La Vieille Prune is a foodie favourite. I must admit I only tasted it for the first time this year, but I wish I hadn’t left it so long. Fruity and fortifying, with a warming tickle of spice, it is everything you want a winter spirit to be. Another good one for cheese course.
When it comes to coffee liqueurs, the Australian craft brand Mr Black is hard to beat. Mr Black’s signature liqueur is made with cold-brewed beans from three sources – Papua New Guinea, Colombia and Kenya – but the company now has a new range of limited-edition liqueurs made with beans from a single origin. Mr Black Single Origin Ethiopia showcases the high-toned, fruity flavours of beans from a single farm in Yirgacheffe, Ethiopia. The end of a wonderful evening. Or maybe just the start…