The Pageantry and Panache of Portuguese Port–One of the World’s Great Fortified Wines

Port

The notion that wines improve with age is as untrue as it is true. The vast majority of wines—99% or all wines—are not meant for “cellaring” or storing for extended periods. Instead, they are meant to be drunk while fresh and young in the bottle. Most white wines are best if drunk within a year or two after being bottled, and most bottled reds sediment, begin losing their bright claret color, and start turning vinegary after five or six years in the bottle. The ability to improve with age, however, is true for one of the world’s great fortified wines:  Port.  Port, it is said, is bought by a grandfather so that it may be drunk by his grandsons. And it is not uncommon for families to purchase a quantity of Port in celebration of the birth of a child so that the child may be presented with the Port upon his marriage, thereafter drinking the bottles of his liquid dowry for the rest of his life.

 Many countries—from Australia to Argentina to South Africa and the United States—produce port-style wines, sometimes called “pseudo-ports,” those wines legally labeled “port” in those jurisdictions. But true Port is made exclusively in the Douro Valley (“Valley of Gold”) in the northeastern regions of Portugal, where a micro-climate exists that is optimum for the cultivation of almonds, olives, and especially the types of grapes used in the production of Port.

 The Terroir

The Douro Valley became a Protected Designation of Origin in 1756, making it the third-oldest protected wine region in the world, after the Tokaj-Hegyalja in Hungary (1730), and Chianti in the Tuscan region of Italy (1716).  [In 1756, during the rule of the Marquês de Pombal, the Douro Wine Company, officially known as the Companhia Geral da Agricultara da Vinhas do Alto Douro (C.G.A.V.A.D.), was founded to guarantee the quality of the product and its pricing for end-consumers. In addition to managing the protected geographic designation, the company was also responsible for determining which Port wines would be used for export and for domestic consumption.]  Encompassing some 618,000 acres, only approximately 82,000 acres are cultivated with grapes.  The region is considered one of the world’s most difficult wine-growing regions, vines having to eke out sustenance from the harsh, otherwise-barren, rocky mountains that rise up from the Douro River and its tributaries. Some grapes are grown as high up as 1,800 feet, but it is said that the best Port comes from grapes that “can hear the river’s flow.”  The region, referred to simply as “the Douro,” begins at the Serra do Marão, a mountain range situated 40 miles inland and extending eastward for almost 100 miles to the Spanish border.  The region, at its widest point (measuring north-south), is a mere 16 miles.  The Serra do Marão mountains serve as a weather barrier, significantly reducing the amount of rain that falls to the east of them. As such, the weather of the Douro is one of extremes:  exceedingly hot and dry in the summer months, with temperatures reaching 110°F, and very cold winters, some days visited by below-0°F.  The Serra do Marão mountains also render the region a remote one—even to this day, communication and transportation daunting tasks.

Interestingly, there is very little soil on the mountains; and what does exist is a hard schist that retains little water and offers few nutrients. It is also very acidic on account of its high potassium and low calcium and magnesium content. Then, to make matters worse, the sparse soil his high in aluminum content, which is toxic to the vines’ roots. But with the ingenuity and tenacity of the Portuguese people, what would otherwise appear a barren, or even lunar, landscape is today a premier wine-growing region:  Over a period of about 300 years, the region’s inhabitants created a gritty soil by crushing the schistose rocks to a depth of approximately three feet—earlier generations using simple, hand-held iron tools, and then in the 20th century, dynamite.  Thus, the mountainsides have been transformed into agricultural terraces. The grapevines cling to the terraces, following the contours of the mountains, and in their desperate pursuit of  precious, life-sustaining water, send their roots to depths of 65 feet through the fissures in the schist.  And it is said that vines that flourish under the most adverse conditions produce wines of the greatest character. That truism proves true in the case of the great Ports of the noble Douro Valley.

 The Douro is divided into three sub-zones, as determined by natural conditions:  the Baixo (lower) Corgo; the Cima (higher) Corgo; and the Douro Superior.  The smallest sub-region, the Baixo, is situated westernmost. And because of its closest proximity to the Atlantic Ocean, it receives the most rainfall, is the most fertile, and provides the highest yields, accounting for approximately 50% of all Ports made.  The sub-region tends to produce the “lightest” wi such as the ruby and tawny Ports. Upstream from the Baixo is the Cima (from where the Corgo River intersects the Douro River, to the Cachão de Valeira Gorge), about twice size nes, of the Baixo and containing approximately 235,000 acres, 14% of which are planted in grapes. The zone’s most famous vineyards, called “quintas,” surround the town of Pinhão.  With only about 28 inches of rainfall per annum, the sub-zone is renowned for its high-quality Tawny, Late-Bottled Vintage, and Vintage Ports, accounting for about 36% of all Ports. Douro Superior, the largest of the three sub-zones, extends all the way to the Spanish border and encompasses 271,700 acres. But because it is the most arid and least cultivated, only 13% of Ports are produced in the Douro Superior.

The Wine

Typically, Port is a sweet red wine, usually served with the cheese or dessert course or as a dessert in its own right.  But Port is also available in dry and semi-dry varieties, and there are also white Ports. Port is produced only from grapes grown in the demarcated Douro region.

 After the grapes have been crushed [In some quintas, grapes are still crushed the old-fashioned way:  trodden by feet in large, shallow, trough-like stone vats called “lagars.”] and the naturally occurring yeasts of the region begin consuming the natural sugars in the grape must, emitting alcohol [and carbon dioxide] as the waste product in the process, added-alcohol—in the form of a neutral, brandy-like spirit called “aguardente” [meaning “fiery water” and being 77% alcohol by volume]—is added to the grape must. The added-alcohol serves to kill the yeast, thereby interrupting the further conversion of the sugars in the grape must into alcohol. And it is that remaining natural sugar content in the grape must that accounts for the characteristic sweetness of most Ports.  The added-alcohol (Most Ports have an alcohol content of 19 – 23%, whereas most unfortified wines have alcohol content of approximately 8 – 11%) also serves to fortify the wine, considerably extending its shelf life, thereby enabling Port to age and improve across decades and into centuries.

 Port received its name during the second half of the 17th century. The name “Port” (also called “Oporto,” “Porto,” “Port wine,” and “Vinho do Porto,” derives from the seaport city of Porto (also called “Oporto,” meaning “The Port”), today Portugal’s second-largest city, situated at the mouth of the 560-mile-long Douro River, where much of the wine is brought to market and for export to other countries.

 The History

It is widely believed that Port was invented in the middle of the 17th century when British sailors would allegedly spike Portuguese wines with brandy so as to preserve them for their long ship journeys north to the British Isles. But truth be told, what the British could correctly be credited for is realizing that the already-fortified wines of Portugal, unlike most other wines, would survive the long journey to London. The Portuguese, like their Spanish neighbors to the east and their French neighbors to the north, had been making wine for hundreds of years—since the Romans introduced wine-making to the Iberian Peninsula in the first century B.C.E.  [Other evidence suggests that wine-making was introduced to the peninsula one thousand years earlier by the Phoenicians].  And by the beginning of the 1600s, they were shipping large quantities of wine down the Douro River to Oporto each year.  In 1678, a Liverpool wine merchant dispatched two of his representatives to Viana do Castelo, just north of Oporto, to learn the wine trade. While on vacation in the Douro Valley, the two representatives visited the Abbot of Lamengo, who, it is said, served them a “very agreeable, sweetish, and extremely smooth” wine that had been fortified with a distilled spirit. Exceedingly pleased with the wine, the two British representatives purchased the Abbot’s complete inventory and shipped it home to Britain.  But it was war that made the wine called “Port” a household name in Britain:  The signing in 1703 of the Treaty of Methuen, a military and commercial agreement between Portugal and England as part of the Spanish War of Succession, permitted English merchants to import Port with insignificant duties. And England, at war with France and thus deprived of French wines, delighted in the delicious Portuguese alternative.  (From as early as 1373, Portugal and England had become allies and trading-partners, as evidenced by a signed agreement pledging “perpetual friendship.”  By the early 1700s, a considerable amount of British Port merchants had already established companies in Oporto. So to meet demand, by the 1730s, there was an unprecedented expansion of wine-making in the Douro Valley:  The rocky mountainsides were converted into vineyards [called “quintas” in Portuguese]; the Portuguese would trade resin-treated goat skins for wooden barrels; a system of transporting the wine-filled barrels down the river onboard flat-bottom boats called “barcos rabelos” was organized and improved; and exporters built “lodges” in the riverside town of Vila Nova de Gaia (until 1986, the only port from which Port could be exported), situated on the south side of the Douro River, across from Oporto, to warehouse and age their Port. [Today, the wine is transported on tanker trucks]. In 1727 British Port traders in Oporto established an organization called “Factory House” for the purpose of gaining bargaining power with the Portuguese growers—but by 1814 Factory House had abandoned its original mission and become an exclusive private club, its membership open only to British  principals in the Port trade. The club exists, with its exclusive character, to this day. Its official membership consists of about 25 traders).  And the English taste for Port would endure long after the war, as evidenced even today by the many renowned shippers of Port bearing British names:  Cockburn, Croft, Dow, Forrester, Gould, Graham, Kopke, Offley, Osborne, Sandeman, Taylor, and Warre.

The Grapes

More than 100 varieties of grapes are permissible for the production of Port; but only five are widely cultivated and used in the production of red Ports:  Tinta Barroca; Tinta Cão; Tinta Roriz (“Tempranillo”); Touriga Francesca; and Touriga Nacional.  While Touriga Nacional is widely considered the absolute most desirable grape for the production of Port, it is difficult to grow, and its yields are small. But the other Touriga—Touriga Francesca—is the most widely planted Port grape.  White Ports are made exactly as their red counterparts, except that white grapes are used:  Donzelinho Branco; Esgana-Cão; Folgasão;  Gouveio; Malvasia Fina; Rabigato; and Viosinho.  While it is possible to produce Port with only one variety of grape, most commercially available Ports are the made from a blend of at least three types of grapes. (Some producers of White Port, however, are known for using only one grape variety in their production). The various grapes used for Port are typically small and dense, with concentrated, prolonged flavors—qualities conducive extensive aging.

Styles of Port

Port comes in various styles but are divided into two broad categories:  Ports that are matured in sealed glass bottles; and Ports that are matured in sealed wooden barrels. Bottle-matured Ports, exposed to no air, undergo what is called “reductive” aging, the result of which is a smooth, less tannic wine that retains most of its original color. Barrel-matured Ports, on the other hand, because barrels tend to be somewhat porous, thereby exposing their contents to small amounts of oxygen, undergo “oxidative” aging, whereby the wine (in the case of red wine) loses some of its original claret color, taking on tones of amber, and reduces in volume due to natural evaporation (the evaporated portion romantically referred to as “the angels’ share”), the result being a slightly more viscous wine.  [The IVDP (Instituto dos Vinhos do Duoro e Porto) further divides the wines into two subcategories:  “Normal Ports”—Rubies, Tawnies, and White Ports; and “Categorias Especiais” (Special Categories), which includes Vintage and LBV Ports].

 Ruby Port

Ruby Port is the least expensive and most commercially available style of Port. After fermentation, it is stored in tanks made of concrete or stainless steel in order to prevent oxidative aging and to preserve its claret color. It is then aged in large wooden casks for two to three years. After “fining” (the process whereby wine is clarified and stabilized by removing the insoluble matter that is suspended in the wine) and cold-filtering, the wine is bottled. Once bottled, Ruby Ports do not improve with age. And because they are filtered, they are not decanted; instead, they are poured directly from the bottle.

Ruby Reserve Port

Ruby Port Reserve is a premium Ruby Port that has been approved by the IVDP’s tasting panel, Câmara de Provadores. It is like Ruby Port, but made from a blend of higher-quality red wine. Most Port blends contain at least three wines.  [Grape varieties and their respective percentages in the blends are never reported on Port bottle labels].

Tawny Port

Tawny Ports are made from red grapes and aged in wooden barrels for at least two years. Because of the oxidation and evaporation that occurs while maturing in the barrels, the wines attain a golden-brown color and a slightly “nutty” flavor. Sweet or medium-dry, Tawny Port is typically consumed as a dessert wine.  A Port labeled as “Tawny” but without any indication of age is a Port that has aged at least two years “in wood.”  Then there are the Tawny Ports labeled with a year specified on the bottle, the official age-categories being 10, 20, 30, and over 40.  But such numerical declarations, unbeknownst to many a gentleman, are nominal—meaning in name only—not mathematical. The number stated on the bottle, therefore, is not to be read as the age of the Port or the average or minimum age of the Ports blended therein. Instead, the number represents a target-profile of the Port.

Port made of white grapes may also be aged in wooden barrels and produced like Tawny Ports. And when such is the case, they attain a golden-yellow color that is almost indistinguishable from their red-grape-derived counterparts.

 Colheita Port

A Colheita Port is a single-vintage Port that has been aged, tawny-style at least seven years—in barrels. A Colheita Port is in effect a Tawny Port with a specific year of bottling stated on the label. Instead of an indication of age (i.e., 10, 20, 30, etc.) as is the case with Tawny Ports, the age indicated on the label of Colheita Ports is the actual vintage year (e.g., 1961, 1967, 2004, etc.). And Colheita Ports must be declared and approved by the IVDP.

But a Colheita Port should not be confused with what is categorized as a Vintage Port (See below).  Unlike a Vintage Port, which typically is aged in wood only for about 18 months (but may be wood-aged for a maximum of 30 months) before being transferred to bottles for maturation, Colheita Ports may be aged in wooden barrels for 20 years or more before being bottled and sold. [There are also white Colheitas].

Garrafeira Port

Garrafeira Port is a peculiar Port for several reasons:  Unlike other Ports, which are usually a blend of wines from various harvests of different years, Garrafeira is made from the grapes of a single harvest; and Garrafeira is aged extensively first in wood, thereby undergoing an oxidative maturation, then in large (approximately 3-gallon), dark-green glass demijohns called “bon-bons,” thereby undergoing a reductive maturation, before bottling. The IVDP requires that Garrafeira wines spend from three to six years in wood, then at least eight years in the glass demijohns. But in practice, the time spent in the demijohns far exceeds the eight-year minimum.

White Port

The various styles of White Port are made exactly like red Ports, except with white grapes, and range from dry to very sweet. Ordinary White Ports—the equivalents of Ruby Ports—are most common, and are oftentimes used as the foundation of a cocktail, the “Portonic,” that includes a few cubes of ice, half Port, half tonic water, and a sprig of fresh mint or a fresh basil leaf. White Ports of a higher quality are chilled and served as any other white wine. When White Ports are matured for extended periods in wooden barrels, they darken, oftentimes to the extent that they are indistinguishable in appearance from their wood-aged red counterparts.

 Rosé Port

First introduced to the market in 2008, Rosé Ports are essentially Ruby Ports that, during the fermentation period, like other rosé wines, are allowed only limited contact with the red-color-imparting skins of the grapes. To date, Rosé Ports have enjoyed little critical or commercial acclaim.

 Vintage Port

Vintage Port is the ne plus ultra of all Ports, even if from a volume/revenue standpoint it accounts only for a small percentage of the Port trade. [Vintage and LBV Ports combined account for about 3-5% of all Port production in the Douro]. Vintage Port is made entirely from the grapes of a declared vintage year, and not all years are declared as such in the Douro, a decision made by each Port house in the second spring following the year of the harvest [Wine made of grapes harvested in September/October of 2016 would not be declared until the spring of 2018], based on the quality of the harvest. On average, “vintage” years are declared about thrice in a decade. Reputations are of paramount importance in the Port industry; no bona-fide Port house would declare a “vintage year” without justification. Besides, once a vineyard has declared “vintage,” its wine selected for the designation must be submitted to the IVDP for approval.  [While the term “vintage” simply means the year in which a wine was made, the word “vintage” has a distinct meaning within the context of “Vintage Port”:  The individual Port house decides if the wine is of a quality sufficient to be bestowed with the honor; samples are sent to the IVDP for approval; and if the wine qualifies, the house may declare “vintage.”  In a year of an exceedingly good harvest, it is not uncommon for all Port houses to declare a vintage year. Improved wine-making technology has resulted in the increased frequency of vintage declarations; but rainfall and temperatures figure most significantly in the quality of grapes and therefore wines. The year 2011 was declared a vintage year by most producers.  Other widely declared years in recent history are: 2007, 2003, 2000, 1997, and 1994. Old vines—between 40 and 130 years old—contribute complexity and fruit-character to wines and are as such very important for the production of Vintage and LBV Ports].

 Vintage Ports may be aged in wooden barrels for a maximum of two-and-a-half years before bottling, then they generally require another 10 to 40 years of aging in the bottle prior to attaining what is described as “proper drinking-age.” But in the United States, very young Vintage Port is famously paired with chocolate desserts, so much so that America has emerged as the world’s number one market for Vintage Port.

Because of the short barrel-aging period, Vintage Ports retain their dark ruby color and fruity flavors. Especially fine Vintage Ports can improve and continue to gain complexity for many decades after they have been bottled.  Much of the complex character of aged Vintage Port derives from the sustained decomposition of grape-solids in each bottle. It is not uncommon for Vintage Port dating from the 1800s to still be in perfect drinking-condition. A customer who purchases Vintage Port before its proper drinking-age must be prepared to store it properly until the drinking-age is achieved. (See “Storage” below).

Single-Quinta Vintage Port

The Port that ends up in a particular bottle is typically the result of blends of wines, sometimes sourced from different estates. Single-Quinta Vintage Ports, however, are wines that that originate from a single estate.

 Two different sets of circumstances typically lead to the production of Single-Quinta Vintage Ports:

1)      When a large, reputable Port house elects not to declare a Vintage Port, it mayalternatively secure a superior wine from a single supplier-vineyard and bottle it under the name of the house, along with that of the particular quinta, typically selling it for a slightly cheaper price than the Port house’s regular Vintage Ports.

2)      When a small “boutique-like” quinta, which typically does not purchase wines from other suppliers, declares “vintage” and bottles, labels, and markets its wine as a Single-Quinta Vintage Port.  Such “boutique Ports” are typically priced as luxuriously as other Vintage Ports. And, increasingly, some large Port houses maintain separate estates under their umbrella organizations and bottle Single-Quinta Vintage Ports under the individualized names of those separate estates (rather than using the wines produced thereon merely as a supply-source for the house’s main bottling needs), pricing those Ports as luxury items. In such instances, the Port bears only the name of the supplier-quinta.

Crusted Port

Unlike Vintage Ports, which must be sourced from wines of a single vintage, Crusted Port is usually a blend of wines from different vintages (years), thereby allowing the Port-blender to capitalize upon the various characteristics of the different vintages. Because Crusted Port is bottled unfiltered and sealed with a driven-cork, like Vintage Port, it should be decanted before drinking. And although a Crusted Port will improve with age, the aim of the Port-blender is to mix a wine that will be at its optimum at an earlier age than that of Vintage Port. The year that appears on a Crusted Port refers to the year of the bottling, not the years of the harvesting of the grapes.

 Crusted Ports are required to be aged in the bottle for at least three years before it may be released to the market. But most producers keep the bottles for considerably longer so that they are ready to be drunk when sold. As such, Crusted Ports are a practical alternative for Port enthusiasts who do not have the luxury of wine cellars. For many customers, Crusted Ports serve as an affordable alternative to Vintage Ports.

Late-Bottled Vintage Port (LBV)

Oftentimes labeled by acronym only, Late-Bottled Vintage Port is Port that was originally destined to be bottled as Vintage Port but, because of lack of demand, was left in the barrel longer than permissible for Vintage Port.  And over time, two distinct styles of wine emerge, both of which are bottled between four and six years after vintage:  One style is “fined” and filtered before bottling; and the other is not. The fined, filtered Late-Bottled Vintage Ports are ready to be drunk without decanting and are bottled with a stoppered cork that allows for easy resealing and reopening. (However, many Port experts are of the opinion that filtering reduces the wine’s particular character.  And filtered Ports tend to improve only marginally with aging). The accidental origins of LBV has led to various claims to its invention. Taylor’s claims to have made LBV in the 1950s, and 1962 bottles of Warre’s LBV are known to still exist. Unfiltered LBV is bottled with conventional driven-corks and needs to be decanted before being drunk. Once decanted, a Port should be drunk within a few days. But filtered or unfiltered, LBV need not undergo additional cellaring once released to the market; they may be drunk immediately, even if the unfiltered style continues to improve in the bottle.

Now that LBV is an established style, its aim is decidedly to provide a Vintage Port-type experience without the need for lengthy in-bottle maturation, an aim which is only partially achieved—on account of the expedited aging that occurs due to the oxidation that takes place during the wine’s extended stay in wooden barrels. Since 2002, bottles that carry the description “bottle-matured” must contain wine aged in the bottle for at least three years prior to release.

 LBV Ports are typically ready to drink when released.  They tend to be lighter-bodied than Vintage Ports.

Storage

Port, like other wines, should be stored in a cool (but not cold), dark (light can damage Port) place with a steady temperature (such as a cellar), lying on its side if the bottle is sealed with a conventional driven-cork, and standing upright if stoppered.

 Serving

With the exception of White Ports, which may be served chilled, Port should be served between 59 to 68 degrees Fahrenheit (15 to 20 degrees Celsius). Tawny Ports may be served at slightly cooler temperatures.

Unfiltered Ports—such as Vintage Port, Crusted Port, and some LBV Ports—sediment during the bottle-maturing process and must therefore be decanted. (Decanting also permits the precious wine to breathe). At least one day before the wine is to be served, it should be stood upright in its cool, dark, temperature-stable environs so that the sediment can accumulate at the bottle’s bottom.  But the sediment should not be disturbed as the bottle is being opened!  (In that unfortunate occurrence, the wine will have to be stood upright again for another day to allow for resettlement of the sediment—a time frame that might not correspond with the dinner at which the wine is slated to be served!).

Until the 1940s, and even into the 1950s, the typical Port bottle was designed with a neck that became bulbous midway down its length. As such, a driven-cork that extended into the bulbous portion would expand over time, resulting in it being impossible, years later, to pull, with the aid of a corkscrew, the expanded portion of the cork through the narrower upper portion of the bottle’s neck. Enter: the Port tong. (See below). But today, with uniformly straight bottle necks, even old, brittle corks may be uneventfully removed with the use of a corkscrew with a screw long enough to extend beyond the full length of the cork. (If the screw does not penetrate the full length of the cork, the unscrewed portion of an old, brittle cork is likely to separate from rest of the cork as it is being removed).

But when Port tongs are used, whether out of necessity or for dramatic effect, they should be employed with pageantry and panache. Placed into a flame until red-hot, the Port tongs are used to clamp the bottle neck of the Port, just below the bottom of the cork, as the bottle is held steadily with the other hand.  After the hot tongs have clamped the bottle’s neck for about 30 seconds, the tongs are unclamped and a bird’s plume, dipped into ice-cold water, is passed around the heated section of the bottle, the sudden temperature-drop causing the bottle neck to make a clean break.   The Port is then carefully poured into the decanter through a cheesecloth filter so as to assure guests that no shards of glass are contained in the luxurious liquid. [A gentleman inexperienced in the technique should practice the procedure beforehand on an empty wine bottle so that when he engages his skills at the dining table, he accomplishes his task without incident or accident, for ridding white damask of 100-year-old Port stains is no simple matter.  Besides, a Port is a terrible thing to waste….]

Because part of the beauty of the Port experience is its old, cellar-soiled bottle, Ports that may be poured without decanting—such as filtered Ports—should be poured directly from their bottles.  And Ports that must be decanted should be decanted—with requisite pomp and ceremony—at the table.  Evidence of the Port’s time in its cellar should not be removed.

Because Port is a fortified wine, it lasts longer than unfortified wines once opened, but it is still best if drunk within a few days.  Tawny and LBV Ports, for example, remain palatable for several weeks after opening—on account of their sustained exposure to oxygen during the barrel-aging process and, as such, developing a certain “immunity” to the havoc that oxygen generally exacts upon wines.  Vintage Ports, on the other hand, are aged primarily in oxygen-free bottle environments and are thus more susceptible to degradation from oxygen.  Vintage Ports, therefore, are at their absolute best if consumed within a day or two after opening but, because of the alcohol content, may be enjoyed even for several days after opening.

Much has been made over the years as to why Port is traditionally passed clockwise—to the left—around the table.  The age-old custom is for each guest at the table to pour his own Port—whether from a decanter of from the bottle. And since drinking-glasses are always situated to the upper-right side of the place-setting, it only makes sense for each guest to receive the bottle or decanter conveniently into his right hand as he receives the vessel transferred from the left side of the diner seated to the immediate right.  But practicality and logistics tend not to make for interesting table-tales. So many a myth has been offered to explain the tradition. Similarly, it is customary not to rest the vessel of Port onto the tabletop while being passed around the table. And despite fable, the real reason is the table—as in tablecloth:  With so many persons pouring, it is likely that droplets of Port will find themselves cascading down the outside of the vessel and onto the tablecloth if the bottle is permitted to rest atop the table.  But truth or tale, Port at the end of a meal is one of life’s great pleasures.

 Traditionally, Port is served towards the end of the meal as a complement to cheeses, as a dessert wine, or as an after-dinner drink. But some Ports, especially White, dry and semi-dry Ports, are sometimes drunk as apéritifs. And Tawny Ports serve as excellent complements to foie gras, cigars, and chocolate. Connoisseurs insist, however, that Vintage Ports should be savored without complement—but with compliments to the host.

 

Sources: http://www.intowine.com/port.html?page=0,1 ; https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Port_wine

 

The Correct Way to Eat Clams, Mussels, and Oysters–the “aphrodisiacs” of the sea

Clams, Mussels, and Oysters

To observe clams, mussels, and oysters is to immediately see why they have long been dubbed “the aphrodisiacs of the sea.” And many men claim to be sexually aroused just by looking at them, let alone for “eating them out” of their shells!

Clams and oysters, but more oftentimes oysters, are served raw in the half-shell—on a bed of cracked ice. They are traditionally accompanied by wedges or halves of fresh lemons (sometimes covered in cheesecloth stockings which allow the juice of the squeezed lemons to be released onto the shellfish while retaining the seeds of the fruit) and a tomato-based cocktail sauce to which horseradish may be added. Sometimes oyster crackers are also served as a complement, and some gentlemen are in the acceptable habit of crumpling the crackers with the fingers and adding the crumbs to the cocktail sauce.

Bracing the shell with the left hand, the oyster fork is used in the right hand to convey the entire oyster or clam to the mouth. Never are they cut with a knife. If a gentleman wishes to flavor his shellfish with the cocktail sauce, he may use the oyster fork to dab the desired amount of sauce onto the shellfish whilst it is in its shell, or he may dip the fork-speared shellfish into the sauce. The custom of picking up the shell and pouring the shellfish into the mouth is acceptable under less formal circumstances, where oyster forks are oftentimes not provided. And some connoisseurs insist that oysters taste best eaten in such a manner.  But at a formal event, whatever can be eaten with an implement should be eaten with an implement. Such are the laws of Western society.

Mussels, and sometimes clams, are also steamed, usually in a white wine- or beer-based sauce. When steamed, mussels are presented in their full, two-halved shells, which tend to open naturally in the steaming process as their adductor muscles yield when exposed to heat. The mussel should be removed from its shell with a fork and eaten in one bite.

About 12 percent of all mussels, however,  will not open during the normal steaming or cooking process. But contrary to popular myth, they should not necessarily be discarded as bad, for most often they are good and would have opened with additional cooking, though at the risk of becoming tough. (Actually, it is the mussels that open prematurely in the cooking process, those that emit a foul odor before cooking, or those that refuse to open even when “overcooked” that should be automatically avoided. And such mussels are usually detected and discarded by professional chefs). Unopened mussels prepared by a reputable chef, then, may be pried open with the fork and eaten. But ultimately, the true arbiter of a good mussel versus a bad one is the taste buds of the diner. So if the mussel does not taste good, whether presented open or closed, it should not be eaten:  open-and-shut case!  And if a bad oyster, clam, or mussel is inadvertently swallowed before its unsuitable condition could be properly detected, it should be immediately “killed off” by a strong shot of some potent alcohol—rum, vodka, or gin, for example.  Thereafter, a gentleman should hope for the best….

Mussels will be served with an extra plate or bowl into which the empty shells should be placed. Rather than randomly placing them into the bowl or onto the plate (which looks untidy), the shells should be fit into each other, hand-in-glove-like, creating neat stacks.  Any sauce remaining in the dish in which the mussels were served may be eaten, soup-like, with a spoon. Alternatively, sturdy bread such as French bread, speared onto the tines of a fork, may be used to absorb the liquid then eaten.

 

The Wayne James Continuum of Human Sexuality: Two-Thirds of the Human Population is Bi-Sexual to One Degree or Another

Sex and sexuality figure significantly in any gentleman’s life; and having a positive, healthy outlook about one’s individual sexuality engenders overall happiness, which is the foundation for gentlemanly comportment.

Sexuality is an organism’s natural inclination towards engaging in sexual activity. Human sexuality manifests along a spectrum, from those exceedingly rare individuals who are 100% heterosexual and can only conceive of sexual intercourse if it is with the other sex, to those extremely rare individuals who are 100% homosexual and are utterly repulsed by the thought of sexual activity unless it is with someone of the same sex. Then halfway between those two very rare extremes are those über-rare persons who are 100% bi-sexual, equally comfortable engaging in intimate acts with one sex as with the other—and sometimes with both, simultaneously. Most people, however, fall somewhere within those three absolutes, gravitating either towards the heterosexual pole, the homosexual pole, or the bi-sexual median. For many 21st-century individuals who have truly observed, explored, and understood sexuality, sexuality is no longer viewed in over-simplified, absolute terms of “gay or straight,” the former being an “abomination,” and the latter being “correct.” Instead, today’s social thinkers see human sexuality as a complex, visceral, involuntary positioning along  a highly nuanced continuum, with no assignment of  “rightness” and “wrongness” or “naturalness” and “unnaturalness” attributed thereto. For those newly enlightened people, sexuality is an individualized expression of an oftentimes inexplicable penchant—the way people, for whatever reason, have favorite colors, fragrances, or foods, or naturally gravitate towards the arts or technology or athletics, for example. To such persons, all self-realized, harmless sexuality is valid, and to deny humans their fundamental right to fully and honestly express themselves sexually is to deny humans their basic humanity. For some other people, however, the only “valid” or “natural” expression of sexuality is heterosexuality, every other expression regarded as aberrant.

Deconstruction_Human_Sexuality.jpg

Many people—even in anonymous and/or confidential circumstances—tend not to respond truthfully to questions pertaining to sex and sexuality, partly because many people fundamentally regard such questions as overly invasive, and also, amongst other reasons, because many people are not fully aware of their own sexuality so as to be able to respond completely and precisely.

 Absent reliable empirical data or any objectively accurate method of qualifying and quantifying human sexuality, then, it is valid to postulate that most people, consistent with the established principles of “averages” and “medians,” are situated somewhere around the middle point on any continuum pertaining to humans.   Thus, on a Continuum of Human Sexuality, homosexuality on one pole and heterosexuality on the other, with bisexuality as the median, it is safe to surmise that the average person is situated somewhere towards the bisexual median.

An analysis of the Deconstruction of The Wayne James Continuum of Human Sexuality illustration reveals that only a miniscule percentage of the human population is 100% heterosexual, 100% homosexual, or 100% bisexual—that for the vast majority of people, sexuality contains “gray areas.” The illustration also reveals that bisexuality and its various gradations—traditionally regarded as the least representative of the three major categories of human sexuality—is, in actuality, by far the most representative: Approximately 66% (two-thirds) of the total human population is bisexual or a gradation thereof, with heterosexuality and its gradations and homosexuality and its gradations together accounting for the remaining 33% (one-third) of the overall population.  As such, The Wayne James Continuum of Human Sexuality model represents a significant departure from the conventional model, which traditionally suggests that approximately 96% of the human population is heterosexual, with homosexuality and bisexuality together accounting for the remaining 3%.  [Approximately 1% of the human population is categorized as asexual, thereby having no or very little sexual attraction or interest in sexual activity].

 

[Dr. Alfred Kinsey’s famous Kinsey Report (1948) concluded that human sexual behavior occurs on a seven-point spectrum (“The Kinsey Scale”), with 0 representing 100% heterosexuality and 6 representing 100% homosexuality. While Kinsey concluded that only a minute percentage of the human population could be categorized in one degree or another as bisexual, he also concluded that 37% (adjusted in 1979 to 36.4% by Kinsey’s successor, Paul Gebhard) of adult males in the United States had achieved orgasm as a result of sexual contact with another male—i.e., 37% of men had engaged in both heterosexual and homosexual activities. Based on 21st-century definitions, men who engage in both heterosexual and homosexual activities; “men who have sex with men”; and men on the “down-low” are all categorized as bisexuals.

Some of the inherent, fundamental problems with statistical findings regarding human sexuality is that they rely on self-report data (which tends to prove problematic when seeking sensitive information); and the studies tend to pose two types of questions (questions pertaining to same-sex sexual experiences and attractions, and questions pertaining to personal self-identification as “heterosexual,” “homosexual,” or “bisexual,” the results always yielding inconsistencies between test-subjects’ self-identifications and their experiences/attractions). Then, further complicating statistical data is the varying cultural perceptions of the definitions of “gay,” “bisexual,” and “heterosexual.” In much of Latin America, the Caribbean, and Africa, for example, a male who performs the “active” role (the person penetrating) does not necessarily self-identify as homosexual or bisexual).

Since the 1980s, but especially since 2000, countries all over the world have conducted male human sexuality studies—all of which have been criticized in one way or another, but typically on grounds of methodology, unreliability due to self-reporting/self-identifying, insufficient sampling, biased sampling, etc.—with the general conclusion that the homosexual and bisexual populations combine for a total of less than 5% of the human population: Canada, 1% homosexual, 1% bisexual (1988); Norway, 3.5% had had same-sex experience in their lifetime (1988); Denmark, 2.7% of men had had homosexual intercourse (1992); The Netherlands, 1.5% self-identified as gay, 0.6% self-identified as bisexual, 97.9% as heterosexual (2001)/3.6% gay, 5.5% bisexual, but 9.9% reported at least some same-sex attraction (2009); France, 4.1% of men had sexual intercourse with a man at least once in their lives (1992)/ 6.6% homosexual, 3.6% bisexual, 90.8% heterosexual (2011); Italy, 2.4% of population homosexual or bisexual (6.7% reported having had sex or having fallen in love with someone of the same sex), 77% heterosexual, 4% “other,” 15.6% did not respond (2011); Ireland, 2.7% self-identified as homosexual or bisexual/7.1% reported having had a homosexual experience (2006); Israel, 8.2% of Israeli Jews self-identified as gay or bisexual/11.3% self-reported same-sex attraction (2015); United Kingdom, 5.5% gay, 2.1% bisexual, 88.7% heterosexual, but 72% of all adults identify as 100% heterosexual, and 46% of adults between the ages of 18 and 24 describe themselves as 100% heterosexual (2015). Also, a 2012 study conducted by Cornell University’s College of Human Ecology found that 9% of men identified themselves as “mostly heterosexual.”

Even today, the general—even if shifting—consensus amongst people born before 1990 is that heterosexuality is the only “norm,” approximately 96% of the human population self-identifying as such. To maintain that position, however, is to defy both logic, common sense, observation of human behavior, and the long-accepted principles of “averages” and “medians” : Both heterosexuality and homosexuality are narrowly defined, exclusive categories; whereas bisexuality is a broadly defined, inclusive category, absorbing peripheral members of both the heterosexual and homosexual categories. It is highly unlikely, then, that bisexuality would be the least representative of the three categories. And if most people are “average”–as is the case with height, weight, intelligence, generosity, penis size, beauty, and everything else pertaining to humans that occurs on a continuum–and “average” on a continuum of human sexuality equates with bisexuality, then the necessary conclusion must be that most people are bisexual].

The History of Wedding Cakes

The elaborate wedding cakes of the 21st century, oftentimes the centerpiece of the wedding reception, have their origins in humbler, much more ancient confections. Some food historians claim that the tradition of serving cake at a wedding derives from the ancient Roman custom of breaking wheat bread over the head of the bride in a fertility and prosperity ritual. Much later, in medieval England, the tradition was to stack sweetbreads into a tall pile between the bride and groom and have the couple attempt  to kiss each other without toppling the breads. A successful kiss would portend a prosperous union. When a French baker visited England during the same period and observed the practice, he, in typical French fashion, thought he could refine the English tradition, thus creating the Gallic equivalent:  croquembouche, a tower made of profiteroles and crowned with spun sugar. The tradition survives in France to this day, though the croquembouche is typically placed atop a cake-base to form the top tier of the wedding cake.

From the middle of the 17th century and until the beginning of the 19th century, the bride’s pie became fashionable in England. Not a dessert, but more akin to a present-day pot pie, filled with meat and flavored with spices, a glass ring was concealed in the pie, and the maiden who was served the portion containing the ring was deemed the next person destined for marriage—in a tradition similar to the tossing of the bouquet or garter at modern Western weddings.

With the increasing availability of sugar imported from the New World as a result of the Trans-Atlantic Trade of enslaved Africans, sugar became more widely available and, because of its dry consistency, transformed cuisine, especially pastries. Soon, the bride’s pie gave way to the wedding cake—one for the bride, and one for the groom, plum or mixed-fruit cakes being the tradition of the day.

Despite the increased availability of sugar in the 18th and 19th centuries, refined white sugar was still a luxury, affordable only to the wealthiest of families. So as displays of economic prowess, white cakes with white icing became standards amongst Europe’s powerful families. When Queen Victoria wed in 1840 and used white icing on her bridal cake, the term “royal icing” became a part of the vernacular.

Eventually, the groom’s cake (which was generally smaller than the bride’s and darker in color—on account of typically including fruits in its recipe) yielded to the bride’s cake, usually a pound cake covered with white icing. Today, the groom’s cake has become a rarity, seen primarily in some southern states of the United States and parts of the English-speaking Caribbean.

To a large degree, the wedding cake as it is known today owes much of its character to that served at the 1882 wedding of Prince Leopold, Duke of Albany. The cake, created in several layers, each separated by a dense icing for support and stacked upon the other to achieve height, was entirely edible. The stacking technique was innovative for its day. The use of pillars to separate sections of a cake, giving additional height, and the use of dowels to support the weight, appeared about 20 years later, at the beginning of the 20th century.

Today, wedding cakes of royalty and the wealthy have been known to reach several feet in height, weigh several hundred pounds, and cost thousands of dollars.

Many couples delay the cutting of the wedding cake until near the end of the reception since guests tend to view the cutting of the cake as the culmination of the reception, departing shortly thereafter. So traditionally, after the meal has been served and after much dancing and socializing, the bride and groom—after summoning their guests to witness what is regarded as the marquee event of the reception—cut the cake, the bride holding the knife and the groom, with his hand placed atop hers, guiding the knife. In the case of a military groom who weds in full regalia, he cuts the cake with his sword. In a same-sex, gender-neutral wedding, the older groom should guide the hand of the younger groom in the cutting of the cake, the older placing his hand atop that of the younger as they cut. And as in the traditional wedding, after the first slice of cake has been placed onto a dessert plate, each groom, using his fingers (Some grooms prefer to use a dessert fork), picks up a portion of the slice and places the portion into the mouth of the other groom in an intimate tradition symbolizing their promise to care for and support each other.

When the cake is comprised of several tiers, the topmost tier is first carefully removed and placed aside since, traditionally, that tier is frozen or preserved with brandy to be eaten on the couple’s first anniversary. The rest of the cake is cut from top, down, tier by tier, and served. When the circumference of the tiers is such that full wedges would be too large, a circular core is first cut into the center of the cake by inserting the blade of the knife into the full depth of the tier, then cutting a core of the desired diameter. Once the core has been cut, the portion of the tier outside the core is then sliced into wedges, leaving the core, which is also then cut into wedges and served. Some grooms preserve slices of their wedding cake to be eaten on the major anniversaries:  fifth, tenth, twenty-fifth, etc.

 

What Every Gentleman Should Know About Vermouth–The Common Denominator of Many of the World’s Classic Cocktails

Vermouth is a type of fortified, aromatic wine flavored with various botanicals—roots, herbs, spices, flowers, seeds, bark.  The base of vermouth is either a neutral grape wine or an unfermented grape must to which alcohol and a proprietary blend of dry botanicals is added. The alcohol-botanical blend may be redistilled before being added to the base wine or must. After the wine is flavored and fortified, it is sweetened with either cane sugar or caramelized sugar, depending on the style of vermouth.

Vermouth as it is known today was first produced in Turin, Italy during the mid to late 18th century. Originally used for medicinal purposes, vermouth’s popularity rose when it came to be regarded as an apéritif in the fashionable cafes of Turin, where it was served to guests around the clock. In the late 1800s, with the advent of the cocktail, vermouth became a popular ingredient in mixed drinks. And it remains a key ingredient in what are today regarded as classic cocktails:  the Martini (1860s), the Manhattan (1874), and the Negroni (1919). The Vermouth cocktail—chilled vermouth and a twist of lemon peel (sometimes with bitters and/or maraschino added)—which first appeared in 1869, also helped to establish the liquor. Vermouth is also used as an alternative to white wine in cooking.

Traditionally, two types of vermouth exist:  one pale, dry, and bitter; and the other reddish and sweet. The first sweet vermouth was introduced in Turin, Italy in 1786 by merchant Antonio Benedetto Caprano.  And some time between 1800 and 1813, Joseph Noilly produced the first pale, dry vermouth in France. [ It should be noted, however, that historically, all pale vermouths have not been dry, and all red vermouths have not been sweet ].

The consumption of botanically flavored fortified wines dates back to the Shang and Western Zhou Dynasties (1250 – 1000 B.C.E.) of ancient China. Wormwood was a botanical popularly used to flavor wine in India from around 1500 B.C.E.  And Greek recipes for infusing white wine with botanicals, including wormwood (which was reputed to have medicinal properties), dates back to 400 B.C.E.  The name “vermouth” derives from the French pronunciation of the German “wermut,” which means “wormwood.”

Chartreuse–One of the World’s Most Famous Liqueurs

A liqueur is a sugar-sweetened alcoholic beverage, typically flavored by fruits, herbs, spices, and/or nuts. (Liqueurs are distinguished from eaux-de-vie, fruit brandy, and flavored liquors, none of which contain added-sugar).

One of the world’s most renowned liqueurs is Chartreuse—so much so that a color that resembles the color of the drink is the drink’s namesake (“Chartreuse” was first used as a term of color in 1884).  Chartreuse is a French liqueur that since 1737 has been made by the Carthusian Monks of the Grande Chartreuse Monastery, located in the Chartreuse Mountains of Grenoble, France. The secret recipe for the liqueur—distilled alcohol aged with 130 different herbs, plants, and flowers—was given to the monks in 1605 by François Annibal d’Estrées. The liqueur is produced at the monks’ distillery located in the nearby town of Voiron and, until the 1980s, at another distillery in Tarragona, Spain.  Chartreuse holds the distinction of being one of only a handful of liquors that continue to age and improve in the bottle.

What a Gentleman Should Know About Gin

Rum can be made anywhere in the world, but it is recognized as a Caribbean spirit. Likewise, gin can be produced in any country, but its origins are regarded as Dutch drink.

Gin is one of the least-regulated spirits. It is broadly defined as a neutral spirit of agricultural origin which has been flavored, primarily, with juniper. Gin can be distilled from fermented grain-mash, sugar beets, potatoes, sugarcane, plain sugar, or any other material of agricultural origin. “Gin” without botanical flavorings would be very similar to vodka.

The word “gin” derives from the Dutch words “jenever”/ “genever,” or the Italian and French words, “ginepro” and “genièvre,” respectively, all of which mean “juniper.” And the Dutch drink “gin” derives from an older Dutch drink called “genever.”

The earliest known reference to “genever,” gin’s precursor, occurs in the 13th-century encyclopedic work, Der Naturen Bloeme; and the earliest printed recipe of genever appears in the 16th-century text, Een Constelijck Distileerboec. The existence of genever is also confirmed in The Duke of Milan, the 1623 play by Phillip Massinger. But the invention of gin as it is known today is often credited to the mid-17th-century Dutch physician Franciscus Silvius.

Today, gin is divided into three categories: “compound gin” or [plain] “gin”; “distilled gin”; and “London gin,” also called “dry gin.”  Compound gin/gin is a neutral spirit that has been flavored—without redistillation—with essences and/or other flavorings, the predominant one being juniper berries.  Distilled gin is made by redistilling ethanol of agricultural origin in the presence of juniper berries and other natural botanicals, provided that the flavor of juniper is predominant.  London gin/dry gin is made essentially the same way as distilled gin—by redistilling ethanol of agricultural origin in the presence of juniper berries and other natural ingredients, the predominant flavor being that of juniper. But what distinguishes London/dry gin from distilled gin is that the former can have no flavorings or coloring (except for a miniscule amount of sugar) added after the distillation process.

The best gins are not flavored by “cooking” the botanicals in the spirit.  Instead, the vapors from the spirit, during the redistillation process, are allowed to come into contact with the botanicals, which are kept in a sieve-like (or some such other), perforated container, such that the vapors can extract the essential flavors from the botanicals, flavoring the spirit in the process. The distinctive flavor and bouquet of gin are “fixed” by adding ingredients such as angelica or orris root; otherwise once opened, the spirit would quickly loose much of its appeal.

Compound gin/gin is rarely seen today. And when it is, it is usually relegated to the very bottom of any bona-fide liquor shelf, offered at a relatively inexpensive price. Today, when most people think of “gin,” they are thinking of London/dry gin.

Gin is commonly consumed as a mixer: as an ingredient for the Caribbean classic, “Gin and Coconut Water”; as an essential ingredient of the Martini; and as the eponymous ingredient in the go-to cocktail, “Gin and Tonic.”

Fermentation vs. Brewing vs. Distillation–The Delicious Distinctions!

Much of a Western gentleman’s socializing involves the consumption of alcoholic beverages. But very few men know the processes by which the drinks they drink derive.

Alcoholic beverages are divided into three categories:  wine, beer, and spirits.  Wines are produced through the process of fermentation; beers are brewed and then fermented; and spirits are first fermented and then distilled. (Liqueurs are sugar-sweetened flavored spirits; and fortified wines, such as sherry and Port, are wines to which spirit has been added as a preservative and to augment alcohol content).

Fermentation is the biological process in which sugars such as glucose and fructose are converted into energy when naturally occurring and/or added-yeast consumes those sugars, converting them into carbon dioxide and ethanol as “waste” products. Fermentation is a key component of the production of any alcoholic beverage.

In brewing, germinated grain (typically barley) is dried, milled, and steeped in heated water, thereby producing a cereal mash to which yeast and other ingredients are added. The yeast causes fermentation as it consumes the plant-sugars, converting them to carbon dioxide and ethanol (alcohol). The fermented liquid is then removed from the fermentation tank for further processing. The liquid is then aged, filtered, and prepared for consumption as beer.

Distillation is the process of separating different liquids by heating and condensation. To extract alcoholic liquids by the distillation process, fermented liquids are heated, allowing the resulting vapor to condense when subjected to a cooling mechanism. Because alcohol vaporizes before water, the heated fermented liquid first yields its alcohol content as vapor, which is then condensed, leaving behind the water content of the fermented liquid. The distilled alcohol may then be further distilled. After distilling, the product requires further processing before it is rendered a palatable spirit.

 

The History of Rum–Perhaps the World’s Most Exotic and Romantic Distilled Spirit

The History of Rum

The word “rum” tends to conjure up images of Caribbean islands, their palm trees swaying rhythmically to the beat of the wind; marauding, peg-legged pirates causing distress to demoiselles; and dashing British naval officers dutifully drinking their daily drams. But the origin of the word “rum” remains uncertain. What is known, however, is that by 1654, “rum” was an established term, as evidenced by an order by the General Court of Connecticut confiscating “whatsoever Barbados liquors, commonly called rum, kill devil, and the like.”  And three years later, in 1657, the General Court of Massachusetts made illegal the strong liquor “whether knowne by the name of rumme, strong water, wine, brandy, etc.”

From antiquity, in India and China, fermented drinks were made from sugarcane juice. And a sugarcane drink called “brum” has been produced by the Malay people for thousands of years. Even Marco Polo, in his adventures to the East, was offered “a very good wine of sugar” by people inhabiting what is today Iran.

But the first known distillation of rum occurred on the sugarcane plantations of the New World after enslaved Africans discovered that molasses, a byproduct of sugarcane, could be fermented to make alcohol. Though tradition holds that rum was first distilled on the island of Barbados, new evidence suggests that rum was being distilled in Brazil in the 1620s. And a liquid determined to be rum was found in a bottle salvaged from the 1628 sunken remains of Vasa, the Swedish warship. A 1651 document from Barbados, however, clearly describes rum:  “The chief fuddling they make in the island is Rumbullion, alias Kill-Divil, and this is made of sugar canes distilled, a hot, hellish, and terrible liquor.”

Once rum was developed in the Caribbean, rum distilleries were established in the North American colonies:  By 1664, a distillery was established on what is today Staten Island; and in 1667, Boston, Massachusetts had an operating distillery.  And in the years preceding the American Revolutionary War, it was estimated that the per capita consumption of rum in the American colonies was three imperial gallons per year. It is also said that George Washington insisted upon a barrel of Barbados rum for his inauguration in 1789.  So to support the demand for the molasses needed to produce rum, along with an increasing demand for sugar in Europe during the 17th and 18th centuries, a labor source was needed to work the Caribbean sugar plantations.  Enter:  The sordid history of the Triangular Trade, where African men, women, and children were enslaved and taken to the Caribbean on European vessels to work on sugar plantations; molasses and sugar were shipped from the Caribbean islands to the North American colonies; and sugar, rum, and other colonial goods were shipped back to Europe, thereby creating a three-legged trade route and an institution of human enslavement that would endure until almost the end of the 19th century.  On perhaps a less accusatory note, the English Royal Navy’s affiliation with rum occurs in 1655 when the English captured the island of Jamaica from the Spanish:  Because of the abundance of local rum, the English changed the daily alcohol ration given to seamen from French brandy to rum, a perquisite British seamen would enjoy until July 31, 1970, when the practice was abolished.

Most rums are produced from molasses. And since many of the Caribbean’s former “sugar islands” no longer cultivate sugarcane on a commercial scale, and since Brazil is the world’s largest producer of sugarcane, much of the molasses used in rum production around the world comes from Brazil.  However, a few rum producers (such as those in the French Caribbean islands, where sugarcane is still grown) produce rum from fermented sugarcane juice. (Ironically, Brazil is not known for rum production. Instead, its national spirit is cachaça, a distilled spirit made from fermented sugarcane juice rather than from fermented molasses. Consequently, because Brazilian cachaça is conceptually indistinguishable from those rums made from sugarcane juice, cachaça is sometimes called “Brazilian rum”; and in the United States, cachaça is recognized as a type of rum).

When rum is distilled from molasses, water and yeast are added to the molasses base in order to start the fermentation process. Some producers allow wild yeast to do the fermentation; but others prefer selected strains of yeast so as to better predict taste and fermentation time. And yet other producers use “dunder,” the yeast-rich foam from a previous fermentation. Dunder allows for a slower fermentation, which results in a fuller-tasting rum, while faster-acting yeasts tend to produce lighter, less complex rums.  When sugarcane juice is used, no additional water is added to the natural juice. And either naturally occurring wild yeast, dunder, selected yeast, or a combination thereof is used to activate the fermentation process.

The distillate is a clear liquid. Most countries require that rum be aged for at least one year. Clear rums are aged in stainless steel, while golden and darker rums are typically aged in charred oak barrels previously used to age bourbon, though barrels made of other woods may also be used. Some premium rums are aged for decades, certain manufacturers employing the solera system. (See “Sherry” below).  Rums aged in wooden barrels in warm, tropical regions are known to decrease by about ten percent liquid volume per annum due to evaporation.  Once aged, rums are blended to achieve flavor consistency, then bottled.

The Difference Between Brandy and Cognac

Brandy

The iconic image of the St. Bernard rescue-dog, miniature cask of brandy fastened to its collar, is more a case of artistic license than liquor license. In the 1820 painting by seventeen-year-old English artist Edwin Landseer, Alpine Mastiffs Reanimating a Distressed Traveler,  two barrel-carrying dogs are depicted assisting a snowbound traveler.  According to the artist, the barrels contain brandy. However, according to the monks who maintained the hospice erected in 1049 by Bernard of Menthon (canonized “St. Bernard” in 1681 and declared “Patron Saint of the Alps” in 1923) atop the ruins of a Roman temple to Jupiter situated in what is today called the St. Bernard Pass, near the border between Italy and Switzerland, the breed of dog they are credited with having developed in the early 19th century and that has been called the St. Bernard since 1880, never carried barrels of brandy (or of any other liquor for that matter) attached to their collars during their guide-and-rescue missions. So it seems the monks saved lives and spirits since science would later prove that administering alcoholic beverages to freezing victims is unwise because alcohol causes blood vessels to dilate, rushing blood to the skin and away from vital organs, resulting in a rapid decrease in overall body temperature. And that is not a good thing in cold weather! But even without the lure of legend, brandy is one of the celebrated members of the spirits world.

The historical record suggests that the ancient Egyptians and the Babylonians produced perfumes and aromatics via some form of distillation. And while it is known that the Greeks were conducting chemical distillations by the 1st century C.E., those distillations were not of alcohol. The medieval Arabs adopted the techniques of distillation from the Greeks as evidenced by their writings dating back to the 9th century (with other evidence reaching back to the 8th century), but there is no evidence that the technology was applied to the distillation of alcoholic beverages. The earliest evidence of distillation in the Latin world dates to the 12th century, the technology passing from the Arabs. By the 13th century, however, alcohol was being distilled from wine in Italy, one of the earliest descriptions of the technique being derived from the writings of Ramon Llull (1232-1315), the Majorcan writer and philosopher. From Italy, the practice of distilling alcoholic beverages spread to the medieval monasteries, primarily for medicinal purposes. But since alcohol was first distilled from wine, brandy holds the distinction of being the oldest of the distilled liquors.

Brandy is a spirit made by distilling grape wine. It is distinguished from eaux-de-vie, which is distilled from pomace (See “Grappa” below); the mash of fruits, including grapes; or from wine made from any fruit other than grapes. [Eaux-de-vie made from none-grape wines are referred to as “fruit brandies” ].  Some brandies are aged in wooden casks, deriving color and flavor therefrom.  Other brandies are colored. And yet other brandies are both aged and colored.

Traditionally, brandy is drunk neat from a brandy snifter as an after-dinner drink. (Cognac and Armagnac, both from southern France, are some of the best-known brandies. See “Cognac” below).

The history of brandy is directly linked to the history of distillation. And while there is evidence of the making of brandy from as far back as antiquity, it was not until the 15th century, with advancements in distillation, that brandy began being produced on a significant scale. A 1728 edition of Ephraim Chambers’ Cyclopædia describes a method for distilling wine into brandy. Wine was initially distilled for preservation purposes and for ease of transport (The water removed during distillation would be replenished at the shipping destination, shortly before consumption).  Distillation also had fiscal implications since taxes were assessed by volume, making wine more heavily taxed than brandy, wine’s “condensed” counterpart.

Great wine cultures tend to also be great brandy cultures:  The great wine-making regions of Western (France and Spain) and Eastern (Bulgaria, Georgia) Europe are known for producing excellent brandies.

 

Cognac

Cognac is a variety of brandy. And brandy is a spirit produced by distilling wine. For a product to be legally labeled “Cognac,” it must be produced in the wine-growing region surrounding the French town of Cognac in the Departements of Charente and Charente-Maritime; it must be made from certain grapes, the principal of which are “ugni blanc” (known locally as “Saint-Emilion” and as “Trebbiano” in Italy), Folle blanche, and Colombard; must be twice-distilled in copper pot stills; and aged at least two years in French oak barrels from Limousin and Tronçais.  (Many cognacs are aged longer than the two-year minimum requirement).

After the grapes are pressed, the juice is left to ferment for two to three weeks, during which time the region’s native, wild yeasts convert the natural sugars in the grape juice into alcohol (about 7 to 8% by volume).

The white wine used to produce cognac is very dry, thin, and acidic—all qualities which, while not ideal for drinking, are excellent for distilling then aging into Cognac.

Distillation typically results in a liquid with an alcohol content of around 70% by volume.  The distilled liquid is then put into oak casks, where, as it reacts with the barrel and ambient conditions, evaporates at a rate of about 3% per year. And because alcohol dissipates faster than water, the alcohol content drops to approximately 40% over time.  The liquid is then transferred to glass containers called bonbonnes, where it is stored for subsequent blending.

Cognac is graded as:  V.S. (“Very Special”), which designates a blend in which the youngest brandy has been aged for at least two years in oak; V.S.O.P (“Very Special Old Pale”), which designates a blend in which the youngest brandy has been aged for at least four years in oak, though the average age is likely to be much older; and X.O. (“Extra Old”), which designates a blend in which the youngest brandy has been aged for at least six years, but with an average age likely to be beyond 20 years. [ Beginning in 2016, the minimum age of the youngest brandy in a blend bottled as X.O. is 10 years. ]