“Chin chin,” Jack Charlton raises his glass, ensuring eye contact. I nod by return and take a sip. “Crikey, that’s good, what’s in that again?” We’re drinking a Sidecar; but not just any Sidecar, it’s a Sidecar created with Remy Martin 1738 and, surprisingly, yuzu.
I’m in Kouzu, for Japanese fine dining in London’s Mayfair, enjoying a food pairing dinner with the cognac’s brand ambassador. Japanese cuisine and cognac? Not, you might think, your first choice but consider what goes into both – the discipline, the craftsmanship, the subtlety – not to mention the flavour profile of the spirit, and you get a sense that they make perfect bedfellows. We’re also giving an audience to Ray, the restaurant’s head bartender, who’s delighting in telling us the possibilities available in cocktail-making with fine cognac.
“I do like the fact it has that range of flavour profiles that you can make cocktails like this,” I tell Jack, “I never would have imagined yuzu would go [with cognac].”
“It creates that extra dimension to it,” he explains. “When we do tastings, and we search for the aromas, and reveal them, we’re looking at things like citrus, and they really come out, and that gives mixologists the opportunity to play with those flavours and develop their drinks.”
It’s a Tuesday evening and the restaurant is buzzing. As we sip at the bar, we take on the first of Kouzu’s seven-course tasting menu, skewers of tempura rock shrimp to start and the obligatory bowl of edamame, this time doused in chilli. It makes for sticky eating but the spice is beautifully off-set by the sourness of the sidecar.
I reminisce about the first occasion I was introduced to cognac; it was at one of Jack’s now legendary tasting events he mentioned, where we also met for the first time. “I was never a brandy drinker,” I tell him, “but that tasting session revealed so much about it, and the catalyst for me was tasting it with parmesan.”
“Ha ha, yes, that’s always the thing.” We take another sip. “A lot of people don’t realise where cognac stems from, you know,” Jack continues, “its heritage, its process…even the fact it comes from grapes.” “What do people think then,” I ask, “apples?”
“Apples, or a distillation, like whisky. They associate brown spirits with a very rough process, whereas grapes yield a complex, elegant spirit.” Fittingly, ‘kouzu’ is Japanese for ‘a collection of elegance’, I later learn. Another good reason the pairing works.
“What I find is that people need to understand it,” Jack tells me. “When you try it for the first time, you don’t just take a swig and go, ‘woah, a 40% spirit’, it needs some understanding. So we smell it from different distances, we look at the viscosity and so on, and each stage, each step reveals a different element to the spirit.” He’s right; with over 300 years of history in there, it’s something that needs to be savoured. He regales me with more numbers, “there are 400 different eaux-de-vie, and up to 200 separate aromas in cognac. It’s one of the most complex liquids in the world.”
We move onto courses of sashimi, nigiri and sushi rolls, presented with a flourish and complimented by sides of a tofu haru salad and spinach with a deliciously moreish white sesame sauce.
Ray delivers a new cocktail; a Magnificent, he calls it. This is made with Remy’s VSOP, Cointreau and maraschino. Again, the brandy’s weight wonderfully balanced. It reminds me of an Aviation. “So we know we can play with VSOP,” I suggest, “even the signature 1738, but you wouldn’t adulterate an XO, would you?”
“It’s funny you should mention it,” Jack says with a wry smile, “but I’m partial to adding a single ice cube.” Well, that’s not unlike adding a dash of water to whisky, though. It releases vapours, opens up flavours, does it not?
“Because of the distillation, we get a fantastic viscosity and body to the spirit. Adding an ice cube somehow amplifies this and it creates this sort of emulsion in your mouth. And, as a result, in the summer it becomes a lovely refreshing way to enjoy cognac.” He sees the expression on my face. “It’s been sanctioned, I promise.”
We take a short breather from the cocktails to enjoy some sake with Kouzu’s signature dishes, slices of salmon with a soy yuzu dressing and a succulent marinated and seared beef tataki.
“But there’s more to it than that,” Jack adds. “If we’re going to lead the cognac revival, we need to be agile, to keep up with trends.”
“What makes you think it needs a revival?” I ask. “I get that there’s an association with stuffy old gents in wood-panelled smoking rooms but isn’t the point that it’s an exclusive drink, something that’s occasioned?”
“Well, we’re sipping cognac cocktails and eating Japanese food on a Tuesday night,” he points out. Quite. “But its versatility makes for personal experiences. It’s definitely gathered an image of someone sitting by a fire, plotting against their enemies, sure, but the spirit hasn’t changed; it’s trends and tastes and attitudes that have changed. A lot of people tell me, ‘it was my Dad’s, or Grandad’s, favourite drink’. But, if it was good enough for them…hey? And there’s a reason it’s been in the periphery of every major event – we can trace Remy Martin back before the French Revolution.”
Now we come to the mains and we’re hitting critical mass, Alaskan black cod carmelised in miso and sake, and lamb chops ‘hoba yaki’ in a tangy, spicy miso barbeque sauce that would put Texans to shame. Ray suggests a bourbon at this point, just to break the rhythm, but I’m spent. Besides, Jack has something of a surprise.
“Speaking of France,” he says, enthusiastically, “let me tell you about the Cannes edition.” He pulls out a smart gold and ebony box from his bag, flips the lid over and presents a bottle of XO that’s recognisably XO but with some flourishes. “This year is our fifteenth as the official supplier of the Cannes Film Festival. We always do a limited edition commemorative bottle. It reminds us that it’s a huge honour to be associated with the festival and it’s a sign of our mutual prestige as such.”
“Naturally, there’s a presentation gift box and, inside, we’ve gone with the detail on the bottle. We acknowledge the palme d’or on the neck label, and the frontispiece this year features embossed dots representing the many eaux-de-vie that go into Remy’s XO.”
It’s impressive. To the extent that you wouldn’t ever want to open it. “It’s funny you should say that,” Jack says, “I met a chap recently who’s collected all 15. But it does age; the characteristics change, often becoming nuttier, more sherried. I tried a VSOP from the 1920s once that was worlds apart from what it would have been when bottled. Not better or worse, just different.”
I’m curious. “Is there an argument that the appreciation of finer things comes with age, with experience?” I ask, “So you only start to develop a taste for it as you yourself age?”
“I can only speak for myself, but as I’ve got older, I’ve become more patient. I like to understand things before I make my mind up about them, and it’s the same with drinks and libations.” It’s a good point and it goes into the antithesis of everything we currently know, which is the ‘slow’ revolution that’s railing against contemporary lifestyles, the Uberisation of the world, needing everything now. Jack sees cognac as a remedy for the ‘now’ generation. “It’s good to step back and think,” he says. “And cognac provides that. It’s a thinking drink.”
“That’s a nice conclusion to the article,” I tell him. But it’s true, it allows you to slow down, to take stock, to pontificate.
As the meal nears its conclusion, we’re presented with desserts. Flavoured ‘mochi’ ice creams in balls of pulped sticky rice and a chocolate dome with caramel, rice crisps and nougat. “Ah, now here’s a treat,” Jack says, “we should have a glass of XO with these. Ray is happy to oblige and asks if we’d like anything else. I decline coffee.
“But…” I add, and Ray turns back to me. “Could I get it with a single ice cube?”
Rémy Martin XO Cannes Limited Edition launched exclusively in Selfridges, followed by selected premium retailers from May 2018, at a RRP of £190. For more information visit www.remymartin.com.
Kouzu’s 7-course tasting menu is priced at £69.50 per person. For more information about the restaurant, including details of experiences, gifts and events, visit www.kouzu.co.uk.