Bargains come in all shapes and sizes. How about four wines, nine courses and a taste of one of the world's rarest spirits, Louis XIII cognac?
By John Heckathorn
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Photo by Monte CostaThe Ultimate Dinner's meat course is three perfect slices of medium-rare beef tenderloin, sprinkled with sea salt.
Even an empty bottle costs $100, since it's a handblown Baccarat crystal decanter, with a fleur-de-lis shaped stopper that's so well fitted, you can turn the bottle upside down without spilling any liquid—not that you're likely to be tempted.
How did a liquor get so expensive that it costs $5 to fill an eye dropper? Louis XIII is a Cognac from the 200-year-old house of Rémy Martin. A cognac, as you no doubt know, is just a brandy, but one made in a small region of France nestled up against the Atlantic coast.
It's a fair bit of trouble to make a cognac. First, you have to grow grapes and make wine. However, the wine of the Cognac was never going to make the region famous, hence the notion that it ought to be distilled into brandy. Cognac is distilled in small batches, not once, but twice. The devil himself gets credit for this double distillation.
As the legend has it, a 16th-century cognac maker, Jacques de la Croix-Maron, dreamed one night that Satan was trying to steal his soul&151;by boiling it. Not succeeding, the devil threatened to boil it a second time, at which point Croix-Maron woke up, having realized his brandy would come out much better if he distilled it twice.
Cognac apparently rises to theological dimensions. Once the devil gets his due with the double distillation, the angels get in on the act.
After the "heart" of the cognac emerges from the distillation process, you have to be patient. Cognac is aged in barrels of local oak, said to be the finest in the world, racked into humid cellars to control evaporation.
Even so, since oak barrels are necessarily porous, the cognac makers lose between 3 percent and 4 percent of their entire stock each year to evaporation, the equivalent of 27 million bottles a year over the whole region. This loss is referred to as the angel's share.
By law, cognac has to be aged in casks for two-and-a-half years. Most cognac spends longer in oak, but perhaps none as long as Louis XIII. Cognacs aren't dated—because all cognacs are blends of younger and older stocks. However, Louis XIII is blended from cognac stocks aged 40 to 100 years. The current cellarmaster at Rémy Martin is working on cognacs his grandson is likely to bottle.
One sip, and it's like drinking a whole century.
Would you like to taste a little? Without, of course, springing $1,500 for a bottle, and $8,000 for the special edition black-crystal decanter.