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There’s no better cold weather drink than cognac. A good cognac spreads its warmth throughout the body, aids digestion, and stimulates the imagination. Open a bottle of really old cognac, pour a small snifter of it, and, in a matter of minutes, the smell (honey and leather, earth, wet leaves, and autumn bonfires) will leap out of the glass and pervade the room. This is splendor in a glass. Not every cognac, however, is so opulent. The problem is that you have to get past VS and even VSOP to taste anything really interesting. The letters, by the way, stand for “Very Special” and “Very Special Old Pale.” I’ve never tasted a “special” VS in my life. What’s more, I wouldn’t trust any “cognac” that was priced at less than $30 a bottle. As for the VSOPs, most are neither special nor pale, having been bolstered with both caramel (for coloring) and sugar (for sweetness). A dark-colored, sweet-tasting VSOP is an adulterated VSOP. This is one case where you absolutely have to trust the name on the bottle. Caveat emptor. It’s also well to consider that, quite apart from the designations VS, VSOP, XO, and the like, a bottle of cognac will often bear a further geographic designation: ranging from the seldom seen Bons Bois and Fins Bois to the small but interesting Borderies and the top-of-the-heap Petite and Grande Champagne. The latter two, if blended together, are often sold as Fine Champagne Cognac. Recently, several houses have taken to marketing cognacs from individual regions and single distilleries. (Most cognac is a blend.) Gabriel & Andreu makes an especially good Borderies ($40), while Louis Royer offers the excellent Grande Champagne from the Distillerie Les Magnolias ($70), and Hennessy has a range of $45 single distillery cognacs. Of the blends, my favorite affordable cognac has long been Hine’s “Rare & Delicate” ($40), a Fine Champagne. As the name suggests, it’s light and elegant, with a very pure nose. For about $80, you can choose from Pierre Ferrand’s “Anges,” Hine’s “Antique,” and Delamain’s “Vesper.” I like them all. Slightly more expensive is Hennessy’s XO ($120), which is always a blend, not only of Petite and Grande Champagne, but of Borderies and even Bois. I’ve always thought of it as being rummy and even a bit treacly. But it also shows the honeyed side of old Grande Champagne cognac. Similarly priced, Remy Martin’s XO is strictly Grande Champagne cognac. The real glories of the Cognac region, though, are to be found in the $180 and up range. Among the best are Hine’s “Triomphe” and its sibling “Family Reserve,” along with Hennessy’s “Paradis,” Pierre Ferrand’s “Abel,” Delamain’s “Tres Venerable,” and Moyey’s “Extra.” These are all blends containing 40-, 50-, even 100-year- old cognacs. The best of the best? The 1959 Delamain ($235) and 1953 ($350) and 1964 Hine ($250) are worth their weight in gold. Master blender Bernard Hine recently showed off some of his vintage cognacs, all the way back to 1914. One stood out: the exquisitely balanced 1953. But, then, I’m biased: I was conceived in 1953 and have to think that this amount of aging can only yield a product of rich taste. COGNAC LOVER’S DELIGHT: Hine “Rare & Delicate” Pierre Ferrand “Anges” Hine “Antique” Delamain “Vesper” Hennessy XO Remy Martin XO Hennessy “Paradis” Pierre Ferrand “Abel” Delamain “Tres Venerable” Moyey “Extra” Delamain “1959″ Hine “1953″

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