Regular readers of these pages may have noticed that BarLifeUK have been on the road (plane and Eurostar) a lot recently.
Brand trips are nearly always great, whether it be because you visit a beautiful place, stay in a fantastic hotel, drink exotic drinks, eat good food or visit great bars.
The Grand Marnier trip to France ticked all of these boxes, but stood out for being, despite the fact that Tom Sneesby was invited, bloody good fun.
The moment we stepped out of our transfer bus in Cognac, it became clear that Grand Marnier ambassadors Julien Lafond and Alexandre Lechat were determined to get as much fine wine and Michelin-starred food down our necks as possible. From the outset the food and drink was superb, and for this reason alone you should jump all over the opportunity to go on this trip if it is offered.
After lunch we drove to Chateau de Bourg Charente, a beautiful big old stone building that has been owned by the Marnier Lapostolle family since the 1920s, and looks like the kind of joint that might well have seen King Louis XIII goose a few chamber maids back in the day.
It was now time for a tasting, and this being Grand Marnier, I’d expected it to be all about the oranges. However, I was wrong, and (perhaps unsurprisingly, given where we were), it was the Cognacs used in Grand Marnier that we spent some quality time with.
Alexandre led us down into the family ‘Paradise’, which is their own private cellar underneath the chateau. It is a beautiful, softly lit space, with natural stone walls and a domed roof that encourages respectful contemplation of what you are about to receive.
Which was, among other things, a taste of 130YO Cognac that was quite remarkable (and to my recollection, the oldest spirit I’ve ever tasted), before moving onto the new Grand Marnier Quintessence.
Quintessence is made from Cognacs ranging in age from 25-105YO, and also benefits from a ‘double parfum’ process, during which orange peels are macerated in ‘parfum spirit’ (rather than neutral alcohol as per other expressions), which is then blended with the base Cognacs.
This is the first new Grand Marnier expression since 1977, and I can tell you now it is outstanding. Even my rather pedestrian palate could pick out a range of different flavours performing a very harmonious dance on my tongue.
I’d ask someone who is better qualified than me to describe it for you, but for what it’s worth, I found it to have a lovely oaky flavour, with marzipan and of course oranges along for the ride. We also found out later that night that it goes exceptionally well with a fat Cohiba.
The next day we travelled to the Vicard Tonnelleries cooperage – the largest in Cognac and home to Grand Marnier’s barrels. It’s a huge place, with massive stacks of wood weather-conditioning outside its warehouses.
Inside, things are in interesting mix of old and new school. The chaps with mallets are doing the same thing you might see in one of the smaller cooperages in Scotland, where they reconstitute old bourbon barrels. But as Vicard create theirs from scratch, and in huge numbers, there is a lot of automation involved that I’ve not seen before.
Particularly impressive was the long hall of burners that toast the inside of newly-made barrels, shooting huge plumes of orange sparks into the air. We toured the entire cooperage, from stave cutting to laser etching finished barrels and bung-fitting, before jumping on a TGV for a night out in Paris.
One night in Paris
This is where my notes get a little fuzzy. Meeting in the lobby of the Warwick hotel, glad rags duly donned, is perfectly clear. As is my first Martini at Le Forum – a classic Paris classic cocktail bar, if that makes sense.
Things get a little less crisp in mind by the time we arrived at La Candeleria, which I suppose is Paris’ answer to PDT, in so much as you enter it through the back of a dingy-looking Taco joint.
However once inside, it looks more or less exactly the same as the Mos Eisely cantina in Star Wars. They played much better music however, and my Pico Disco cocktail was epic (I’m sorry that I can’t bring you the recipe for this. I spilled a Tequila shot on my notebook and it has gone all blurry).
Next stop was the Experimental Cocktail Club, or ECC. Now, if you find the biggest fan of London’s ECC, and then employ multi-universe theory to find a mirror of planet Earth where that person is the complete opposite of himself, then I would be that person. If that doesn’t make sense, it simply means I hate ECC London because I experienced some shocking service there earlier this year.
I was expecting ECC Paris to be the same but worse, and I am pleased to report I was absolutely wrong. It is an excellent bar that I will love forever for serving me an excellent Daiquiri at the same moment the DJ played Peace Frog by The Doors. If you find yourself in Paris, make sure you go there and see how badly wrong the chaps at London ECC seem to often get it.
The rest of the night is a complete blur. I remember mini bar raids, smoking on a balcony looking out at the Paris skyline and generally having a rock star time of it. It was a cracking night out with a top-notch bunch of people, and getting back to London the next day, I have to say I missed the group (even Sneesby), as we had had such a good three days together.
Thanks must go to Julien Lafond, Alexandre Lechat and everyone else at Grand Marnier for showing us such a good time.
It was very obvious that the group’s enjoyment of the trip was the number one priority, and in particular I am very grateful for some shoddy cocktail competition marking that allowed me to spend the night in the Chateau de Bourg Charente – I’d imagine that will be top of my ‘Best Places I’ve Stayed’ list for many years to come.