In deep winter, the home barkeep tends to stockpile high-alcohol spirits in various shades of brown, from amber rum to tawny bourbon and rye, liquors that tend to warm the toes but can also tire the palate.
Time to wake up and try the best aperitif you've never heard of: Pineau des Charentes. Invented accidentally in the 16th century when some unfermented wine must spilled into a cognac barrel and the concoction was allowed to age, the resulting honey-toned beverage — soft and deep like cognac, bright and richly sweet — became so beloved that the French smacked an A.O.C. on it and continue to enjoy it regularly, keeping most of the production on home turf.
Freddy Brown of Fine Vines, a Chicago distributor that imports pineau from Charente, in western France, describes the spirit's flavor as "essentially grape juice and cognac." He recommends serving it at cellar (or cool room) temperature as an aperitif or, even better, with cold-weather desserts such as apple tarte Tatin. Says Brown, "The vivid fruit is really wonderful with dessert — it's just so fresh tasting."
We asked Charles Joly, chief mixologist at Chicago's Drawing Room, how he would incorporate pineau into a cocktail recipe. "I would substitute it in any cocktail where you might use cognac. It has an interesting nutty, sherry finish and is lower in alcohol (about 17 percent). Perhaps a French 75 with fresh citrus and Champagne, or a lower octane sidecar would be fun."
Joly's Valentine's Day offerings include a cocktail featuring Pineau des Charentes as the romantic lead. A variation on a cognac and cava rose drink from his repertoire, the rosy coupe shows off the pineau's lower alcohol and its fruity aromas in combination with two other grape-based spirits — hence the name.
Charles Joly advises gently shaking when making this drink; "This is not a cocktail to crush in the shaker, as the notes are fairly delicate." Look for verjus (or verjuice), made from unripe grapes, in specialty stores or sub with 1/2 ounce red wine with 3/4 teaspoon red wine vinegar.
1 1/2 ounces Pineau des Charentes
¾ ounce verjus rouge
½ ounce fresh lemon juice
¼ ounce simple syrup
1 ounce brut Champagne
3 dashes orange bitters
Combine pineau, verjus, lemon juice and simple syrup in shaker. Add ice, shake lightly to chill and dilute a bit. Add Champagne; gently stir. Strain into chilled coupe. Dash with bitters.
Warming to the Cognac-based aperitif pineau
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