Sniffing in anticipation of family holiday gatherings


The big-eating holidays may be weeks away, but I'm already in training.

The other night I taught the kids how to sniff cognac.

This was a skill I had recently picked up during a lunch with Robert Leaute, master blender of cognacs for Remy Martin. The lunch was on a yacht, and as we bobbed in the Baltimore harbor, Leaute explained how to sniff out the subtleties of cognac, a type of brandy made from champagne grapes and distilled in the Cognac area of France. In between bobs, I took notes.

I figured this ritual could come in handy as a form of after-dinne entertainment during the upcoming holiday gatherings of our clan. In our family, after we have polished off the turkey, the stuffing, the pie, the chocolate mousse and maybe even the token vegetable, we attempt entertainment.

This entertainment can take the form of enlightened conversation. Usually we discuss the status of the arts, the sciences and the T formation. This lasts for about two minutes. Then we get to the good stuff, gossiping about other relatives.

But this year we've got a problem. Too many relatives arcoming to Thanksgiving dinner. Since virtually all branches of the family will be represented, no one branch can be dumped on.

Moreover, the kids, who once didn't care what adults said, are now beginning to eavesdrop on us. This leads to an undermining of parental authority. And when a kid reports to his distant cousin about "what my mama said about your mama," it leads to serious embarrassment. So, for a variety of reasons, I have taken it upon myself to install cognac sniffing as our family's new form of after-dinner entertainment.

The other night, to get ready for the holidays, the kids and I had a practice sniff. We didn't have any $300-a-bottle cognac sitting around the house, so we used some substitute beverages. The kids sniffed glasses of $2.48-a-gallon milk, and I sniffed a glass of an $8 jug red wine.

I began by pointing out that we were using the preferred style of sniffware, glasses with straight, not curved, sides. I was repeating what I learned at thecognac tasting.

There I was told that the traditional brandy glasses,the biballoon glasses that look like they once served as a home to a philodendron, were not good for nose work. In the balloon glasses, the cognac vapors have to struggle to move around the bend in the glass and up to the nose. What you end up with, I guess, is a form of vapor lock.

I also pointed out there should be no swirling of the beverage in the glass. At least not right away. At the cognac tasting I learned that at first, the cognac should be as immobile as grandpa sleeping in the Barcalounger. The movement comes later.

We then took our first sniff, the snob sniff. I called it that because it is taken with the nose in the air, 2 inches above the edge of the glass. When sniffing cognac the properly positioned snob nose is supposed to pick up flowery aromas. I smelled them at the lunch. But when sniffing jug red wine at this altitude my nose detected aromas of grape jelly. When the kids sniffed their glasses, they said they smelled "milk."

After the snob sniff, we moved on to the cigar box sniff. For this sniff, the nose moved to the edge of the glass. If fine cognac is in the glass, the nose in this position is supposed to pick up musky aromas, similar to those found when you stick your nose on the edge of a cigar box. That is what I was told. I don't stick my nose in cigar boxes. But apparently the people who regularly drink cognac do. Anyway, when I put my nose at the edge of the cognac glass, the air smelled good.

When I placed my nose in the cigar box position over a glass of jug red, I once again smelled grape jelly. But in the cigar box position, the jelly smelled more alcoholic than it did when sniffed from the snob position. When kids put their noses on the edge of their glasses, they reported smelling "regular" as opposed to skim milk.

The third and final sniff was the full-immersion sniff. Here w placed our noses down in our glasses as if the noses were going to dive into the liquid. At this level, a cognac-sniffing nose is supposed to pick up the spicy fragrances such as nutmeg and saffron. Mine did at the luncheon.

But when sniffing jug wine and jug milk we detected little difference between the aromas picked up at the full-immersion and cigar-box positions.

When the sniffin' stage was over, I told the kids it was time to look at the legs of the beverage. At the cognac tasting, the leg work was done by turning the glass on its side and slowly rotating the cognac so that the liquid formed a ring around the top of the glass. Then the glass was turned upright, and we admired the "legs" or droplets of liquid that meandered down the sides of the glass.

At the luncheon when I turned a glass of cognac on its side, saw thick legs inching down the glass. Fat, slow, oily legs, I was told, were evidence of classy cognac.

When I turned my glass of jug red wine on its side, I didn't see any legs, just a glimpse of stocking. This wine didn't have legs. It had streaks.

As for the milk drinkers, given their history of spills, they were forbidden to turn their glasses sideways. But they were allowed to swirl.

Up to this point, the kids had not shown much enthusiasm for the sniffing ritual. However, once they were allowed to slosh milk around in their glasses, their moods brightened.

Nonetheless, the kids were not overwhelmed by the idea of beverage sniffing as a form of family entertainment. One of them told me, in effect, that my sniffing ritual was needlessly complicating an essentially simple act.

He had a point. But then, again, that is what family gatherings are all about.

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