A few years ago, a major vodka manufacturer invited a number of journalists to its beautiful country to present the premium vodka it had just launched on the market. After showing them lakes, fields and rivers, after plying them with delectable local specialities, the time came for the comparative tasting: “regular” vs. “premium”.
But surprise, surprise! The difference between the two was so insignificant that, without exaggeration, you would be forgiven for thinking it was the same product. At any rate, the qualitative difference between them was purely a matter of personal taste. And all the arguments employed by the PR team to justify the superiority (and higher price) of the premium vodka were mere marketing ploys that had nothing whatsoever to do with the product’s characteristics. They spoke about associations and emotions, not specific aromas or flavours. (OK, for those who may disagree: “Vodka is a state of mind”. Happy now?). When the journalists asked to visit the production facilities, they were politely told this would not be possible because the “secrets” of the production process would be revealed. Of course the real reason was quite different: what is there to see at a vodka production plant that looks more like an oil refinery than the quaint distillery and dark cellars which the poorly informed might imagine?
This cautionary tale often springs to mind whenever I try some dark coloured, aged spirit. A serious drink, that is, not some vodka, which is the perfect drink “for those who like their alcohol in conjunction with the reassuring tastes of infancy―tomato juice, orange juice, chicken broth. The ideal intoxicant for the drinker who wants no reminder of how hurt Mother would be if she knew what he was doing…” according to the late A.J. Liebling in the New Yorker, in one of his dispatches from Paris*…
Good, dark-coloured alcoholic beverages, those that really age, are difficult to produce. I don’t necessarily mean the actual process of distillation and ageing (which are far from simple) but mainly the art of blending, which in some respects is the final stage of production and in places such as Scotland, Cognac and Armagnac, its quintessence. For the producer of these spirits is faced with the following intractable problem: how to each time bottle the drink with the same flavour when using an ingredient that constantly changes! There can be no “recipe” that “automatically” guarantees the consistently identical taste of the product, because barrel-aged spirits differ considerably in flavour from barrel to barrel.
Things get even more difficult when the distiller is called upon to create a new product. Because even if, after much experimentation, he achieves a “recipe” that he considers to be successful, how on earth can he be sure he can reproduce it over time, when the base ingredient he is using to make the drink (i.e. the barrel-aged spirits) are capricious and unpredictable, constantly changing character?
These were the type of challenges facing Constantinos Raptis, the man behind each bottle of Metaxa, when he decided to enrich his star collection (3*, 5* and 7*) with a new product, Metaxa 12 Stars. As he himself says, “whenever you try to innovate, you are haunted by the success of the existing drink”. In other words, your innovation must conform to a product’s tradition, while taking it a step further.
So, I was intrigued by the challenge taken up by the people at Metaxa. Namely, to create a drink that is more complex that the 7 Stars, perhaps slightly less complex than the Private Reserve, while retaining Metaxa’s familiar smoothness, without resorting in any way to the use of sugar. Indeed, Metaxa 12 is quite dry. Pleasantly and surprisingly dry. “We believe it is closer to what the consumer expects from an aged spirit,” says Metaxa’s CEO, Panos Sarantopoulos, who is spearheading efforts to reposition Metaxa among the most “serious” – as opposed to folkloric – libations.
Metaxa 12 Stars – whose bottle and cardboard packing are quite amazing, easily on a par with those of a quality malt whisky – is perhaps the finest brandy (or “cognac” if you prefer) recently produced by Metaxa. Unlike the Private Reserve, which tips towards a liqueur style, Metaxa 12 Stars is closer to a pure grape spirit with the classic aromas of Muscat dominating. “We wanted to accentuate the Muscat character of the drink solely through the ageing process, without increasing the proportion of Muscat in the final blend,” Raptis explains, clarifying that this is the reason he uses only Muscat from Samos. In contrast with the company’s other spirits, I found that the rose petal aromas, which often dominate the first bouquet, are absent, leaving room for a plethora of “classic” aromas such as citrus (orange peel in particular), dried apricot, caramel (in the sense of burnt sugar) and, of course, the overripe Muscat and raisins. On the palate, the combination of full body, buttery mouth feel and velvety texture is really quite impressive and, I dare say, unique. At any rate I don’t know any other drink in the world with the same taste, something that could not be said of vodka, for example. Take that!
P.S. To fully enjoy Metaxa 12 stars, avoid chimney-style glasses (e.g. those shaped like a closed tulip, used for wine) which tend to accentuate the alcohol.
*Α. J. Liebling, “Just Enough Money”, in Between Meals, An Appetite for Paris, North Point Press, 1986.
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