Kelly J. Hayes: WineInk |

Kelly J. Hayes: WineInk

Of all the flavors in all the world, vanilla may be my favorite.

To those of you who said that was obvious by my writing, a rim shot right back at you. Of course, vanilla, as an adjective, is often used to describe something boring, mundane and just plain ordinary. But for those who love sensuality, subtlety and complexity, the aromas and tastes found in vanilla, the spice, are amongst the most intoxicating on the planet.

So with great anticipation I headed to Vail last week for an event hosted by the makers of Grand Marnier and Navan, a natural vanilla liqueur, that I had seen on the top shelf of many bars but had never tasted. The event, dubbed the Mixology Summit, featured more than 100 of the nations top mixologists, who were invited to debut cocktail recipes they had created featuring either the orange liqueur Grand Marnier, or the vanilla Navan.

For me the bolt from the blue was the Navan. Full, rich, round and potent, the aromas of spice and leather gave way to a sweet, hot, balanced sensation in the mouth. The antithesis of boring, mundane or ordinary. Wonderful in small sips naked in a snifter, it also came alive as a mixer in the myriad creative cocktail concoctions poured by the “bar chefs” at the event.

A little history: In 1880, Louis-Alexandre Marnier Lapostolle married the delicate and fragrant aromas of orange with the robust flavors of cognac and created a revolutionary liqueur. Christened Grand Marnier, the luxurious liquid quickly captivated the high and the mighty when it was formally introduced at The Savoy, London’s oh-so-chic hotel. Marnier Lapostolle’s complex formula called for the peels of a particularly unique Caribbean orange variety called Citrus Bigaradia to be dried in the tropical sun. The dried peels were exported to France, where they were macerated and distilled in neutral spirits and, ultimately, blended with cognacs that had been aged in oak casks for up to 10 years.

To this day, the exact formula remains unchanged and a secret known only to those in the know. And, remarkably, the company that produces Grand Marnier is still in the hands of the founding family, six generations on.

At the turn of this century, Alexandra Marnier Lapostolle, the great granddaughter of the aforementioned Louis-Alexandre, and currently president of the family’s North American operations, sought to create a new product that would both extend the brand and pay homage to her great grandfather. Having already achieved great acclaim for the family name by founding Casa Lapostolle Winery in Chile (to be detailed thoroughly in a future column), Alexandra soon discovered that vanilla planted in the Marnier Lapostolle gardens in the South of France paired perfectly with fine cognac.

The world’s finest natural vanilla (NAtural VAnilla. Get it?) comes from orchids that grow on the island of Madagascar in the Indian Ocean. The white and yellow orchids blossom just once each year and then only for a few hours. Once they bloom, the flowers mature into long slender beans that stay on the vine for nine months developing aroma and flavor. The beans are then cured in the hot sun, like the orange peels used for Grand Marnier. Once dried and ready, the beans are wrapped in raffia and sent to France where they are macerated, distilled in neutral spirits and ultimately blended with oak-aged cognacs. Sound familiar?

Navan was introduced in 2004 but has recently undergone a reformulation that lowered both its sugar and caloric content, making it more palatable for mixing with other spirits. At the Summit, New York-based mixologist Aisha Sharpe (who some dubbed Ms. Vanilla, though no description could be further from the truth) made a series of rather refreshing cocktails that highlighted Navan. A Vanille Bourbon combined bourbon, tamarind syrup and club soda, garnished with brandied cherries. A simple Navan Smash with muddled lemon and mint hit the sweet and sour spot as well.

If you want to experience Navan for yourself you can head over to 39 Degrees in the Sky Hotel. There you can try it neat in a brandy snifter (something I highly recommend) or ask Denis Cote, the resident mixologist, who was in attendance at the Summit, to mix you a Yuzu Margarita. Yuzu, a sour citrus juice from Japan, is mixed and shaken with muddled Thai basil, cucumber, Navan, Don Julio Blanco Tequila and fresh pear juice, then served on the rocks.

You’ll never think of vanilla as “vanilla” again.

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