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There used to be a wonderful old bar called the Gran Café Granada, located in the center of that great old Moorish city in Southern Spain. The Gran Café, known to generations of granadinos as "El Suizo," was near an equally wonderful old hotel, the Victoria, where I used to stay when I lived in Spain and would go periodically to Granada to visit the magical Alhambra and the gardens of the Generalife; the Cathedral's Royal Chapel to see the tombs of Isabel and Ferdinand and their daughter and son-in-law, Juana la Loca and Phillip the Fair; and the Sacristy, just off the Royal Chapel, where I was smitten with the exquisite beauty of Queen Isabela's superb, once-lost collection of Flemish masterpieces by Van der Weyden, Memling, and Bouts.
The Hotel Victoria disappeared some years ago, along with the slightly naughty Victorian cartoons on the walls of its bar, but El Suizo "hung on" until it was demolished for a department store, an apartment building, or God knows what. El Suizo was one of those big, bright places with lots of big mirrors, columns holding up the tall ceilings, and marble-topped, wrought-iron tables; it was like those clean, well-lighted places that Hemingway used to write about.
El Suizo had journeyman waiters with white jackets who would warm your brandy glasses for you on cold nights in February, when even the palm trees and olive groves up on the the fabled Alhambra hill would be dusted with new snow blown down from the Sierra Nevadas that tower majestically over the landscape south of town. Nothing much could ever warm your feet in Andalucia in the winter in those days; the Andalucians just simply refused to acknowledge that cold was a factor in these Southern climes, so public places (and most private ones, too), lacked central heating. But, you could heat your insides with a good shot of Spanish brandy, especially when it was warmed for you like it was by the waiters at the El Suizo.
On this occasion, a well-heeled friend from America was inviting us to the best, so we each chose a different top-of-the-line Jerez brandy to compare. We ordered the smooth, well-balanced Carlos I (Primero) from Domecq, the paler, elegant Lepanto from Gonzalez-Byass, and the dark velvety Gran Duque de Alba.
Our waiter at the El Suizo came to our table bearing a tray with steaming demi-tasse cups of strong, black Spanish café, and three brandy snifters filled with piping hot water, each topped with a cloth napkin. The waiter took the snifters one at a time, removed its napkin, poured off the hot water into metal pitcher, and carefully dried each glass. Then he poured a generous ration of the brandy, re-covered each snifter with a napkin, and placed them in front of us to allow the warming aromas to build to a crescendo.
I had chosen the Gran Duque. As I removed the napkin from the heated glass, the exotic aroma-laden vapors rushed out with a promise of warmth that one sip of the lush brandy soon delivered. And, although those latter-day saints, the perfectionists who continually dissect the fine art of drinking, will tell you that you are not supposed to do this to fine spirits, I will tell you that none but a Philistine could resist the ritual warming of the brandy at El Suizo on a winter's night in Granada.
The Solera Gran Reserva Brandy de Jerez denominación de origen was created to protect the sales domain of the big Sherry producers who make this fine stuff, and also to find a good excuse to promote the brandies, since the sale of spirits is vitally important to many Sherry bodegas. The denominación especifica (DE), or specific denomination, Brandy de Jerez refers as much to the method of elaboration as it does to region since most of the wine distilled for use in Jerez brandies comes from La Mancha and Extremadura, although, obviously, the brandy must be aged in Jerez to qualify for this new denominación. And it should be remembered that Brandy de Jerez does not include any of the superb Charentais-method brandies of Cataluña, nor any of the other brandies of Spain.
In Spain practically every hotel, restaurant, and bar carries a broad selection of Spanish brandies ranging from inexpensive styles made by the continuous distillation process to expensive brands produced by long solera aging and/or the French Charentais (pot-still) process. Although brandy is produced all across Spain, it is the big sherry producers of Jerez who account for the majority of Spanish brandies, and it is their brands that you are most likely to encounter both in Spain and abroad. The unique qualities of Jerez brandies come from being aged in the solera system like sherry, which not only guarantees a continuity of quality and style, it allows the young brandy to assume the characteristics of the older, more mature, stocks.
The best Jerez brandies, ranked by many experts alongside French cognac and armagnac as the top brandies in the world, are now called Solera Gran Reserva, after the method of production that requires a minimum of three years of barrel aging. Most of these fine, smooth old Solera Gran Reserva brandies, however, spend 10 to 15 years in a solera that originally may have been established up to a hundred years ago. They are sweeter, smoother, softer, and not as fiery as cognac or armagnac.
Several top brands of Solera Gran Reserva Brandies de Jerez are available in the United States. Most of these fine brandies are put up in attractive stoppered glass decanters or unusually shaped bottles packed in red felt boxes, satin-lined boxes, and even cork boxes that make distinctive, prestigious gifts for the holidays. Besides the luxury brandies, Gran Duque de Alba, Lepanto, and Domecq's Carlos I, that we drank at El Suizo, there are there are several other stellar brands to consider: Cardenal Mendoza, an exceptional brandy in a cork box; Domecq's top-of-the-line Carlos I Imperial, in a crystal decanter; Osborne's Conde de Osborne in an odd-shaped bottle originally designed by Salvador Dali; and Garvey's Renacimiento (Renaissance), a very fine, smooth old brandy from the bodega that makes San Patricio fino sherry.
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