A trip to Cognac

France is home to so much specialist produce and products. In the culinary and drinks world it is a destination second to none. This trip I was in the South-West of France, just under 2 hours from Bordeaux, to discover the world of Cognac.

Cognac

The sleepy region of Cognac is quiet and charming, and makes a wonderful weekend getaway. Ahead of April’s Cognac Show in London I was here to learn about this special, historic spirit with The Whisky Exchange.

Cognac

Cognac is a variety of brandy, made exclusively in the Cognac region of France, it is a protected product and can only be made here under strict production methods and legal requirements. The spirit is made from distilled white wine, mainly made from the Ugni Blanc grape (often better known as Trebbiano) although a few other grape varieties are allowed. The soil structure in the Cognac region is said to be very similar to the Champagne region.

The wine must be distilled twice, using copper pot stills and then aged in French oak barrels for a minimum of two years. Many Cognacs are aged for much longer, creating more complex, rare spirits.

During our three days in Cognac we visited four Cognac houses, each with a different approach to the spirit.

Our first Cognac experience was at Hine, a boutique Cognac company founded in 1763. Both the spirit and branding of Hine is refined and stylish, and the striking bottles immediately grabbed my attention.

First we visited the vineyards, which have had a hard year due to the unusual weather conditions. After seeing the impressive pot stills at work we sat down for a detailed tasting.

Cognac

Most Cognac houses produce blended Cognacs, with some choosing to also make single estate. It is interesting to also consider the grading of a cognac.

The current legally defined categories of Cognac include:

V.S.: a minimum age of two years. Also known as Very Special or Three Stars.

V.S.O.P.: a minimum age of four years. Also known as Very Superior Old Pale or Reserve.

X.O.: a minimum age of six years.

Trying the Hine Cognacs was an interesting and tasty experience. I found the younger spirits had flavours of vanilla and fresh fruits, with older Cognac tasting more of red fruits, with some spice notes.

We were lucky to be staying the night in the Hine house, a luxurious home with lavish bedrooms and a grand dining room, where we enjoyed a great dinner and typically French pastry breakfast!

Cognac

It is a common misconception that Cognac is an older person’s drink. I discovered this couldn’t be further from the truth… this spirit is so varied depending on company and age and blend. It is also more popular with mixologists as a great cocktail spirit, I loved drinking it topped with ginger ale.

Cognac

Founded in 1858 AE Dor was named after house founder Amédée Edouard Dor. Like Hine they are based in the centre of Cognac town, and are open to hosting tastings.

We had a brilliant morning at AE Dor with one of the brilliantly knowledgeable and enthusiastic team, trying everything from their entry level VS Cognac (approx £40 a bottle) to the very rare and special ‘Sign of Time’ Cognac dating back to 1893 and costing a staggering £11,000 per bottle.

Cognac

(At the Whisky Exchange you can also get miniatures of some of these bottles, the perfect way to try a Cognac before investing.)

Cognac

Maison Ferrand has a big range of spirits in its collection, from Caribbean rums to artisanal Citadelle gin. But their Cognac is one of their most distinctive products. This cognac proudly uses grapes planted on the Angeac terroir in the heart of the Grande Champagne region. Maison Ferrand was founded in 1989, making it one of the newer houses, but they use traditional methods to make their Cognac.

Cognac

After visiting some of the Ferrand properties we were treated to an indulgent dinner at newly opened Chais Monnet Hotel in the centre of town. Here we feasted on local delicacies all accompanied, of course, with wonderful complementing Cognac.

Cognac

Stepping foot in the Vallein Tercinier caves felt special. Immediately the sense of passion and history was apparent and our group revelled in the story of this house’s Cognac. We sat at the tasting table while the wind howled furiously outside and warmed our bodies with divine cognac.

Cognac

Foodies will love the food and drink options in Cognac town. While in the area don’t miss Bar Luciole, a great cocktail venue to try perfectly mixed Cognac drinks… our group particularly loved the Butter Kir Royal. I also highly recommend lunch at Poulpette in town. A relaxed modern eatery serving inventive French food using the best local ingredients.

Cognac

Cognac is such a lovely destination, ideal for foodies and drink fans. I loved wandering round the town, soaking up the authentic atmosphere and learning about Cognac, a unique and special spirit.

You can learn more about Cognac at London’s Cognac Show which will be announced later this year. You can learn more about Whisky on the Whisky Exchange website here.

I was a guest of the Whisky Exchange.

The Hoxton Chicago

I love a Hoxton Hotel experience anywhere in the world, but I was especially excited about visiting the Chicago branch after it opened earlier this year. It is one of four American properties from the London hotel brand, alongside Brooklyn, Portland and LA. Located in the heart of the bustling Fulton Market district, the Hoxton Chicago is surrounded by great restaurants, cafes and shops.

Hoxton Chicago

There are so many perks to staying at a Hoxton Hotel, but best of all their new ‘flexy time’ lets you check-in and check-out whenever you like within a 24 hour period. Inside, the the hotel is set-out to make the guest experience logical and relaxing.

Hoxton Chicago

There are 182 rooms in three types: Snug, Cosy and Roomie. They are all similar in style, with a few differing design features and details. The decor is in keeping with the industrial past of the building, with warehouse style floor-to-ceiling windows ensuring the bedrooms are bright and airy.

I loved the smart leather headboards and abstract custom-made bed linen. The furniture is inspired by mid-century design with bespoke wallpapers and locally sourced artwork.

Hoxton Chicago

I was pleased to discover that the Hoxton Chicago has the recognisable hox perks in every room. Breakfast is included in the room rate via ‘the little breakfast’ bag which you hang on your door each night and pick up in the morning filled with healthy orange juice, fruit and overnight oats.

Hoxton Chicago

The Hoxton always delivers on food offerings and Hoxton Chicago are lucky enough to have locally acclaimed chef Stephanie Izard in charge of the main eatery on the rooftop, Cabra Cevicheria. This Peruvian inspired restaurant serves irresistible dishes in a vibrant and colourful space with incredible views over the city.

Hoxton Chicago

Downstairs in the main lobby you’ll find Cira, where a relaxed Mediterranean menu showcases the ultimate breakfast, brunch. lunch and dinner dishes. I absolutely loved our brunch here, the perfect revitalising feast after a very chilly morning in town. Highlights included the generous shakshuka and the thick fluffy french toast with pistachio granola and orange blossom curd.

Hoxton Chicago

The hotel has recently welcomed a new ‘Working From’ space; two floors of co-working space, meeting rooms and offices to rent. The spacious areas are designed with the same trendy Hoxton feel, decked out with kitchens, coffee shops and all the amenities you could need while working remotely.

Hoxton Chicago

The Hoxton Chicago was a highlight to my trip to the windy city. Beautiful, comfortable bedrooms, stunning welcoming common spaces and exemplary food, I can’t think of a better place for a few nights in this city.

I was a guest of the Hoxton Hotel Chicago, more information and book a room here.

How to Host with Airbnb

Like many people, I decided to try being an Airbnb host after some great experiences being an Airbnb guest around the world. I live in a small but cosy two bedroom flat in London with my husband. We found that our second bedroom was completely empty and unused. Hosting guests in the room has enabled us to earn a bit of extra money and to make friends with lovely, like-minded travellers from all over the world.

In this blog post I hope to dispel a few misconceptions and worries that potential hosts might have, while also highlighting some of the best bits about the experience.

Find out more details about being a host here.

This post is sponsored by Airbnb.

Airbnb

  • Anyone can be an Airbnb host

Whether you have an entire empty property or just a small bedroom to fill, you can be an Airbnb host. When I first posted about our second bedroom I assumed no one would want to stay in our area, sharing a bathroom, but Airbnb helped us position our offering so it was geared towards the right audience. Airbnb also offers a recommended price to help your property get more guests.

  • Who will come and stay and what will they be like?

This is the aspect I was most worried about prior to becoming a host on Airbnb, but I needn’t worry at all. The rating and reviewing system on Airbnb means you can always see what has been said about guests interested in staying at your property. You can also ask potential guests questions to ensure they are the right fit for you. We usually welcome single guests, but have also had couples. Some guests stay for just 2 nights, while one Australian couple stayed with us for over 2 months. We always welcome guests into our flat and find out a bit about them when they first arrive but also give them the peace and quiet if they wish to just chill out. Within 24 hours you’ll become aware of what kind of interaction your guests are after.

  • Will the guests be respectful of our home?

Over the last four years, we have never had a guest mistreat our home. After clear explanations at the start of the stay about how to lock up, and use the bathroom and kitchen, we have found that every guest has been clean and conscientious. Guests who stay for a short time are usually out for the majority of the time exploring the city. They barely use the kitchen, and the bathroom has been easy to share. If a guest hadn’t treated our home appropriately it is easy to review accordingly on Airbnb, and their profile will be updated with those details for all future hosts to see.

Airbnb

  • Make some easy cash

I was amazed by how quickly the sums added up when we started our journey as a host. It may only be a small amount per night but after just 1 month we had enough money to repaint several rooms in the flat and make luxurious changes that we otherwise wouldn’t have been able to afford. This was a particular relief when I was out of work for a few months and we needed the extra income to pay the mortgage.

  • Flexibility

Unlike a permanent housemate, on Airbnb you have the flexibility to have guests as and when you choose. Block out dates when you need the place to yourself or have friends to stay, or lower your price per night if you have a particular need for the extra cash. It has also enabled us to Host in the entire flat (rather than just one bedroom) when we’ve been travelling for extended periods of time.

Airbnb

All in all, I can’t recommend being an Airbnb host enough. In the last four years we’ve had guests who have invited us back to stay with them elsewhere in the world, we’ve shared meals with lovely guests and we’ve spent many nights chatting about shared travel experiences. As a London writer, it has also been a great way for me to share my knowledge with keen tourists, so they see the best of the city.