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July 2008


WINE & SPIRITS

Beyond Vanilla
By Baroness Sheri de Borchgrave

THE SPA IS THE LATEST PLACE TO TIE ONE ON

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My parents used to have one simple rule when it came to drinking: no cocktails before five in the afternoon, which is when they would break out the gin and tonics. How quaintly antiquated that seems today. Everywhere I look lately, someone is proffering a new genre of mood-setting libation—brunch-time eye openers, late afternoon wind-me-downs, post-dinner pousse-cafes. It seems no time, these days, is the wrong time for the appropriate cocktail.

Recently, at the chic Setai Hotel in South Beach, I was introduced to the most novel category I've encountered to date, spa cocktails—drinks designed to work in tandem with treatments to help you de-stress. In the resort's luxurious spa complex, I met the French woman championing the concept, Alexandra Marnier Lapostolle (whose great-grandfather happens to have invented the orange liqueur Grand Marnier). Alexandra, whose family has been in the wine and spirits business since the 19th century, commissioned master mixologist Alex Ott to create a new line of spa-friendly cocktails using the family's Navan vanilla liqueur.

Over lunch at the hotel Alexandra and I discussed the rising popularity of spas and the wonders of Madagascar vanilla. "We have a beautiful house in the South of France between Nice and Monte Carlo," she told me. "My grandfather collected botanicals as a hobby. He grew more than 15,000 species in the garden there." Among those plants was the vanilla orchid that first got her thinking about making a vanilla liqueur. After searching the world for the finest vanilla, she settled on a source in Madagascar, blending vanilla beans from the island with 10-year-old Cognac—thus Navan was born. Recently she began to consider novel ways to bring the liqueur to high-end consumers. Spas, she said, seemed like the ideal place to begin.

"These days people go to spas to socialize, just as they would a bar," she told me. "It's a stressful world. More and more people are gravitating to relaxing spa settings." Ott mixed up hundreds of cocktails in pursuit of the four balanced creations served as the Setai's Navan Spa Series Martinis. "I researched ingredients that have specific effects on the body," explained Ott, who has lived and worked in such far-flung locales as Kenya, Australia and Thailand. "These drinks are packed with good things, including lots of anti-oxidants. Almost like the treatments themselves, they refresh and replenish the body." He acknowledged, though, that containing alcohol, they're not quite health drinks. Still, he insisted that relaxation all by itself is certainly good for you. "Stress causes aging," he said. "Just look at an American president after four years in office. He's aged decades."

The first cocktail on the list, the Navan Spa Martini, is made with fresh cucumber juice. "It's actually a vegetable martini," said Ott, "very soothing." He muddles whole cucumber, adds the juice, two ounces of Navan, a half-ounce of Chopin vodka, lemon juice and natural agave nectar for sweetness. "I don't use sugar in any of my cocktails," he explained. The drink, which I sipped at the Setai after my lunch, turned out to be truly inspired.

The second cocktail on the list, the Navan Pear-Sage Refresher, was also delicious. As I watched him make one, he began by clapping a fresh sage leaf in his hands to release the essential oils, then tossed the leaf into a shaker with ice, two ounces of pear juice, a half-ounce of lemon juice and equal parts Navan and vodka. The flavors were beautifully harmonious.

The third cocktail I tasted was the anti-oxidant rich Navan Green Tea Elixir. Ott combines a pinch of highly concentrated gunpowder green tea ("It's my secret ingredient," he said.) with two ounces of Navan, an ounce of Chopin, two ounces of fresh mango juice and an ounce of lemon juice. The drink, which actually tastes quite healthy, is not nearly as irresistible as his final spa concoction—an extremely indulgent white chocolate martini topped with 23-carat edible gold. This particular drink, combining fresh mint, Navan, Godiva White Chocolate liqueur, heavy cream and agave nectar, is probably best suited to enjoy post-treatment, savored slowly after a long, languid massage.

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