JAMM ACQUINO / JAQUINO@STARBULLETIN.COM
Remy Martin's Louis XIII cognac sells for $150 for a single 1.5-ounce pour. The hand-blown Baccarat crystal decanter is part of the liquor's luxury appeal. CLICK FOR LARGE
Would you pay $8 for a cuppa joe? Many people are happy to do so
WHETHER it's coffee, cognac or chocolate, some connoisseurs want nothing but the best, and do not hesitate to spend whatever it costs to have it.
You may be in need of their guidance in this season of excess, especially if you're down to the wire seeking a gift for that person who has everything -- and bargain-hunting has ceased to be of major concern.
Honolulu's Gift & Gourmet, a small store downtown, is brimming with items hand-picked by store owner Celia Khim, including Jamaica Blue Mountain Coffee, which sells for $79.99 per pound ($39.99 for a half-pound).
"I like to try what are supposed to be the best things there are," she said.
What makes the blue-bean coffee so expensive is that it's grown entirely on a small portion of Jamaica called Blue Mountain, with limited production.
"Each sip is a different experience because, as the coffee cools, the flavor changes," said Khim. "That I call complex."
Despite the price, which runs $7.99 for a 16-ounce cup, demand is consistent. But only among those who really appreciate smooth coffee.
Ben Bondroff, a patron of the store, said he's more interested in the story behind a food than the price tag. Though he favors the best quality, he tries to find "middle of the road" items for everyday use. "I'm not going to have a $100 bottle of wine and a pizza," he said.
For almost 15 years, real estate consultant Sandy Goto has passed by other coffee stores downtown because "the coffee that Celia carries here and how it's prepared are always intriguing," he said. She uses nothing but a French press, which brews the coffee and water together, without a filter. Her bulk coffee is ground and sealed for the customer.
"You tend to, over time, develop a taste for coffees as you do for wines," added Goto. "I like a dark roast. I like the weight, flavor, texture, character. And I like the finish. For someone like me, I wouldn't know where to begin, so I trust Celia."
Khim does have a few strong recommendations. "If you're putting cream and sugar in, forget it," she said. "That's like putting an ice cube in a glass of good wine." Still, she admits "there is a price point of diminishing returns. Each person has to make that judgment for himself." But if she didn't think that this coffee was worth every penny, she wouldn't carry it, and her loyal customers wouldn't buy it repeatedly.
"Some people really can't taste the difference," she noted, so they flock to the franchises. For those who can, Khim keeps records so she can tell customers what they tasted and enjoyed in the past.
Before making her selections, she sampled from 87 different coffee farms. "I always ask how many days there are from picking to processing," she said. "If it's more than a couple of days, I don't even bother to taste it. I also taste coffee hot and let it stand for 15 minutes. If you have a good coffee, it's very forgiving. When it turns to room temperature, it's still going to taste good. If it turns sour or bitter or flat, I reject it."
She also carries Te Teas, which cost $6.99 to $25.99 per canister (of different weights), or $10.99 for 16 three-point silk pyramid bags containing whole leaf tea. "If it's crumbs," she said, "I don't carry it."
While Khim always strives for the unusual, "the clientele pretty much rules what I carry," she admitted. "It's a matter of demand."
Gift & Gourmet
212 Merchant St. No. 7
JAMM ACQUINO / JAQUINO@STARBULLETIN.COM
Remy Martin wine educator David Gochros says the Louis XIII cognac should be enjoyed in very tiny sips. "The flavor is so intense. I practically just wet my lips with it." CLICK FOR LARGE
The ultimate meal
EVEN the most discriminating foodies will agree that Halekulani's Ultimate Dinner at La Mer is another level of dining. Offered through Dec. 30, the nine-course meal costs $155 per person, with a minimum of two guests. The finishing touch is a taste of Remy Martin Louis XIII Cognac, which alone costs $150 for 1.5 ounces, or $1,500 for a 750-milliliter bottle (there's also a 1.75-ml bottle for $3,500). Halekulani charges more than other restaurants and hotels, but everyone else pours just 1 ounce, according to Randy Ching, La Mer's sommelier.
Remy Martin started making cognacs in 1724, and Louis XIII was first bottled in 1874. "It's considered to be the most famous spirit, period," said David Gochros, the Hawaii manager and wine educator for Remy Martin. It's served in a handblown Baccarat crystal decanter that requires more than 100 operations to produce. An ornate fleur-de-lis decorates the crystal stopper, which is created especially for that bottle. To demonstrate the custom fit that keeps out all oxygen, Gochros turned the bottle upside down. Onlookers gasped, but the stopper stayed in.
What makes the cognac special is the aging process and the blend. The oldest in the fusion of 1,200 cognacs dates back more than 100 years.
"It's best enjoyed in the tiniest of sips," said Gochros. "The flavor is so intense. I practically just wet my lips with it."
One way to judge the quality of a cognac is by its finish, said Gochros. "And the finish on a Louis XIII can last half an hour."
As it ages, the amber-gold color turns into a darker, richer mahogany. Cognac companies are legally allowed to add a small amount of caramel to enhance the color, but this is not something done at Remy Martin. "The color generally tells you the age, but you have to be careful," said Gochro.
And what about mixing it with other drinks? "At this level, it's a sacrilege to add anything to it," laughed Gochros. "You don't want to mess with it at all. It's already there."
Nor does the company recommend heating the spirit. "When you heat it again after it's been aged," said Gochros, "it can ruin the cognac."
La Mer's Ching believes the cognac is worth its exorbitant price. "Not too many cognac houses have this commitment to making such a high-quality product," which includes "fuller, richer flavors that really last long on the palate," he said. But it's not for everyone: "There has to be an appreciation."
Every year the Halekulani's Ultimate Dinner serves as a fundraiser for an organization. Last year, the Waianae High School Culinary program received $2,000. This year, the Red Cross Hawaii Chapters will benefit. The Halekulani serves approximately 10 Ultimate Dinners each night during the holiday season, and it uses about two bottles of Remy Martin Louis XIII cognac per week.
Katrina Merrem and her husband, Noah Houghton, started NoKA Chocolates in 2004 in Dallas. At $854 per pound, NoKA is not for the faint of heart -- or pocketbook. It's also not what people expect from a chocolate. It's certainly not candy.
The first task in selling chocolate of this quality is "getting people to understand chocolate in this way," said Merrem, who said they don't add vanilla or emulsifiers. They also leave in the natural cocoa butter, so the chocolate melts on the palate.
"We try to educate people about what pure chocolate really tastes like," she said. "We want people to experience chocolate, not just eat it."
At a tasting on the third floor of Neiman Marcus several months ago, JMD Beverages matched appropriate wines with the NoKA chocolates for a refined dessert. There's no danger of consuming these little squares by the handful.
It's expensive because the raw materials are so costly. NoKA is a single-source chocolate, meaning the cacao is grown on one estate for continuity of flavor. Furthermore, it contains 75 percent cacao, whereas a standard chocolate bar might have just 10 percent.
"Most chocolates are filled with something, or mixed with milk," said Merrem. "We've taken chocolate to its original source. It's not so much candy as a tasting experience."