A Nightcap for the Ages

  • Richard Carleton Hacker

In a small room upstairs at the French Laundry, Thomas Keller’s renowned restaurant in Napa Valley, one’s attention is immediately drawn to an imposing antique cabinet. Inside, shelf upon shelf is filled with an intriguing collection of rare whiskies, Cognacs, Armagnacs, and liqueurs. Beside them, six polished humidors contain extraordinary cigars from around the world, including a cache of pre-embargo Havanas.

These stores are the basis for Keller’s new menu of spirits and cigars, which is designed to enable diners at his Michelin three-star establishment to end their evening with fitting indulgence. Given the extravagance of an hours-long, multicourse meal at this Napa Valley institution, it is something of a surprise that Keller’s flagship venue only recently began to serve spirits. Since obtaining its liquor license, however, the French Laundry has taken the digestif experience to a different level, offering a tightly edited, by-the-glass collection of 50 spirits—many of which have rarely been seen outside of private collections—that is meant to be paired with the cigars in the restaurant’s serene garden.

“There is a reason behind our inclusion of the new spirits and cigar program,” Keller says. “If it extends the experience of somebody dining at our restaurant, and it extends the level of enjoyment for them, then I’m all for it. That’s the wonderful thing about having this garden outside, because after dinner on a warm summer night, it’s great to go out there and have a Macallan and a cigar.”

The Macallan’s most prestigious bottlings are on the menu, including The Macallan Lalique III, a 57-year-old single malt that is poured from one of only 400 crystal decanters in existence and offered at $1,950 per glass. In addition are The Macallan’s Fine & Rare single malts, including the 1939, 1940, 1956, and 1965 vintages. The menu also includes the just-released 21 Year Old 1989, priced at $600 per glass, which is one of only five bottles currently in the United States.

The seven bourbons include a pre-Prohibition bottle of 1911 J.B. Beam produced for the historic Pendennis Club of Louisville, Kentucky ($1,500), and a 1950s-era Old Fitzgerald ($1,750). In addition, a range of hard-to-find Pappy Van Winkle’s Family Reserve bourbons are listed, among them the scarce 23 Year Old ($300). Other spirits include pre-embargo Ron Malecon Gold Seal Straight Cuban Rum ($500), 1952 Rhum Clément agricole ($350), the 100-year-old blend of Hennessy’s Queen’s Silver Jubilee bottled in 1977 ($1,450), and Armagnacs from the 19th and 20th centuries, as well as rare grappas, calvadoses, Chartreuse, and other spirits.

“We have [twelve] categories of spirits comprising 50 different bottles,” Keller says. “But because we live in a world in which we’re constantly bombarded by having to make choices, which tends to create a lot of anxiety in people, typically they ask someone who is a professional to make the selections for them. So I’ve done that: I’ve picked the spirits I like. That way, there are no other choices. Besides, why go with anything other than what I think is the best?”

Keller, a cigar smoker, follows the same philosophy with his cigar selections. He offers premium smokes from the world’s six major cigar-producing regions: the Dominican Republic, Nicaragua, Honduras, Mexico, Sumatra, and Cuba. The cigars of each region are housed in custom-made Elie Bleu humidors bearing an inlaid design of the appropriate national flag. The French Laundry’s largest cigar selections are Dominicans and  pre-embargo Cubans, the only Havana cigars that are legal in the United States.

Keller and Dennis Kelly, the restaurant’s head sommelier, tracked down both the rare spirits and cigars for the lists, assisted by numerous purveyors. According to Kelly, the two most popular cigars have been the Romeo y Julieta Belvederes Corona from 1961 ($305) and the Hoyo de Monterrey Perfecto from 1930 ($285), while the most popular spirit is The Macallan 18-Year-Old.

Just as an iPad with the French Laundry’s 2,500-bottle wine list is given to guests before their meal, after dinner an iPad Mini is presented listing the cigars and the digestifs, which are poured from an antique swivel-jigger and served in Baccarat Harmonie tumblers—no cocktails. Once the guest chooses a cigar, the appropriate humidor is brought tableside.

“We then ask what length of draw they would like,” Kelly says, “and once they finish their dessert, we typically escort them to the courtyard. Once the guest is seated, we present their cigar, along with a Christofle ashtray. We then clip it, and with the use of a cedar spill, we light their cigar for them. A box of wooden matches is left on the table, should the guest wish to relight their cigar afterwards.” 

The French Laundry, 707.944.2380, www​.french​laundry​.com