When we started off our journey into the world of spirits, our first love was whisky.
In the years since then, we have delved deep into the world of fire water. Vodka, gin, rum, schnapps, even arak and the most bitter of amaros.
But nothing has topped cognac. To us, a fine cognac is one of the best drinks that one can get. We had the good fortune of trying Rémy Martin Louis XIII, one of the best available (stick around till the end for our thoughts).
We think, however, that true appreciation can only come from knowing the origins of the spirit, so we condensed our knowledge into ten big ideas for you to savour.
#1: Wine is to cognac as beer is to whisky
When the Europeans learnt the secrets of distillation from the Moors, they used the new technology to create pure alcohols, which they believed had healing properties. Distillation turns liquid into spirit, extracting desired flavours and concentrating alcohol, leaving water, impurities and unwanted chemicals behind.
Distillation does not create spirit on its own, however; that is the work of the yeasts that convert plant sugars into alcohol. To create brandy, whisky or other spirit, alcohol must first be made and then fed into an alembic. To create cognac, wine is distilled twice.
What then emerges, the eau-de-vie, water of life, as the French call it, is used to make cognac. That accounts for much of the difference between it and whisky, made from grain, and rum, made from sugar; the flavours and aromas of the berries are easily discernible in cognac. Grapes, quite clearly, do not taste much like barley or sugarcane.
#2: Grapes of Worth
When one thinks of French wine, one thinks of Bordeaux, or the Loire Valley, or Burgundy. In the Middle Ages, they had another rival: the Charente Valley, named for the river that flowed through it. Cognac (capital “c”) was one of the most important towns in the region, which made fine wine from chimère, chauché gris, colombard and fromenteau grapes, which made white wines, and chauché noir, which made red.
Never heard of these grapes before? It’s probably because they’re long gone, along with the region’s reputation for making drinking wines. Today, the vineyards grow grapes meant for making cognac (small “c”). Ugni blanc, also known as trebbiano, is now the dominant grape varietal, and makes up most of the production. A small scattering of balzac, colombard and folle blanche, previously used for the making of cognac, still exist.
Why ugni blanc? It makes an extremely acidic wine that doesn’t have that much character of its own- which somehow makes the best cognac.
#3: Where cognac gets its name
The first record of the brandy made in Cognac being traded internationally was in 1517, and even then people knew it was exceptional. By the 1600s, the British who bought in vast quantities were calling it coniacke brandy, which was eventually shortened to just cognac. When ships crossed the Atlantic into the Americas, cognac followed.
The world enjoyed cognac so much that not even continental and world wars, famine, and a brief ice age could stop it. So famed was it that imitators and sinister merchants were bound to spring up. Charlatans, rogues and other unsavouries claimed that their brandy was from Cognac- which was mostly untrue.
In 1936, to protect producers and drinkers, the term cognac gained the force of law, and referred to brandy coming from the region, and from the region only. In one stroke, reputations were protected, and people who paid for good cognac would not be drinking snake oil.
#4: The land makes all the difference
What makes cognac and Cognac so special?
It is certainly possible to make good, sometimes exceptional, brandy outside of the region. Yet, there is something magical about Cognac that allows it to make consistently good eau de vie. It has much to do with terroir – the combination of climate, soil and physical geography that determine the quality of crops grown in the region.
Where whiskymakers often import barley from other regions (which need not be Scotland!), terroir is so important in Cognac that it is subdivided into six regions. In descending order of quality (and price):
- Grande Champagne: Located in the heart of Cognac, and produces the best, most powerful cognacs. Eau-de-vie from this region can mature into magnificent cognacs, but take decades to mature.
- Petite Champagne: A shade below the Grande Champagne, with a hair less finesse. Like Grand Champagne cognacs, they can be aged for 40 years or more.
- Borderies: A tiny region that produces a floral and sweet eau-de-vie. Takes about twenty years to reach its maximum potential.
- Fins Bois: A region which produces round, supple spirit, with strong grape and floral characteristics. The eau-de-vie age fairly quickly, taking about twenty years to reach their peak.
- Bon Bois: Eau-de-vie from this region is considerd to be earthy and low in complexity.
- Bois Ordinaires: The least of the cognac regions. It is rarely, if ever used in making top quality spirit.
#5: Aged like fine wine
The most important ingredient in cognac production is time. Cognac is always aged in oak barrels. Like with whisky, the wood plays a key role in changing the flavour of the spirit sleeping within. Flavours are transferred to the cognac from the oak and the rough edges are sanded off by time. Some cognacs can be aged for decades, continuing to evolve in flavour, becoming more refined and taking on nutty, buttery rancio flavours.
Yet, the right cask needs to be paired with eau-de-vie with the best potential. Unlike whisky, many of the oak casks used are of the French Limousin or Troncais species. The flavours are delicate, light and elegant, which is prized in cognac.
Cognac can not be aged indefinitely, and each cask has the potential to give certain flavours. A young casks imparts its flavours quickly and can create strong, astringent flavours- an old cask is the opposite. If a spirit is to be matured in a cask for fifty years or more (and it often is), it has to start in old oak; this is the secret of Rémy Martin’s Louis XIII, a supremely elegant and light cognac.
When the cellar master of the cognac house deems that the eau-de-vie will not improve further in the bottle, it is removed and put in a glass jar called a demijohn. It ceases to evolve and is ready for blending.
#6 You have to blend in
Almost all cognacs are blended, meaning that different eau-de-vies are combined together to make the final product, which is bottled and sold.
The reasons are complex, but it stems from the need to standardise a product. People want to know what they’re buying, and want to buy the same cognac year after year.
The trouble with standardisation is nature. Every single harvest of grapes is different, affected by weather and other factors too numerous to list. Each distillation produces different results, particularly if different people perform it. Add that to the effects of different casks made of different wood, aged for different time periods, and the task seems quite Herculean.
To get a consistent flavour profile, different eau-de-vie need to be combined, or blended, so that the different flavours “balance” each other out.
#7: A Herculean task
That job falls to the cellar master. For a large producer, there can be thousands of casks, ranging across a century. The Cellar Master has to have an encyclopedic knowledge of his stock to produce the blends. A VS from Rémy Martin is blend of over 200 eau-de-vie. Louis XIII contains more than 1,200. Imagine having all that sensory information inside your head.
On top of his blending duties, the cellar master is also responsible for the lifeblood of his company. He or she decides which eau-de-vie have the greatest potential, how long to age them, in what to age them, and monitors all the aging stock.
Many of the spirits will be aging for decades. The cellar master almost might never get to use spirits he lays down in a blend of his own. He has to think ahead and predict what it will taste like even after he is long gone.
#8: What’s Napoleon got to do with it?
It’s rare to see a vintage cognac, and we don’t think we’ve ever seen one with a numerical age statement. Instead, cognacs are classified by age categories:
- VS (Very Special), formerly known as three stars: consists of eau-de-vie aged for a minimum of two years
- VSOP (Very Special Old Pale): a blend where the youngest eau-de-vie was matured for at least four years
- XO (Extra Old): the youngest eau-de-vie in the blend was matured for at least six years (in 2018, that will be changed to ten years).
- Cognac Napoleon: equal to an XO in terms of age, but usually marketed as an in-between category of VSOP and XO.
- Hors d’Age: literally “beyond age”. While there is no official designation of age, these are at least XOs, but are considered to be so superior that it deserves its own category.
Since the categories refer to the youngest spirit in the blend, the average age of cognacs in each bottle may be far older than its classification suggests. This is particularly so for XOs. There might be forty-year-old eau-de-vie in a “six-year-old” XO, depending on the cognac house. The Rémy Martin XO Excellence, for example, is said to have an average age of 25 years, though we won’t know for sure.
So in the words of George Orwell, while all XOs are equal, some are more equal than others.
#9: Why so “expensive”?
There are a few reasons why cognac commands the price it does. It has much to do with supply; by law, each vineyard can only produce a limited amount of grapes, and therefore eau-de-vie.
Then consider the effects of the angels’ share. Each year that a cask of eau-de-vie sits in a cellar (called a chai in Cognac), it loses some of its water and alcohol to evaporation. That can be as much as 2% of its current volume each year. If a cognac matures for fifty years, a full cask can be reduced to a few bottles’ worth.
Then consider the cost of maintaining the casks perfectly. Add on the costs of the casks themselves, the wages of the cognac makers, and distribution and marketing costs…
That is not to say that all cognac is expensive. A VS or VSOP is perfectly affordable; on a shelf with other drinks, the costs are comparable. VS is, in fact, the fastest growing category of cognac.
Of course, for those of us who want something more out of their spirit…
#10: A fine, fine cognac named Louis XIII
Louis XIII sits at the top of the cognac pyramid. The blend was a favourite of Winston Churchill, who celebrated his election 1951 with a bottle. It was also served to Queen Elizabeth II at Versailles in 1957.
First created in 1874 by Paul-Emile-Rémy Martin, the blend is still alive today, and thanks to the efforts of Rémy’s cellar masters, unchanged. Made from more than 1,200 different eau-de-vie ranging from 40 to 100 years old, it takes four generations of cellar masters to craft it. The method of its making is not found in a textbook, but is gained through experience and knowledge passed down from each generation of cognac makers to the next.
So, we are not exaggerating when we say that we are tasting a piece of history.
Nose: So incredibly complex. We have never gotten so many aromas from one spirit before.
The symphony begins with the lightness of vanilla, honey and cream. It then proceeds swiftly into a floral bouquet of white grapes, orange blossom, elderflower and mirabelle plums.
In the third act, sweet aromas of figs, dates and raisins emerge. Finally, it tapers off into walnuts, almonds and a light dusting of cinnamon and nutmeg. Somehow, it balances light and heavy notes perfectly.
Palate: This is a thick, rich syrup that flows from the glass. We feel its gravity as we swirl it gently around the glass. There is no harshness here, only mellow smoothness. On touching the lips, there is an initial burst of fruit- surprisingly fresh considering the age of the eau-de-vie within.
We taste honeysuckle and the fruits of summer, fresh muscat grapes and plums that dance on the tongue. We get raisins and dried green apples- a measured, mellowed tartness that balances out the sweetness. A caramel, honey note emerges that slowly evolves into mild spice.
Finish: Long and lingering- we could still taste it a full ten minutes after our sip. The echoes of spice and raisins leave a pleasant sweetness on the tongue.
Wow. This is an amazing spirit. Lightness and elegance distilled, almost as if you’re drinking spring, summer and fall in a glass. A swirl of so many aromas and flavours that envelops us; one has to close one’s eyes to take in the wondrous complexity.
Even weeks after drinking it, we find ourselves thinking about it, recalling its fine details.
Surely, this is what dreams are made of.
The pinnacle of quality doesn’t come cheap, but if you’re interested in picking up possibly the best drink you can ever get, contact [email protected].