Launched last year, Avallen Calvados has been hitting the headlines as a ‘product with a purpose’. Created by Healthy Hospo founder Tim Etherington-Judge and wine and spirits specialist Stephanie Jordan, they set out to make the most sustainable spirit possible and so chose calvados. Avallen means ‘apple tree’ in Old Cornish and is made without the addition of sugar, caramel or boisé. It is packaged in a lightweight bottle with a label that sends the message ‘Bee-ing positive has never tasted this delicious’. Its packaging won a Master medal and €0.50 from each bottle sold will be donated to organisations dedicated to restoring and protecting bees. Aged for only two years it is a pretty young spirit, but the sustainability message will surely resonate with many in the current climate.
The American Chemical Society has identified a few compounds, not previously known, which contribute to an aged cognac’s complex aromas. Using cognacs ranging from about 10 – 50 years old, a combination of gas chromatography/olfactometry and mass spectrometry separated, smelled and identified their various components. Of the many found, several terpenoids (which give wine its floral notes) were identified for the first time. A sensory panel then looked at how, when mixed, these cognac compounds contributed to ageing aromas eg they found that whisky lactone and β-damascenone enhanced the sensation of a mix of terpenes found in aged distillates but not in younger ones. The report suggests that these findings could help producers develop cognacs with better flavours, although it only refers to blended cognacs. So, our single cask Hermitage Cognacs will continue to receive their wonderful aromas and flavours from the oak.
Six months ago, the US imposed hefty tariffs on the import of some European wines, whiskies and liqueurs following a long running dispute over EU import tariffs and subsidies. Last December, the US government considered imposing similar US tariffs on other EU wines and spirits, including cognac, and raising tariffs by up to 100%. Fortunately for our industry, the situation remained unchanged but Scottish whisky and American whiskey have already suffered huge export losses. Spirits Europe and Discus (Distilled Spirits Council of the US) are now advocating free trade between the US and the EU as they are each other’s biggest spirits export destinations. The DG of Spirits Europe said “… amidst recent EU-US trade tensions, our sector has been turned into a hallmark example of the considerable, yet entirely avoidable economic risks and damage whenever free trade is interrupted by tariffs.” As the UK prepares to leave the EU, it will have the opportunity to step away from these retaliatory tariffs but of course our much loved French brandies will still be affected.
We are used to seeing the ownership of French brandy houses moving to the Far East but recently, US controlled brandies are coming to the fore. US drinks group Sazerac has released a cognac named after Bernard Sazerac de Forge who founded his cognac house in 1782. Called Sazerac de Forge & Fils ‘Finest Original’ it is based on the original cognac and made from grape varieties used in the early 19th century. ‘Folle Blanche’ and ‘Colombard’ were popular during the pre-Phylloxera period and blending cognacs made from them is said to be responsible for the character of the new expression. The opportunity to move into the world of cognac production presumably came after the drinks group acquired Domaine Breuil de Segonzac in 2016. Another French brandy house was purchased recently by a US company when the founder of whiskey brand WhistlePig, acquired armagnac producer Maison Ryst Dupeyron. With the popularity of armagnac increasing all the time and cognac production struggling to meet demand these are shrewd acquisitions by the Americans.
The growth in generic cognac sales over the last quarter of a century has distracted from the single most important criteria in determining the quality of a cognac. The age, or to be precise, the barrel age of a cognac is the most important element of cognac quality, yet we so often fail to ask the age question. Currently there simply is not enough information on the bottle to make it interesting. Compare that to a single malt whisky where the label tells us its barrel age, who made it and even what barrel it was stored in. It is little wonder that single malts outsell cognacs by a factor of 10 : 1.
Sure, there are other factors that affect cognac quality, the cru, shape and size of the still, the cut, variations in the actual distillation, the size and age of the barrels, the storage conditions . . . . . . the list goes on but the longer the cognac is allowed to sleep in the barrel, the better it is. The provenance is the one piece of information that tells us more about its quality than all the other cognac features put together.
Of course, where the cognac was made and who made it is important. However, even cognac that has been made in the top cru by a family producer, will lose its identity once it has been sold to one of the big houses as they have to blend hundreds of different cognacs together to meet their customer demands. Fortunately, there are still family firms who sell their cognacs independently. These single estate producers are much more likely to provide cognacs that have aged for more than the minimum number of years and to have kept their best and oldest in the family cellars.
Modern wine and spirit retailers have little knowledge of cognac. It is not their fault. They simply have not been told and there is no information on the bottle to encourage questions. Many retailers consider themselves as mainly wine retailers, yet if they were to learn about cognac and actively sell it, it would provide them with a much more interesting sale (there are so many different processes it goes through over a much longer ageing process than any other alcoholic beverage). Values and margins are higher, and the story is more involved and interesting than wine. After all, cognac starts as a wine.
So, you may say “Where do we go from here?” Supermarket shelves are stocked with generic blends which do not sell and if you ask for a brandy in a hotel or bar you are offered a VS, VSOP or XO. Growers and producers must make their cognacs and labels more interesting by keeping some of their cognacs back from the big houses to sell independently with age statements.
But perhaps the best idea is to draw up a long term plan and ask where producers want to be in the future; struggling to get a decent price from the big houses or offering what their forefathers would have liked, unique cognacs that have been properly aged and recognised for the unique flavours and styles that they have spent generations in perfecting. Not only will they get recognition for their cognacs, but they will get much more money for them as well. Cognacs are complex and have interesting flavours that have developed in their barrels over decades. This is why cognac is the King of all Spirits.
It's going to be a very different Father's Day 2020. A long pub lunch or trip to his favourite restaurant maybe off the cards but you can always recreate some wonderful memories at home with a gift to savour. A local takeaway or home cooked roast is always a winner and how about something special to enjoy afterwards? Our multi-award winning range of Hermitage Cognacs are all individual with fabulous flavours and can be enjoyed day after day. To make this year's Father's Day particularly special we have reduced the price of three of our most popular Gold Medal winning Hermitage Cognacs and there is still FREE delivery in the UK for orders over £100. Enjoy!
Over the years we have built many relationships with suppliers and friends in the Charente and particularly in Grande Champagne. Although it is some months since we have been able to travel to France, we still talk frequently to them by phone and they, like ourselves, are having to cope with the difficulties that the coronavirus has created this Spring. Cognac producers and bottlers are having to prove that they are producing to get paid as the French authorities are worried about the cost to the country. Talking to one organisation, their concern is the receipt of orders as much of their business comes from the Far East. However, they are delighted to have received their first orders from Taiwan and Japan. Delivering orders is another challenge as European distribution organisations are finding that crossing borders takes longer than usual. All the big houses are continuing to bottle and ship cognac, except Hennessy. Their employees have gone on strike for safer working conditions. The industry has so far lost sales of over a million cases which of course has affected the side industries such as barrel producers and bottle suppliers. And if these problems were not enough, many producers woke up at the beginning of March to a covering of snow! The air force base in Cognac has also been helping during the crisis; 2000 extra staff have been taken on to ship food in and in some cases, cognac out. So, if things get desperate, we can always ask for direct supplies from Cognac to be parachuted in!!!
As most of you know, I spend a great deal of my time tasting cognacs because as a company we believe that every cognac must be perfect for its intended type of customer. But being perfect doesn’t necessarily mean it is the cognac which excels in taste above all others. The simple truth is that a cognac which I may consider is the best cognac may not be the same one that you like because our palates have become accustomed, over time, to different taste characteristics which our brains have accepted as good.
Perhaps the term ‘taste characteristics’ is one to associate with fine cognacs; they will differ from one cognac to another and in most producers’ opinions, their own will be better than any other available. This is not surprising as producers spend their lifetime tasting their own cognacs, few ever venture onto another producer’s patch and few have any idea of how to compare their own production with that of their neighbours.
So, how do you know what is good and what perhaps is not so good? Well, when you have tasted thousands of different brandies you get to know when you have a really good cognac in your glass. As a professional cognac taster, I am looking for a number of different qualities. I look at the colour and how the cognac hangs on the glass, but the first real test of quality comes with the complexity of its aroma and if those aromas can be translated into taste. Finally, and perhaps the most important criteria of all is its balance; the need to maximise flavour whilst minimising the fieriness of the cognac.
The actual taste element of a cognac is personal as we all have different ideas about what we like. You might think I am lucky getting to taste so many expensive cognacs but don’t be fooled into thinking that if a cognac is expensive it is good. Even these can have sugar added as it softens a cognac but, it also gives a sort of false sweetness. On the other hand, a cognac which has been in a barrel for 50 or 60 years develops its richness naturally, the effect is known as ‘Rancio’. This is a very desirable but rare effect as most cognacs available today have been aged for less than 10 years old.
So, I hear you say, what is the best cognac? Well, I’ll tell you my favourite. It is a cognac which I found 4 or 5 years ago, not a million miles from our office near Segonzac, in the heart of Grande Champagne. It has aged in oak for more than 60 years and has come from a family’s private cellar. We have the privilege of selling it under the Hermitage label; it is expensive but not as expensive as other so-called luxury cognacs. It is perfectly balanced, complex in aroma and flavour, has a rich ‘rancio’ and won the Cognac Masters Best Cognac 2018. We call it ‘Marie Louise’.
The results are out! We entered 4 of our ever-expanding range of Grande Champagne cognacs into The Spirits Business Cognac Masters this year and came away with 2 x GOLD medals and 2 x MASTER medals. These could be our best results yet.
GOLD medals were awarded to:
MASTER Medals were awarded to:
Hermitage 40 Year Old Grande Champagne Cognac - “Wonderfully complex” Judges comments and Hermitage Eleanor 60 + Year Old Grande Champagne Cognac “Stunning palate … long finish” Judges comments. Price and availability of Hermitage Eleanor in on application.
The level of Duty imposed on alcohol purchases is always a hot topic. Before the recent UK budget, a group of WSTA SMEs wrote to the chancellor asking for a 2% cut in order to help small British companies, like Hermitage Cognacs, invest and grow. Currently the UK has some of the highest alcohol taxes in the world. As we now know, Rishi Sunak did not cut alcohol duty but neither did he increase it by the proposed 2.2%. Something to be thankful for especially since earlier in the year, some UK health organisations were lobbying the government to put Duty up by 2 % above inflation. They argued that alcohol places an undue burden on public services so the extra funds collected could be used to boost the number of nurses or policemen. One really hopes that following the Covid-19 crisis the public will be far more aware of the effect of unnecessarily burdening our public services.