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Brandy Education

  • Numbers on Bottles (Age Statements) -The value in the bottle

    Throughout drinking history the age of a bottle’s content has always been contentious, in particular for wines and spirits where age can represent a substantial part of the bottle value. Defining the age of a cognac has, for the vast majority of companies, become all but impossible as they have to buy and blend as many as 3000 different cognacs to meet their sales requirements. To clarify the situation, a set of rules was created by the governing body of cognac, the Bureau National Interprofessionel de Cognac (BNIC). They require cognacs to be aged in oak casks for a specific period of time in order to fall into one of three categories. The youngest is the VS where cognacs must have been aged for more than two years before bottling. The second category is called VSOP where cognacs need to be more than 4 years old and the third category is Napoleon and XO, both of which must be more than 6 years old.

    But cognac ages very slowly, especially when stored in the ideal conditions for the spirit, and it is this ageing process that gives it both colour and taste.  Perhaps even more significant is that depending on the region or cru where it is aged, some cognacs can take three or four times longer to acquire an acceptable quality. Cognacs from the Champagnes (Grande and Petit Champagne) may take as long as 50 to 80 years to reach the desired level of maturity and quality.  They have to be distilled at 70 degrees in the final distillation so the subsequent reduction in strength can be very slow and the flavour take time to develop. Additives are widely used by the big houses to improve the colour and to reduce the fiery nature of young spirits.

    At Brandyclassics our policy is to only buy cognacs where we know the age and where, particularly with young cognacs, the flavour is not impaired by their youthful aging. We refer to ages, for example a 10 year old where the cognac has been aged in an oak cask for 10 years, and vintages, for example 1975 where the cognac was made in that year and can be any number of years old up to the bottling date. Once the cognac has been bottled, or in the case of some very old ones stored in bonbonnes for later bottling, the quality and taste of each cognac will not change, unless the cork is left out for a considerable period.

    Of course, the value of the bottle of cognac with an age statement depends on a number of factors. Firstly, where the cognac comes from, if it is from the top cru, Grande Champagne then it will usually be of greater value than one from a lower cru, say Fins Bois or Bon Bois. Secondly, if the cognac is very old, it will have aged in cellars for a long time and that is expensive. Lastly, many vintage cognacs are in very short supply, particularly those that were made in the early 19th century.   For example where the cognac is very rare and has a story attached to it such as the Massougnes 1801 and 1805, the value can easily be between £10,000 and £150,000.  However, it is worth noting that with some younger cognacs the age of the cognac may be well short of the period between the date and the vintage on the bottle. So when buying old cognacs always try and establish the actual barrel age.  Hermitage Cognacs will always have a bottling date on the back label so that you can be sure how old the cognac is.

  • Hennessy Cognac - an Old Firm with a Young Problem

    Hennessy VSOP and Hennessy XO are perhaps the best known cognacs in the world, but over the years the standards of these cognacs has not just slipped but plunged to depths unimaginable in the haze of cognac gloom. The barrel age of these onetime legendary cognacs is falling annually as the demand for them increases. Probably the biggest problem is that as the age of the cognac in the bottle reduces, the level of additives required to compensate for their fiery nature and light colour increases.

    Hennessy’s problem is by no means unique. Indeed it is the problem with all the big negoçiants including Remy Martin, Martell and Courvoisier. There simply isn’t enough cognac being produced to supply the markets, especially those in China where growth is escalating at 20% or more a year. Demand for luxury cognacs is such that the Chinese are taking every opportunity to supply fake products in the market.

    The biggest problem that we all have with high quality cognacs is the ageing process. Those that come from the top cru’s such as Grande Champagne and Petite Champagne can take up to 70 or 80 years to develop to their fullest in the barrel and that costs a lot of money and patience!

    Cognac regulations say that VSOP cognacs must age for a minimum of 3 ½ years in their barrels whilst XO must be at least 6 ½ years old. At one time in the 1960’s and 70’s Hennessy XO was age in the barrel  for around 25 years old and although additives were used, they were only used in small quantities. Today, Hennessy XO is estimated at being less than ten years old and falling annually - one wonders how long it will be before it reaches the legal minimum?

    There are around 5000 cognac producers and some of the smaller family firms that have been making it for generations keep their aged cognacs, only selling them either under their own names or to smaller negoçiants who sell high quality single estate cognacs.

    Hermitage Cognacs Limited are unique, offering naturally aged cognacs with age statements to customers who seek great quality and individual choices in age, strength and flavour. Hermitage cognacs offer cognacs from only the very finest distillers in the top cognac crus. That is why Hermitage Cognacs win many medals for what is regarded by many as the finest cognacs in the world.

  • Did You Know? Rudolf and that Red Nose

    Legend has it that one cold night Santa, being known as a man of great generosity and feeling great remorse at the duties of his reindeer, plied a quantity of brandy over some rich cake and gave it to his lead reindeer to keep him warm, resulting in a red nose.

    The famous Christmas song Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer started life as a poem created by an American advertising executive called Robert May. He was requested to produce a poem that could be given away to children by the Santa Claus employed by Department Stores at Christmas! Working as an Advertising Executive, Robert May had a natural flair with words and was able to compose the Rudolph the red-nosed reindeer poem. This marketing ploy was a massive success and approximately 2.5 million Rudolph the red-nosed reindeer poems were given away in the first year of its publication!

    In 1949 the singer Gene Autry recorded a musical version of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer composed by Johnny Marks. In Athens officials say somebody added a little holiday spirit to the deer-crossing signs hereabout: red reflectors on the deer silhouette’s nose and, they assured, if you ever saw one, you would even say it glows. The culprits' identity is a Christmas season mystery that has piqued their curiosity.

     

  • Did You Know? Grappa

    Grappa was originally a peasant drink, designed to provide comfort and strength to the maker - usually a poor peasant in the mountains of northern Italy. Grappa was more than just a drink - it was a tradition, a disinfectant, a medicine, allegedly sovereign against complaints as diverse as depression in old age, toothache, constipation and even bronchitis!

    Grappa can be consumed in many ways. It used to be consumed as a standard breakfast drink, espresso corretto con grappa with just enough grappa in the espresso to get the blood circulating. A drop or two in the coffee also formed part of the grappa-lore, as did the use of grappa in cooking, splashed into potatoes in their jackets or as flavouring for coffee cakes and pan de figo – dried figs soaked in the stuff. It could also be tasted in many original ways, including by rubbing a little on the palm of the hand as though it was a perfume, or by letting a few drops fall into a cup of boiling water. It was so strong that even a few drops in a cup of coffee gave one new life!

    More recently many of them have become cult drinks. This is partly snobbery, parallel to the acceptance of former peasant foods such as gnocchi or tagliatelle reflecting the search for older traditions by self conscious urban intellectuals, and partly the preservation of the Arneis grape.

     

     

  • Did You Know? The Cognac Grapes

    Legally the Cognaçais may use a number of grape varieties, although the choice is largely theoretical. The Ugni Blanc or to give it it’s proper name, the St Emillion des Charentes, accounts for about 95% of the total area. The rest is almost totally Colombard and Folle Blanch. This concentration is largely attributable to phylloxera. Cognacs rise to fame was based on two varieties, the Balzac and the Folle (later known as the Folle Blanche) both much despised by locals only interested in fine wines. In the eighteenth century the Colombard which made the delicious sweet wine from the Borderies also rose to fame, it ripens quickly to a sort of butterscotch warmth and when mixed with Ugni Blanc can provide delicious peachy flavours but will usually finish quite short on the palate.

    Folle Blanche was the raw material for the brandies which were the glory of cognacs pre-phylloxera heyday. The wine it produced was so acid as to be virtually undrinkable although this was ideal for producing fine, aromatic cognac with a great depth of flavour. When grafted onto American rootstock it flourishes too vigorously and the grapes in the middle were liable to grey rot that could not be reached by anti rot sprays. 

  • Did You Know? Massougnes

    The house of Massougnes is no more, but in its day was the biggest supplier of cognac in the Charente. The house was famous as well, as it has always been owned by the French Noblesse.

    Brandyclassics have recently  acquired the last bottle of cognac from the estate, a 1810 Massougnes Cognac of  c 90cl, which is available for sale on our website.

    The family was and still is today directly related to King Louis VII and Eleanor of Aquitaine and their children, King Richard and John of England. Today, the last remaining descendant of the French true royal blood still lives on the estate near Aigre.

    Marie-Antoinette Pintaurd des Allees, Comtesse de La Bourdeliere, although now frail, lives at what remains of the Chateau and estate in a village called Bonnerville to the west of Aigre. In around 1850 the estate comprised of more than 360 hectares and had forty workers who were all actually employed and provided with their own houses to live in. No other cognac producer was known to be so generous with its staff.

    Bills of Sale seen at the Chateau have proved its existence since before 1730. Later they sold the cognacs to such famous names as Augier, Hennessy and Martell but it is know that the estate was started around 1605. Unfortunately all was lost during the plague of Phylloxera in 1872 and the remains have fallen into ruin.

     

     

  • Did You Know? The Taste.

    One of the difficulties we always find when deciding upon the flavour of a particular cognac is the time of the day we did the tasting. The problem being that our taste buds have greater efficiency in the mornings than in the afternoon or evenings. Not only that but our perception of what we taste can also vary at different times of the day, so a cognac that tastes of roasted walnuts in the morning may taste of green walnuts in the afternoon or vice versa.

    The sensation of taste is closely related to that of smell and taste is detected by what are known as taste buds (circular bumps), on the tongue. They range from quite small on the front of the tongue to larger ones at the back, technically known as “papillae”. Each papilla has a gustatory hair that reaches the outside of the tongue through an opening called a taste pore. Once a stimulus activates the gustatory impulse, receptor cells pass an electrical impulse to the gustatory area of the cortex. The brain interprets the sensations of taste.

    A tongue map was developed in 1901 by a German scientist, D P Hanig, who discovered that taste preceptors have varying degrees of sensitivity and that some areas can detect taste better than others. Whilst the tongue detects the taste, other areas of the mouth can influence flavour. Pressure of the tongue on the roof of the mouth can prevent the gustatory hairs from sensing the flavours but the uneven shape of the roof tends to limit this effect. People with top dentures can often detect different flavours, since the denture has a smooth area that compresses that area of the mouth, making it easier for the gustatory hairs to be crushed and preventing the brain from detecting the flavour.

    Look on the Brandyclassics website for tasting notes - for nearly every bottle we sell you'll find a description of the flavours you can find in the brandy. Whether it's cognac, armagnac, calvados or eaux de vie,  you'll find a tremendous selection of artisan brandies for you to enjoy.

  • Cognac Tasting – The right and the Wrong!

    Many people often ask us to explain the right way to taste brandies so we thought we would make a new year’s resolution to encourage a wider understanding of cognac appreciation.

    1. Firstly the glass. Big brandy balloons allow too big a surface area of the brandy exposed to the air. The professional glass is a small tulip shaped glass, but a small brandy balloon will be fine.
    2. The cognac should be rolled around the sides of the glass to allow it to form tears down the side. Never swirl the spirit as this will release too much alcohol from the liquid, which will sit over the surface of the cognac and blind the aroma.
    3. Half of the enjoyment of the cognac is in its aroma, it is therefore important to have as much surface area to smell as possible. Allow the cognac to rest for a few seconds before gently bringing the glass to the nose, trying if possible to recognise some of the many aromas.
    4. Don’t rush it! Many of those wonderful smells will be recognisable in the taste, so take your time before the big event when you taste it.
    5. Don’t sip it! Take a reasonable quantity into the mouth and chew it - key taste areas are the front and back of the tongue and the roof of your mouth, so make sure they are immersed to discover the full complexity.
    6. Hold it in your mouth for a while. You will be surprised at what you find...

    In addition to our exclusive range of Hermitage cognacs, Brandyclassics have a superior range of cognacs, armagnacs and calvadoses from a wide selection of Houses. Every brandy has a unique flavour, and we encourage our customers to read the additional product information on our website. The Flavour section will provide hints as to the flavours you can detect as you drink from one of our bottles...

  • Hermitage Cognacs – A Multitude of Benefits

    During the late 1980’s and early 1990’s when Brandyclassics were developing a strategy for selling cognacs, the key question customers would ask was “Can we have a vintage cognac”.

    Research has established that more than 93% of customers would prefer to know how old the cognacs they are buying are, rather than rely on a generic description which they do not understand. Brandyclassics have understood customers' reluctance to buy cognacs which lack individuality for many years.

    The famous cognac houses spend millions of pounds advertising their homogenous, characterless generic VS, VSOP and XO cognacs, resting on the laurels of past glories. This has given them licence to reduce the quality of the cognacs they sell, and they have progressively used younger and younger cognacs blended from thousands of producers. This results in cognacs with less natural flavour from the barrels and more aggressive tones on the palate.

    Vintages, on the other hand, have to remain in the barrel gently maturing until their natural balance provides the optimum balance and flavour. Hermitage Cognacs are designed to be aged naturally; the stills in which they are made are specifically shaped so as to collect the spirits before they are able to drip back into the boiler and be re-distilled or neutralised. The barrels are kept in damp cellars to prevent too much of the brandy escaping from the barrels, allowing it to have maximum contact with the wood. Only the very finest are then selected and sold under our exclusive Hermitage cognac label. When you see our logo on the bottles, you know it is very special and carries an age statement for your assurance of the very finest purity and quality. Hermitage cognacs are not blended, they are Single Estate Cognacs.

  • Did You Know? The Cognac Bottle

    In real terms nobody really knows when cognacs were first put into bottles. The first recorded cognacs existed around 1540, but we only know of them being sold in barrels.

    About 200 years later, cognacs were being sold from barrels and transferred into small convenient sized hand blown bottles of around 40-50cl. At around this time, it was discovered that some cognacs were best removed from the barrel and stored in glass bottles, which prevented them from changing their individual characteristics. To prevent any deterioration in the cognac when it was stored in glass, it was necessary for the bottle to be sealed with a cork and waxed over the top to prevent the ingress of air. To minimise the number of bottles that needed sealing, large bottles were made which would hold sometimes as much as 3-4 litres. Cognacs stored in these large bottles were often transferred to smaller bottles, which could be easily carried around before they were sold,

    By around 1800, glass producers were making hand blown bottles by the thousands. Although there were standard sizes, no two bottles were the same and many had big bell bottoms, which when the hot glass was pressed to the table often meant that the bottle would have a distinctive lean to the side. The bottles of this period had grown to around 90cl and the need for standardisation created the imperial measure for liquids. Most of the cognac houses were owned by English or Irish families, so this was easier for the buyers of the brandies to understand.

    Imperial brandy measures were finally changed in 1956, when metric units were introduced to standardise the bottle and to enable easier price comparison of the contents. Today cognac bottles come in sizes of 35cl, 50cl, 70cl, 75cl (America),100cl & 150cl.

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