There is a very definite correlation between the Chivas Brothers’ view of producing a great spirit and our own. Three or four years ago the whisky producers launched the ‘Age Matters’ campaign which challenged consumers to ‘Look for the number. Know the age. Know whisky.’ The campaign was based on research conducted worldwide which found that over 90% of consumers believe that age is an important indicator of quality and 89% stated that they actively look for an age statement when buying. ‘Numbers on Bottles’, as an ethos, was pioneered by Hermitage Cognacs in the late 1990s. We wholeheartedly agree that customers associate age with quality and in their quest for luxury cognac with individuality, they need to see numbers on the bottle. Each one of the Hermitage range is either a vintage, carrying the year the cognac was distilled, or has an age statement which gives the number of years the cognac was aged in the barrel. By labelling in this way we give our customers ultimate confidence that they are buying great quality cognac, from single estates; a message with which Chivas obviously agrees as their latest campaign ‘Great Things Take Time’ advocates.
Longer days and lazy evenings are what we are all looking forward to now that British Summer Time has begun. This time of year also marks the end of the cognac distillation process for last summer’s harvest - strict regulations dictate that it must be completed by 31 March - and so, the ageing process for the 2014 vintage has already begun.
The longer it is left in oak barrels the finer it will be, which is why our very old vintages are particularly special. Hermitage Reaux 1954 was distilled 60 years ago and just oozes rich, dark chocolatey flavours whilst our 1914 Borderies is now a centurion and has the elegance and finesse to match.
Like the long summer evenings ahead, they really are worth waiting for...
The name ‘Cognac’ is protected by Geographical Indication – in other words it needs to be grown and produced in the Cognac region of France under strict conditions. Only brandy created using such a method is entitled to be marketed under the name of ‘Cognac’. But this ruling did not stop Indian based company, KALS Distilleries from producing its own ‘French Cognac Brandy’. It took a law suit, filed by the BNIC at the Madras High Court, to have the product name changed. Protection of the name ‘Cognac’ is vital to the value and longevity of the industry and one that we wholeheartedly applaud. It is reassuring to know that the regulatory body, the BNIC, is working effectively in this area.
In an attempt to further secure the future of Cognac they are also pursuing an application for the region to become a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Although this will need some serious work, if successful it will see the vineyards of Cognac being recognized as sites of extreme importance alongside iconic locations such as the Taj Mahal and Mont-Saint-Michel. The rules governing the use of the term ‘Cognac’ would certainly then become better known worldwide!
A new authoritative guide has just been published, written by Nick Faith and called simply ‘Cognac’. This wonderfully researched book covers every aspect of cognac’s long and colourful history, its development through time and a great deal of information on its production and ageing. The book also includes a fully updated directory of the top producers and their products. Cognac is the King of all spirits and has been around since the 16th century. It is a hugely complex and diverse spirit which is several stages on from wine and when understood properly, creates an incredibly exciting encyclopaedia of knowledge. There are more than five thousand different cognacs, all created in different ways by different distillers. It is a shame that so little is understood about cognac by sommeliers and bar managers. Let us hope that Nick’s book gets the attention it deserves; it is not a mere guide, it is the standard to which we should all aspire.
It is hugely unfortunate that most people who drink brandy derive only the mildest pleasure from the experience provided for them by experts with generations of family understanding and knowledge to create what in every case is a totally unique experience. How nice it would be if we could all enhance our knowledge and understanding of the drink sufficiently to make each tasting a truly great and memorable experience.
Perhaps part of our problem is that so many brandies have such minimal differences in taste that even for experts it becomes difficult to associate an individual brand with a specific style or flavour. Indeed, the cognac market has, over the years expanded to such an extent that it has become necessary for the big houses to blend thousands of individual and very unique qualities together to meet with market requirements. Any differences are in many cases only detected by the level of sugar syrup added to hide the fiery nature of the increasingly younger cognacs used in the blend.
This generalisation of flavour can also be applied to grape brandies where even larger levels of additives are added to even younger distillations which have in the majority of cases enjoyed only a year absorbing the oak tannins from a barrel. Perhaps armagnacs, for reasons of their smaller markets and the greater range of competing producers, and to a lesser extent calvados, have managed to maintain the individual characteristics so richly desired, having been kept for many years in barrels as intended by their makers. Our world of commercial greed has destroyed large parts of our enjoyment and reduced the potential opportunity for us to recognise the enormous range of individual styles and flavours that were created for our benefit.
In the world of cognac there are approaching 5000 individual producers, each making what they perceive as the finest cognac available. Many of them are not, but their knowledge of others is so limited that they have no measure other than that which is provided for them by the authorities and, even if they did have a measure, their interpretation of quality would be based only on the family style. Only by objective tasting of thousands of different cognacs can one analyse the true quality of their offerings and create a definitive guide to cognac greatness.
Very much like the individual cognac producers, our individual perception of what we like is developed over time and is largely developed by the food and drink we have become accustomed to since birth. These tastes are determined by receptors in our gustatory system, we call them taste buds, we have around 10,000 of them, mainly on the tongue but also on the palate and on the back of the throat. But if we have a lot of taste buds our sense of smell is part of our olfactory system and is far more complex with over 100,000 nerve fibres that connect to the olfactory bulb in the brain. It is of course the brain that becomes trained to the sense of smell and taste that determines what we like. We see families who are brought up on diets of chips and burgers yet find the flavour and smell of potatoes and meat disagreeable since they have never experienced the real foods. Fortunately, our receptors become used to alcoholic drinks at a much later stage in life so our preferences can be more easily moulded to our preferences from bad to good.
There are of course many views on our perceived level of goodness, these are not levels that we can score on a measure of 1-10 they are differences in our individual likes and dislikes and probably developed at earlier stages in our lives when we have experimented with different flavours.
The senses of smell and taste are linked and we can often associate similarities of the senses but it is difficult to form any conclusive evidence of chemical connections between them. There is no general agreement as to primary odour as in the case of the primary tastes of sweet, sour, salty and bitter so to a degree, smell and for that matter taste have become partly subjective. However, many will agree on some basic aromas such as vanilla, lemon and mint which are detectable with our joint senses as well as those that can only be detected with one sense such as tar wood and dried walnuts.
Most of our taste buds are on our tongue. The back of the tongue has larger taste receptors than those at the front but the sensation of tasting can be detected all over the mouth. The tip of our tongues mainly detect sweet and salty flavours whilst the sides are more associated with sour and salty flavours and the region around the tonsils detect the bitter tastes. Many cognacs and brandies have extremely complex flavours and some tastes can be detected on several parts of the tongue. The tasting experience is further complicated by the strong spirit, cognacs must be at least 40% abv by law and some can be stronger.
Professional cognac tasters will look for balance in a cognac and one with a good balance will often have an evenness of flavour that can be detected on most areas of the mouth, this should not be confused with strength as some cognacs can actually have increased flavour with increased strength, this however is not usually the case. Cognacs are double distilled and cognacs made for the major houses are usually made on large onion shaped stills which will allow the spirit to drip back into the boiler, in effect being distilled for a third time, thus creating a greater level of neutrality, usually causing an aggressive sensation on the front of the mouth and a non-distinctive sticky neutral flavour. This is particularly true of VSOP and XO blends from the big houses where in many cases as many as 3000 cognacs are mixed to make a single genetic blend.
Let us consider the mechanics of tasting and the stages we need to consider before we start. A useful tool we can use to identify different aromas and tastes can be found at the back of this document. It was composed by a team of expert sommeliers brought together by the Bureau National Interprofessionel du Cognac (BNIC), the controlling body of the cognac industry. There are a number of stages we should consider before we start, these are as follows:
1) The glass
2) Pouring and preparing
3) The colour
5) The nose or aroma
6) The taste
7) The balance
8) The finish
Let’s look at these in greater detail.
The traditional brandy balloon is not the ideal shape for tasting a strong spirit and is widely regarded by the French as only suitable for putting your cigars in although a small balloon can be used with a moderate degree of success. Most commonly used in the industry is a small tulip shaped glass, similar designs are also used for tasting whisky. Brandy balloons are not ideal as they allow large quantities of the alcohol to collect on the surface of the cognac blinding the aroma of the brandy. The tulip shaped glass only allows a small surface area of the cognac and the narrow top ensures that the aroma is focused in a small area.
Pouring and Preparing
Many cognacs are sold in attractive carafes and decanters but what is good for the eye is not always good for pouring as many can have a wide rim on the top adjacent to the outlet and unless one is careful they can cause drips to occur. When using a tulip shaped glass, it should be filled to about one third full so as to allow enough room for the cognac to be gently rolled around the inside of the glass. Unlike wines, cognac is a strong spirit and swirling the cognac around the glass is a bad practice as it releases the alcohol which will sit on top of the brandy and blind the aroma. Allow the brandy to stand for a couple of minutes to allow the aromas to develop in the glass ideally on a white surface so that you can observe the colour through the glass.
The colour of a cognac can depend on many factors and is not generally dependant on its age. All cognacs are first stored in new oak usually for a period of between 6-12 months although some can be stored for longer periods depending on the needs of the producer. New oak has a higher level of tannins and the new spirit will absorb the colour more readily than it does from the old oak where the cognac will spend most of its life whilst in the barrel. The size of the barrel and where it is stored will also have an influence on colour as different cellars have different levels of moisture and damp barrels will tend to slow the passage of the spirit through the wood allowing a greater time for the cognac to darken, a process which can take fifty or more years for the cognac to mature naturally, developing its own distinctive golden colour.
Recognising the colour of a cognac is the first big clue as to what it is going to be like when we come to taste it. Colours can vary from a light straw to almost black but many of the finest will have a range of colour from a mid-gold to a deep gold, usually with a tiny hint of grey. A red hue will indicate the use of caramel, an additive often used to add colour to young cognacs to provide the false appearance of age and commonly found in XO cognacs from the big houses where barrel ageing is usually only for between 8 – 10 years. Very light coloured cognacs tend to come from the top cru, Grande Champagne, where cognacs usually age very slowly but very dark cognacs often indicate a longer ageing in new oak, this provides a burnt oak and usually very fiery flavour.
Ones awareness of a fine cognac is often first established when it is poured into the glass. Colour is clearly a factor but the cognac should be alive in its appearance and creating a feeling of wanting to taste it. In a few cases cloudiness can be observed, perhaps where a small quantity has been left in the bottle for a long while and the alcohol has reduced significantly. Well matured cognacs can often leave longer lasting legs inside the glass after rolling it round the sides. A good cognac should be clear and bright and presenting an image of substance in the glass.
It should be remembered that aroma provides us with around 50% of the pleasure we find in a glass of good brandy, it is important to try and identify the smells in the glass before we drink it as understanding this helps our perception of the drink. The term “nose”, is often used instead of aroma by professionals as it is the olfactory senses that provide the first real indication of our liking for the brandy and this is found by bringing the noble spirit to the nose. It is best to bring the cognac to the nose slowly to provide a gradual indication of its quality aroma and style. Of course the aroma is also going to provide a good indication of the flavour of the cognac and much can be gained by the complexity of the aroma, indeed the complexity often indicates the quality as good cognacs will have aged for long periods and a whole range of different aromas can be detected in those that have been in oak barrels for long periods of time. In some rare but very fine examples, as many as forty or fifty different aromas can be detected but to find these it may be necessary to sit with the glass under ones nose for several hours. The aroma of caramel is not usually a welcome smell as this will indicate the presence of caramel and sugar syrup often used in young highly blended cognacs. It is often wise to write down the aromas you have found in the glass and this can be helped by using the tasting chart at the back.
The gustatory systems in our mouths provide us with the main clues as to the quality and desirability of the cognac or brandy in the glass. When we smell a fine cognac we often develop a perception of its taste. This is not an illusion, it is a very real indication of the quality of the brandy and the more different flavours we can detect, the older and usually better quality the cognac we have in the glass is.
We need to judge the taste by the effect a brandy has in our mouths. Taste can be detected by the taste buds on our tongues, at the back and on the roof of our mouths. When we take the spirit into our mouths we should have enough to roll around so that every part of our mouth comes into contact with it. This enables all our taste receptors to come into contact with the liquid, Nick Faith, a well-known author of cognac books says that you should chew the cognac and certainly this is a good way to find the flavours in your mouth. Different types of flavour are usually detected in different known areas, for example, sweet flavours are most common on the tips of our tongues but sour flavours are further back. Larger taste buds in the back of our mouths detect salty flavours whilst bitter flavours are most clearly identified near the tonsils. Many very fine cognacs however are so complex that the flavours become muddled and overlap the main taste areas. Writing down the flavours found is a good way of identifying the tipple in you glass and again this can be helped by using the aroma and taste chart at the back.
Unlike tasting wine, complexity in a spirit is a good measure of quality. Highly complex cognacs or brandies provide an all over balance of flavour on every part of the mouth. If one can only detect sweet flavours it is unlikely that the cognac has any length or quality as it will also most likely have a fiery effect at the front of the tongue as well. A brandy with a good balance will also have many different flavours that can be detected in several parts of the mouth. Aggressive and fiery sensations are usually the signs of poor balance but one must be aware of the strength as some cognacs can be at their best with a higher strength and this can often be confused with poor balance. Some cognacs that have been distilled in small and narrow stills can often have enhanced flavour complexity when consumed at a higher strength but in most cases higher strengths only mask the flavour.
The period of time the cognac or brandy can still be tasted after drinking can again be attributed to its quality. Well made and aged brandies will have greater taste and presence in the mouth. This enables the flavour to linger longer usually finishing at the back of the mouth and in some instances for many minutes. One of the longest and finest finishes is from cognacs made in the Grande Champagne where citrus flavours can be detected on the tail. Various parts of the cru can offer different flavours but those of grapefruit and orange peel are most common and often a delight to encounter.
Note: When tasting multiple cognacs or brandies do ensure that you spit each out after tasting then wash the mouth with water to provide the best opportunities to taste those that follow.
This is probably the most used term in the cognac industry since it covers the transformation of the wine to a brandy. Cognacs are double distilled, the first distillation will transform the wine to a cloudy liquid with a strength around 27-30 %abv and known as brouillis The second distillation transform the brouillis into a water clear and very strong (67-72 %abv) spirit we call eau de vie which is then aged in oak casks for many years. The eau de vie gradually mellows and changes colour as a result of the chemical (tannins, lignins and hemi-cellulose) contact with the wood. This transformation of eau de vie into good cognac is very slow and can take many decades although most is diluted and sold young, using sugar syrups and caramel to hide the fiery nature of the spirit.
You can also buy ‘eaux de vie’ where various fruits have been added to the wines before distillation. The resulting mixture can be sold as a clear fruit flavoured spirit such as Reserve Eau de Vie de Cerises - Kirsch . Most of these eaux de vie are produced in the Alsace region of France. They are not aged in oak like cognac since this would give them a colour. In some cases they have macerated fruits added which produces a liqueur such as Doulce France - Liqueur de Framboise. The fruit provides a much lower alcoholic strength and a distinctive and usually quite powerful flavour.
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 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.
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.
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.