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Hermitage 1914 Cognac – The Ladies Vintage

Ladies VintageWe were fascinated to read an interview with Bénédicte Hardy in ‘Frenchly’.  Bénédicte is the fifth generation to be involved with the House of Hardy cognacs, although much of her time has been spent working in the US.

Entitled ‘Cognac’s return to Grace’, she describes the rich history of cognac and how in recent years, cognac has evolved into a symbol of both ‘rap stardom’ and ‘highbrow mixology’.  Here at Hermitage, it is that history that we aim to bottle and so a summary follows:

In the 17th century, it was English, Irish, and Dutch négociants who really put cognac on the map as they had realised what an amazing resource the river Charente was for shipping their products worldwide.  During the subsequent centuries, cognacs’ fortunes hit highs and lows, but always survived.  The French Phylloxera crisis, for example, was eventually solved by turning to American root stock.  Even two World Wars did not ruin the industry.   During World War I, while men were conscripted, women were left to manage the vineyards and distillation by themselves.  The work of these women became so significant that eaux-de-vie produced in 1914 is now known as part of the Ladies Vintage.  And during World War II, while Nazi soldiers ransacked Champagne for all it was worth, a Cognac local, of German origin, Lieutenant Gustav Klaebisch, took it upon himself to protect the cognac cellars and vineyards from being pillaged.

Hermitage stocks cognac vintages harvested during both World Wars, but we are particularly proud of our Ladies Vintage, produced in 1914.  A Masters Award winner, unsurprisingly, only a few bottles remain.


Brandyclassics’ Massougnes 1802 Cognac Re-emerges At Auction

Massougnes 1802We were delighted to welcome Paddy Shave from Brightwells Auction House to our offices a few weeks ago.  He brought with him an imperial half gallon (2.27 litres) bottle of Massougnes 1802 Cognac which had passed through our hands almost thirty years ago.  We are fortunate to have acquired a number of these large bottles over the years from the owner of the Massougnes Estate, the Comtesse de la Bourdeliere, Marie-Antoinette Pintaurd des Allees – a direct descendant of Henry II and Eleanor of Acquitaine.  This particular bottle from 1802 in the Napoleonic era, was originally sold by us to the Gleneagles Hotel in Scotland, where is was on display for many years.  Still unopened, it was fascinating to see it turn up for sale once more and although the estimated price of £100,000+ was not reached, it still sold for an impressive £52,000.  We have sold one or two of these oversized bottles of Massougnes over the years (vintages range from 1800 to 1812) and still have two for sale on our website.  For those who may wish to try before they buy, one of our Massougnes vintages is still being sold by the measure at The Lanesbrough Hotel in London.


Hermitage 1890 Grande Champagne Cognac

18901890We are always excited by a new arrival, especially when it is one from the nineteenth century!  Our Hermitage Paradis1890 Grande Champagne Cognac is the fourth addition to our Paradis range and has just taken pride of place on our shelves.  To add some historical context, 1890 was the year that England witnessed the first official County Cricket match when Yorkshire beat Gloucestershire by 8 wickets.

This remarkable cognac has spent more than 80 years in its oak cask slowly developing its rich aromas and complex flavours. There are aromas of marmalade, thyme, banana and spices with a rich and lovely complexity of flavours including mandarin, toffee brittle, allspice, marmalade, gingerbread and roasted nut flavours.  Beautifully balanced, the flavours surround the tongue with a rich velvet softness which enhances the intense ‘rancio’.

And you can hear our MD, David Baker, talking about this cognac and the history of Hermitage as a brand on Food FM’s The Drinking Hour with David Kermode.  Select Episode 8 and tune in at 38 minutes, it’s very educational!


Record Auction Price for 1762 Cognac

1762 Cognac

A bottle of 1762 Cognac by Gautier was sold at auction recently for a record breaking £118,580.  Thought to be the world’s oldest cognac, only one other bottle of this vintage now exists.  The bottles’ history can be traced back to the 1880s when they were acquired by the Donsir family.  The family adopted a son, Alphonse, who in 1870, went to find work in the cognac vineyards.  Over the next decade the Phylloxera outbreak decimated European vines so, when work dried up Alphonse returned home.  As the vineyard was financially ruined, he was paid in cognac, including 3 bottles of the highly regarded Gautier 1762. The precious pre-Phylloxera bottles were stored in the family cellars until such time as each was sold.  One has since been opened, one has pride of place in the Gautier Museum and now, the third one has become a world record breaker.  Although described as a ‘large’ bottle the size of this 1762 is unknown so it is difficult to compare with our Massougnes 1801 (¾ imperial gallon) which sold through Hedonism Wines for £222,000!

The Australian Connection with Prunier

Prunier posterDuring the years after the gold rush in the 1850s, brandy became the most popular spirit in Australia. French companies were quick to seize the opportunity and in 1870 Prunier opened a branch there.   A loyal following for the brand was built by their salesman, Émigré Ambroise Lamande.  He lived in Melbourne with his pet kangaroo and it is this marsupial that is thought to have been the inspiration behind Maresté’s poster and 1929 advertising film.  Reputed to be the first cinema advertisement for cognac ever made, it featured a cartoon kangaroo discovering cases of cognac washed up on a beach and gleefully stuffing her pouch with the bottles! However, the global economic depression of the time and rising tensions in Europe led to a dramatic decline in demand for cognac in Australia. In 1938 Prunier closed its Melbourne branch and within a decade or so the brand had all but disappeared.  That is, until very recently, when a customer walked into a new wine & spirits shop and enquired about Prunier cognacs. The owner had never heard of them, so he did some research.  Impressed by the brandies and the historical connection he decided to start stocking the range.  The reaction has been overwhelming, and he now sells more of Prunier’s rare and very expensive vintage cognacs than any other outlet in the world.   Another good example of how superior quality and historical knowledge increases the value and pleasure derived from your cognac.

The Price of Cognac History

cognac historyM Restaurant has announced that it is to sell its bottle of 1894 cognac for over £6000 for a 25ml shot – that’s the price of cognac history.  The bottle is reputedly the first blend ever produced by Jean Fillioux, who founded the Fillioux cognac house.  Snippets of history such as this are often priceless in the cognac world.  Over the years we have sold many such historically important bottles to luxury hotels in London.  The ultimate in super-premium spirits, these too have been sold by the measure for thousands of pounds.  But to command this sort of price tag, each must have a story attached.  Many were produced in the pre-Phylloxera era (pre 1875), when cognac production was considerably different from today, and produced by old family firms that may no longer be in existence.  The vintage may also be attached to an event in history, such as the beginning of the French revolution in 1789, which adds to its interest and value.  Selling very old cognac is a proven way of increasing bar takings but beware, establishing authenticity is a specialist business; we have been undertaking it for decades.

UK Alcohol Duty and its Enforcement

Smuggling brandyDuring the 18th Century smuggling in Cornwall was a way of life.  It is said that at its peak, more than 500,000 gallons of French brandy was smuggled in per year.  This equates to more than two million bottles. Whole families were involved and the number of smugglers far outweighed the number of Excise men stationed along the coast to stop them. There was a strong incentive to continue since the cost of buying brandy legally, with Alcohol Duty paid, was five times greater than the cost of the contraband.  It was often the case that even the judiciary, doctors and priests were in on the act as they provided the funds.

Cornwall coastlineMost of the brandy came from the ports of La Rochelle and Rochefort and illegal shipments arrived regularly at Falmouth coves such as Helford, Gweek, Porthallow and Godrevy.  The French were still reducing their wines for easier transportation to England, Ireland and Holland.  The quantity of brandy shipped to England did much to support the French brandy industry during the 18th Century.  However, by the early 1800s Customs had started to gain a level of control.  Some smugglers were apprehended but juries were often reluctant to convict as many had connections with the trade.  Even by the mid 19th Century, £millions were still being lost due to the Cornish smugglers evading tax.

UK Duty stampAlcohol Duty is of course an important part of the British tax system and is calculated today at a cost of £28.74 per litre of pure spirit.  A 70cl bottle of brandy at 40% alcohol by volume (abv) therefore attracts a duty of £8.05.  Shipments of cognac to the UK currently stand at more than 12 million bottles per annum and the duty collected is around £100 million.

It goes without saying that smuggling today is vastly reduced.  The sale of illegal spirits does much harm to our industry.  All shipments of spirits entering the country must be accompanied by documentation stating the quantity of pure spirit they contain.  Duty must be paid when the alcohol enters the country, unless it is to be stored in a bonded warehouse.  In this case, Duty is paid when the alcohol is taken out of the bond.  All UK companies dealing in wines and spirits must be registered with HM Customs.


During the war years the Cognaçais were required to provide the Germans with large quantities of brandy. They cheated of course by shipping spirits made from root vegetables thus maintaining their stocks of real cognac. It was during this period that Maurice Hennessy and a well known grower, Pierre Verneuil, followed the example of the growers in the Champagne BNIC logoregion and created the wine and eaux-de-vie distribution bureau to preserve the cognac stock. When the war ended this organisation emerged as the Bureau National Interprofessionnel du Cognac (BNIC), cognac’s governing body.  Composed equally of growers and merchants, the BNIC acquired a great deal of de facto independence from the government in the formulation and supervision of the rules governingBNIC cognac crus cognac. The BNIC also took over the role, previously performed by Martell and Hennessy, of deciding the price of new brandies from various crus. The cognac region had been divided into crus in the 1930s as a natural consequence of the Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée system which had become law in 1905.

The end of World War 2 also ushered in nearly 30 years of increasing prosperity. The BNIC greatly improved the relationship between growers and merchants and was lubricated by the ensuing prosperity. In 1948 the Station Viticole, a private laboratory set up to help growers and distillers after the Phylloxera outbreak, was taken over by the BNIC who were able to control all the stages involved in the production of cognac. This included the regulations required to manage the growing, wine making, distillation and ageing of cognac. More recently their powers have gone further with the control of market and sales information, both country by country and by product type, enabling them to manage government taxes and duties. In short, the BNIC now manages every stage of cognac production, from the vineyards to the end buyer.

US Presidential Spirits Collection

US Presidential CollectionA unique collection of ‘Presidential Spirits’ was put up for auction in New York recently. The Lot comprised 39 bottles of cognac and armagnac each dating to a US Presidential term of office from 1789 to 1977. Part of a larger Dutch collection, the Lot included cognacs from 1789 (George Washington), 1842 (John Tyler) and 1865 (Abraham Lincoln). The US Presidential connection with cognac comes from events throughout history. The Marquis de Lafayette brought cognac when he crossed the Atlantic to assist George Washington in America’s fight for Independence and Thomas Jefferson developed an appreciation for cognac when witnessing the onset of the French Revolution. Architect of the European Union and scion of the famous cognac family, Jean Monnet served as an advisor to President Franklin Roosevelt and it was reported that General (and future President) Dwight Eisenhower sipped Cognac with Winston Churchill, as they planned the D-Day invasion that would liberate France during World War II. All pre-Phylloxera cognacs are steeped in history, not only in the origins of each bottle but also in the historical events occurring at the time of their distillation. Take a look at our specialist range of ‘Very Old Cognacs’ to find out more.

David on Technical Topics – The Traditional Christmas Spirit

Brandy has been the traditional spirit of Christmas since the sixteenth century and was immortalised by Dickens in Mrs Cratchit’s Christmas pudding, “blazing in half of half a quarter of ignited brandy”. But it is said that cognac was recognised in 1540 after a Chevalier du Maron took two casks of newly reduced or distilled wine to a local monastery near La Rochelle. The monks tasted one of them and found it to be fiery and tasteless so left the other cask unopened. Many years later they found the unopened cask, the contents of which had matured and were very fine. They named the drink after the town it had come from, Cognac.

Cognac has been used over the centuries in all sorts of ways including the preservation of food, in particular meat and fruit where the term “plumming” referred to soaking raisins in brandy. Both fruit and meat were often incorporated into puddings which were much admired by George I, also known as the Pudding King. So enthusiastic was he that in 1714 he demanded that “plum pudding” be served at his Royal Christmas Feast. Brandy was often used to flame the pudding before serving.

In more recent times, Cognac was the favourite drink of Churchill who often enjoyed it with a cigar. It was said by the last French owner of the cognac house Croizet, that during the war, bottles of their cognac were smuggled out of France by submarine for Mr Churchill. He favoured the fine citrus qualities of their Grande Champagne cognacs.

Today, Hermitage Grande Champagne Pure Vintage Cognacs offer the finest traditional values at Christmas, but we do recommend you enjoy them as they are rather than set fire to them on your Christmas pudding.  Visit our Online Store to see the whole range.