M 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.
During 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.
Most 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.
Alcohol 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 region 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 governing 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.
A 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.
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.
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Perhaps because we tend to think of cognac as the venerable grandfather of luxury spirits, the image of mixing it with anything which may contaminate its qualities has isolated it to the peak of individualism - only to be enjoyed by a certain type of aged gentleman, usually smoking a large cigar. On the other hand, perhaps we should thank the big cognac brands who, because of over selling the golden nectar to the Asian markets, are now forced to produce over sugared and caramelised young cognacs which are more readily accepted as suitable for cocktails.
During the mid-nineteenth century cognac became the biggest selling spirit in Britain with nearly sixty five million bottles being sold and the inevitability of cognac mixtures became a certainty. Indeed, Britain was the biggest single market for the spirit until phylloxera struck the vines in the mid 1870s.
Brandy was the obvious choice for mixing with other herbs and fruits as distilled grape wines were the easiest drinks to access for most people. The Benedictine monks in the twelfth century and the Troyan Monks in the fourteenth century who made the plum brandy known as Slivovitz, were famous for their concoctions made from herbs, nuts and fruits, variations of which are still available today. The fruit shrubs, made from vinegar are another form of pre-mixed herbal and fruit essence often used in connection with the modern day cocktail.
By the nineteenth century mixing brandies had become accepted. From the sixteenth century cognac was sold as a strong spirit to be cut back with water and indeed to many it was regarded as a strong wine. It was recorded in the American notes for General Distribution that in 1842, when Charles Dickens made his first trip to America, he made certain to partake of one of the greatest American inventions; the cocktail. Indeed the Cock Tail was the forerunner to the collective range of mixtures for which we use the same name now. The recipe for the Cock Tail was written down by a Captain Alexander in 1833 and follows:
- I tablespoon sugar or simple syrup
- 2oz rye whiskey, rum or cognac
- 3oz water
- 4 dashes bitters
- Nutmeg sprinkled on top.
Captain Alexander also described several other cocktail styled drinks that he had experienced in America including the Apple Toddy (baked apple pulp mixed with sugar, water and brandy) and the Port wine (Sangaree made with port, lemons, sugar and nutmeg).
This was not the first references to cocktails though, indeed during the reigns of the French Monarchy from around Louis VI lemon was used to both provide a freshness to brandy and to clean the palate. However, in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries spirits were used to make punches brought to our shores around 1632 by sailors of the East India Line. Most of these punches were of the Wassail type with either a wine or spirit base as evidenced in the first Punch House established in 1671. Historically the oldest known punch was the Bajan Rum Punch whose recipe was enshrined in rhyme. One of sour, two of sweet, three of strong, four of weak. These usually contained lemon, orange, pineapple and grenadine but virtually any fruits grown and mixed with the local spirit, or ships brandy taken from the Napoleonic warships, became the norm.
During the reign of Queen Victoria the use of more exotic fruits became favoured by the super-rich to identify themselves as well travelled and wealthy. Oranges, lemons and ginger were quite common additives. Even some flowers, such as lavender, were used to supplement spices such as cinnamon, cloves and bergamot as well as Asian fruits, such as mangos and pineapple, which by now had become available in the wealthy areas of London.
Although white spirits were available in the Victorian era, they were not regarded in the purist way in which dark spirits were seen. White spirits, especially gin were seen more as cheap spirits which rendered ones senses to a state of inebriation. It wasn’t really until the turn of the twentieth century, when ice became more readily available, that their potential as a carrier of fruit and herb juices became obvious.
By the turn of the twentieth century many of the drinks discovered by the wealthy had started to attract a wider section of the population. The Mint Julip (1837) and the Gin Sling (1862), see below, complimented the more up-market Victorian bars and meeting places as well as the Brandy Alexander, made with chocolate and cream and its variants made with coffee from a brandy base. There were other variations that used banana and cream, also chocolate which perhaps may explain the wide girth of some of the wealthy Victorians.
Mint Julip (1837)
- 6-12 sprigs of mint
- 1 tablespoon fine sugar or sugar syrup
- 1 ½ oz brandy
- 1 ½ oz peach brandy
The Gin Sling (1862)
- 1 tablespoon fine sugar
- 2oz gin
- 1oz water
- Ice and nutmeg
Most of the cocktails used around the turn of the twentieth century were based on what was available and although the exotic drinks could be found in exclusive bars, such drinks as B and S (Brandy and Soda) and The Horses Neck (brandy and ginger ale) were easy to prepare. Sometimes the lemons and oranges (or mandarins), were combined with sugar to form variations on the more modern Sidecar cocktail where sweeter liqueur drinks such as Cointreau and Grand Marnier are mixed with cognac and lemon juice. Eliminating the orange liqueur and adding sugar, leaves one with a delicious Brandy Sour.
Combinations of the various flavours that were available to the Victorians and their brandies included drinks for every time of the day. Fruit liqueurs and eggs referred to as nogs were sometimes prepared for breakfast whilst brandies and lemons, sometimes mixed with sugar, were used as an aperitif before lunch. However, the most traditional brandy drink was the neat cognac, often very old and served after dinner with a large cigar as the final drink of the day before retiring to face another day.
The prosperity from the trade with Britain in the late 1800s was sadly doomed as production rose even faster than consumption. Thousands of acres were planted with vines to supply the anticipated surge in sales. This threatened overproduction was however, overtaken by an even worse disaster. In the early 1870s the infamous louse, Phylloxera Vastatrix, arrived in the Charente and by the end of the decade it had spread to the whole of the region. The plague ended the 100 years of independence by the growers and their stocks grew even more valuable as the devastation spread. The growers tried to treat the vines with chemicals and when Phylloxera-resistant stock was found in America in the late 1880s, they simply did not have enough money to buy the new plants. So it was the better off merchants who financed some of those in trouble, replanted their vineyards with the new grafted stock and helped with advice and support. But they too had their troubles with fraudulent production devaluing the name of cognac. Eventually this battle was won in 1905 when legislation introduced the golden certificate, Acquit Jaune d’Or, which must accompany every shipment of cognac on the highway, even today.
Over the years we have collected a sizeable stock of pre-phylloxera cognacs. Our current range can be found here.
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.
Cognacs produced before 1900 are very special indeed. Extremely rare, each bottle has a unique history and flavour which can never be replicated. Small quantities of cognac were aged in oak casks during this era and over the years, most of that stock has been consumed leaving very little in existence today. The grapes and distillation methods used in the 19th century produced cognac with drier and more organic flavours. These characteristics became unique to cognacs of the period as in 1871, the dreaded Phylloxera beetle killed off most of the vines. It took years to replant with Phylloxera resistant vines and for the brandy industry to recover. The consequent introduction of the Ugni Blanc grape changed the taste of cognac forever.
We take great care when sourcing our Very Old Cognacs to ensure quality and authenticity. Many of them came from small, independent producers and negoçiants who are no longer in existence. The bottles are often hand blown and have been stored for many years in Cognaçais cellars. Each individual bottle is extremely precious; it has a flavour to savour and a story to tell - well worth the exclusive price tag.