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Learning about Brandy

  • Hermitage Cognac Quality Control

    There are approximately 5000 producers of cognac in the legal production area of France known as The Charentes and Charentes Maritime. Each one of them, quite naturally, believes that their cognacs are the best. The truth, however, is rather different.  Producers don’t advertise their presence so most have probably only ever tasted different cognacs in bars and restaurants. Indeed, I have spoken to some producers who didn’t even know that they had a distillery next door.  This lack of local industry awareness has, over the years, resulted in the development of our own cognac quality control.

    There are of course standards to which all cognac houses must rigidly adhere.  Variations in the product occur naturally with changes in the terroir, vines, distillation, cellars etc.  These changes can dramatically change the quality of each cognac.  As a rule, the higher the cru, the better the cognac, but one cannot rely on this as a guarantee of quality.

    As negoçiants we try to limit the cognacs we buy to those produced in the top cru, Grande Champagne. Here, hundreds of cognacs are produced, and each has a different taste, age, style, colour, method of production, ageing process, strength and balance. On top of that, our customers have varying tastes and needs and we try to accommodate them all. Finding the right cognacs is objective since we have our own cognac quality control standards which we have developed over the years.  These standards are not necessarily subjective however, since more than a third of all our cognacs have won gold medals or above in cognac competition.

    Cognac Quality ControlMaking sure that our customers really do get the best means that, after we have decided on a potential cognac, we still need to do several tests. The first is of course tasting. It is difficult to say how many cognacs we taste but on some days,  it may be twenty or even thirty, others, maybe only one or two.  One tends to gather considerable experience when tasting many different cognacs. Then we check the cognac for balance which means balancing the fieriness against flavour. Sometimes we need to reduce the cognac slightly which in some cases take quite a long time. We also check it for sediment as some distillers don’t filter their cognacs before we receive them at our bottling plant.  The alcohol level is also tested as legally, this must be quoted on the label.  This process also involves checking the level of obscuration (factors which mask the true alcohol content).  There is always some natural obscuration which cannot be avoided but in modern blends, the addition of sugar and caramel increases the level considerably.

    We really do try hard to provide our customers with the very best and we are proud of our collection of Hermitage Cognacs. Being a small, artisan producer is a huge benefit to everybody. If we were big, we would have to blend to supply cognacs with more commercial affordability.  Each cognac would lose its individuality and we would probably have to rely on younger cognacs to produce the required quantity.  We know Hermitage is always the best cognac available for our customers’ needs but it can be difficult to easily communicate that with every bottle we sell.

  • Super XXO Cognac Classification Approved

    XXO CognacThe big cognac houses are well aware of the similarity of their products so the need to spice up their ranges is always evident. We have seen recently the efforts by some to add a cask finish to their cognacs; sherry casks have already been used by one house.  But the latest craze is to try and produce a super XO cognac called XXO.  Hennessy, who have the biggest sales of XO cognacs, have already launched an XXO in the Far East.  They tried to register it as a Hennessy name thereby denying other houses the opportunity to use the term.  Unsurprisingly, other cognac growers were far from happy but after debate, an agreement has been reached allowing anybody to use the term for their super XOs.  Apparently, these new XXO cognacs will have to be aged for a minimum of 14 years. This seems a strange period to select since many of the smaller houses make XO cognacs up to 20 years old. It took a quarter of a century to change the XO definition from 6 to 10 years, perhaps it will take another 25 years to officially recognise this new, super appellation?  It’s an interesting point since many years ago, Brandyclassics negotiated with Otard to launch a super XXO cognac to the Chinese market.  It failed not because we couldn’t use the title, but because the Chinese customer thought it too flashy!

  • The Different Tastes of Calvados

    In many ways calvados is the newest brandy of France.  It only became recognised as such in 1942 when the appellation controleé regulations officially gave calvados a protected name.  The area around the Valley d’Auge and the land extending east past Lisieux became the principle production area.  Here, the Jurassic limestone soil is ideal for growing the various apples required to make calvados.

    A range of different apples are used initially to create the finest cider - bitter, bitter sweet, acidic and sweet.  These apples have low levels of acidity so a small, firm, Perry pear is also added.  This addition, usually 12 – 15 % of the total, is essential as it increases the acidity of the cider to the level required for distillation.  Consequently, calvados can often have a pear drop taste which many people dislike.

    Of course, the flavour of calvados from each distiller will differ.  The distillation techniques, apple varieties, condition of apples when harvested and ageing process will all have an effect.  Sometimes a finish is also added.  This term describes a process where, in the latter stages of ageing, calvados is stored for a limited period in a barrel that has previously held another spirit or wine.  However, many producers find this technique abhorrent as it masks the true identity of their spirit.

    The pear drop aroma and taste is most noticeable in young calvados.  With long barrel ageing it is significantly reduced because the calvados builds a richness which masks the pungency of the Perry pear.  One of the best examples of this is the 1969 vintage by Dupont, a firm that has worked hard to nurture quality in their fine spirits.

    calvados tasteThe firm of Chateau du Breuil has developed a different method of masking the pear drop effect. They only harvest naturally fallen apples which have started to go brown.  At this stage the water content of the apple has dropped and the sugar content is at its highest.  These apples produce a sweeter cider and ultimately a sweeter calvados with baked apple aromas and flavours.  The period required to age in the barrel for the flavours to mature is therefore reduced.  A fine example of this type of calvados is the Chateau du Breuil 15 Year Old.

  • Specific Cognac Tastes Defined

    The cognac wheel that was introduced by the BNIC has proved to be an ideal source of information when considering aromas from a given cognac or brandy. It divides aromas into seasons considering each in terms of: Spring delicacy, Summer fullness, Autumn richness and the hardness of Winter.  Flavours can be defined in a similar manner but perhaps with more defined headings.  For years I have considered cognac tastes as falling into 4 different categories.  The definitions are more easily defined than those of aromas. Of course, there are thousands of different perceptions of flavour which are recognised in the tastes of cognac.  I have taken some of the flavours which have the widest description of each taste. My 4 brandy and cognac taste categories are: Fruit, Savoury, Sweet & Rich, and Nuts & Spice.  These can be subdivided to help identify the most likely descriptions of brandy flavours.  Cognac Tastets

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

    Tasting brandies can be subjective.  This list is designed to provide a level objectivity with which to identify different cognac flavours.

     

  • Organic Cognac Production is Increasing

    Today, less than 1% of the Cognac appellation is farmed organically, but the number of producers using these methods is increasing.  To make organic cognac a farmer must cultivate his grapes organically for at least 3 sequential years.  That means no chemical pesticides, herbicides, or fertilisers.  Instead farmers must rely on pre-war farming methods.  For example the use of copper and sulfur, nettle and horsetail infusions, mechanical weed removal and manure and compost fertilisers.  The application of manure and freshly grown fertilisers such as barley and faba beans certainly enriches the precious "terroir".  Organic farmers claim that their cognacs produce different aromas.  We have yet to be convinced but public demand for the green "organic" certification is on the increase.  Even the big houses ask their producers to not use weed killer and employ more sustainable farming methods.  So, although only a few have chosen to qualify for certification, many more, such as Chateau de Beaulon are employing some organic methods, which can only be good for the "terroir" in the years to come.

  • Spirits Education for the Customer

    Trade Training"I am delighted to see that more and more businesses are recognising that education and well-trained staff are the foundations to better customer service and stronger profits," says the CEO, Wine & Spirit Education Trust (WSET).  The WSTA concur stating that "consumers are increasingly favouring more premium brands". We have always maintained that spirits education is key to the sale of our luxury brandies.  There is a specific Trade Training page on our website and regular newsletters and Blogs ensure up to date industry news is frequently publicised. Those wishing to go one step further will be interested in the new improved Level 2 WSET Award in Spirits.  Also trying to educate the customer is the #ForwardDrinking campaign which launches next month.  It aims to target industry taboos such as 'retros' (when brands pay for bar listings) and 'pay-to-play' schemes (when brands offer monetary incentives, or otherwise, to gain a retail listing).  Maverick Drinks, who initiated the campaign, said "We don't want people using our product because there's a deal attached, we want them to use it because it's a great spirit".  Hear, hear, just what we were thinking.

  • The DOs and DON'Ts of Drinking Fine Cognac

    Adding Water or Mixers

    I wrote in my last Technical Topic about adding water to cognac, supposedly to enhance the flavour.  Of course, we discovered that when drinking fine cognac, this is not the case.  However, some people do like to add some form of mixer(s) to their brandy.  For example, sugar and cream are added to change the flavour completely.  In this instance, it is not a good idea to use an expensive cognac.  Cognac is a rich drink and usually has a complexity of different flavours.  This makes the experience of replicating an exact recipe more chance than judgement. Then there is this question of ice - but think about this. If water is difficult to mix with a spirit, a piece of solidified water is going to be even harder.

    warming brandyAdding Heat

    So, you ask, why don't we warm cognac to enhance the flavour? Well, you can, but we don't drink cognac like wine.  Big mouthfuls are a rarity as the strength of cognac is three times that of wine and a small sip quickly develops to body temperature. We have been asked on many occasions about the use of brandy warmers and before we dump this silly idea, let me just explain.  Driving the alcohol off by heating the cognac will, in most cases, totally destroy the flavour as the alcohol acts as a flavour carrier.  When a cognac has 'gone off', it is because the alcohol has laminated from the spirit.  This means that it sits on the surface of the cognac and escapes as soon as somebody releases the cork. Where this has happened, one never needs to ask if it has gone off!

    Cognac by the fireWhen to Drink?

    Much of the real appreciation of a fine cognac comes by tasting it at the time of day when one's taste buds are at their most receptive, usually around 11am - noon. Some people prefer to taste cognac as an aperitif before a meal.  Certainly, it makes some sense to taste cognac as opposed to whisky before a meal if you are also drinking wine as one doesn't mix grape and grain. But for me, when looking for a small digestif to finish off a nice meal, drinking fine cognac is the best way to recapture the enjoyable events of the day.

  • Tasting Cognac

    During an average drinking year, we knock back all manner of different beverages without giving thought to what we have tasted, or when.  Each drink we consume provides us with a completely different experience.  Most are as memorable as getting out of bed each morning but none are as exciting as the sheer thrill provided by a vintage brandy. Even when we drink a glass of fine brandy do we ever give any thought as to the glass and aroma of its contents? So often we hear the words “it tastes the same out of any glass” but the experience of using the correctly glass can be hugely different. Specialist glass manufacturers devote years of research to finding the right shape for our enjoyment, perhaps we should use their experience and try to understand more about tasting cognacs?

    cognac glassesThe ideal cognac or indeed spirit glass has a wide bowl which tapers at the top, we call it a tulip shaped glass. More than 50% of the enjoyment of any brandy is in the aroma which subconsciously enhances the taste. Having the correct shaped glass allows the cognac to be rolled around the bowl releasing aromas which are then concentrated at the top of the glass. This maximum sensory effect of the glass’ contents can then be enjoyed.

    Filling the glass to just over half way up the bowl is sufficient to allow the cognac to be gently rolled around the sides and reach as far up the glass as possible thereby exposing the greatest surface area. It is important however to remember that cognacs, like other spirits, are strong. Unlike wine they should never be swirled around the glass as this releases the alcohol which then sits on the surface of the brandy and blinds the very important aroma.

    Of course drinking the golden nectar is the all-important test of appreciation. Taste is improved slightly if the cognac is not cold but brandy warmers are completely unsuitable. They are shaped to accept a brandy balloon glass, which is not good for tasting, and they also drive the alcohol away from the brandy thereby spoiling the taste. Indeed, the ideal temperature of cognac for tasting is room temperature. Remember, we don’t take large mouthfuls of brandy as we would do with wine.  A small mouthful quickly reaches body temperature allowing the flavours to permeate all over the mouth.  A well-known cognac writer once said that he “chewed” the spirit, it was good advice since this helps to distribute the liquid around the mouth and determine the level of balance. Tasting great cognacs such as our Hermitage 43 Year Old or 1914, to name but two, in this manner would give a lasting memory of the skills and generations who have devoted their lives to making the King of all Spirits.

    Read more Technical Topics on our Brandy Education Page.

  • Brandy Bottles

    Glass containers and bottles are believed to have first been made around 1500 BC but serious use of containers made out of glass probably did not occur until around 100 BC. More practical applications for glass were established with the advent of glass blowing, probably around a thousand years later. Modern glass bottles are made in commercial moulds and most bottles that contain alcoholic beverages, including brandy bottles, are made of clear glass.

    That however has not always been the case. The traditional brandy bottle started life as a green or, as in the case of cognac, black glass container. The dark colour may have been chosen to hide any sediment that had been left in the bottom of the barrel.  Modern glass however is pure and bright which enhances the cognac in the bottle to the highest level. Today we use a wide range of such bottles, many of which are produced from recycled glass.  Although the quality of the glass used varies considerably, we choose to buy all our bottles from Saverglass who have a large depot in Cognac.

    Hermitage 1947The size of early hand blown bottles often depended on the quantity of glass the blower had on his pipe and so the quantity each bottle held was largely guess work.  It has now become tradition that the cognac bottle is an upright 70cl size but the volume only became metric in the mid-1950s. Before that, all spirits were measured in imperial measurements.  Strangely, European spirit bottles are now all 70cl whereas in the USA they opt for the slightly larger wine bottle size of 75cl.

    Today, there is a general consistency of bottle shapes havingBaron de Sainte-Fauste developed from region to region and beverage to beverage. For cognac the very basic upright bottle shape is known as the “Cognacaise”.  At Hermitage, we use the “Exception” bottle but also a range of carafes to which many customers are attracted. The traditional bottle shape for armagnac is the “Basquaise” which is round with flat sides and for calvados the longer necked “Normandy” bottle is still generally supplied in bottle green.

    Read more Technical Topics on our Brandy Education page.

  • English Grape Brandy

    Chapel Down, the highly successful English wine producer, has just released a 23-Year-Old Grape Brandy made from grapes grown in Kent. The spirit was distilled in 1992 and then aged in French oak. According to one spirits writer it has “all the hallmarks of a complex armagnac or calvados but with its own personality”. By definition brandy is a spirit made from a fruit. Just like Chapel Down, armagnac and cognac are brandies made from grapes but they each have to be made under very strict conditions. Most importantly the grapes must be grown in one of the designated cru regions before being distilled according to their respective regulations. Brandy made in the UK is therefore a rarity. All the cognacs, armagnacs and calvados that we supply are produced and aged entirely in France, with one notable exception – ‘Early Landed’. Some smaller houses ship their barrels of young ‘eau de vie’ to the UK to be aged in cellars here. British cellars are colder and drier than French ones so the barrels absorb more of the spirit but the system saves money and sees some fine products such as Hine and Delamain cognacs being bottled in the UK. Not sure that the Chapel Down Grape Brandy will be able to compete with these fine nectars but hopefully the British will support this initiative rather than see it shipped to China along with most other grape brandies.

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