Brandy

Brandy, according to the Standards of Identification, is a distillate or a mixture of distillates obtained solely from the fermented juice, mash, or wine of fruit, or from the residue thereof, distilled at less than 190o proof in such manner as to produce the taste, aroma, and characteristics generally attributed to the product, and bottled at not less than 80o proof. It goes on from there and contains many qualifying terms but the above provides the essential information.

There is one exception to the bottling proof requirement for spirits and it is unique to brandy. As spirits mature in wood, the alcoholic content is gradually reduced; thus a brandy aged in wood for 50 years may have reduced in proof to below 80o. In such a case, it could be bottled as low as 72o proof. This exception is unique to brandy since only brandies would normally receive such lengthy wood aging - and only a few brandies at that.

Although brandy is permitted to be distilled at up to 190o proof, beverage brandies are distilled from about 140o to 170o. Distillation at above 170o defines it as neutral brandy, a product widely used in this country for the production of dessert wines.

There are two principle types of brandy produced in the United States: straight brandy and rectified brandy. Straight brandy is similar to straight whisky, a spirit which is simply bottled after being withdrawn from the aging casks. A rectified brandy is one which has received some sort of processing treatment such as blending together brandies of different ages, or by adjusting the color to a standard with caramel. There is nothing inferior about rectified brandy since nearly all imported products, including Cognac, would be classified as rectified for they are blends and may contain small amounts of caramel.

The term brandy, by itself, indicates that the spirit has been obtained from grapes. Brandy can be produced from any fermented fruit, but must then be identified by the name of the fruit. Fine brandies do not have to be made from grapes; there are many magnificent examples made from cherries, apples, pears and other fruits.

Brandies are produced both with pot stills and with continuous distillation systems. In France and much of Europe, pot or batch distillation is the only one allowed and in the United States, both systems are employed. Most American brandy is however, distilled continuously. In general, the pot still will produce a product with more flavor while that of the continuous still will be lighter and more delicate.

Products identified as flavored brandies (Blackberry flavored brandy, cherry flavored brandy and so forth) are not true brandies at all, but are cordials. They are flavored, colored, and have sugar added. The spirit base is generally neutral brandy.

Many brandies are not aged in wood since they are intended to remain colorless and, in the case of many of the non-grape brandies, the fresh, delicate aroma of the fruit must be retained. These brandies will usually be stored in glass or stainless steel until bottled.

Some regions, such as the French areas of Cognac, Armagnac, and Calvados, specialize in brandies, but brandy is actually produced nearly everywhere that wine is made. In places such as the Duoro Valley in Portugal, and Jerez de la Frontera in Spain, brandies must be produced in order to fortify the wines, but in others, it just appears to be an inevitable adjunct to the wine business.

Grape Brandies.- American Brandies .- American brandies are generally column distilled at up to 170o proof, aged in oak for two or more years, blended, and sweetened with up to 2.5% sugar. Less important commercially, but available, are American straight brandies which have no additives except a little caramel for coloring, and premium brandies which may contain some pot distilled spirits. Two notable California straight brandies are Germain-Robin and Carneros Alembic (proud possessors of eight Cognac-style stills). In general though, American brandies are lighter and more delicate than European types and are well-suited to mixing in a wide variety of drinks.

In Cognac, brandy making is bound by centuries-old tradition. In California, the difference in the snifter is a decade of innovation.

by Chris Rubin

This story appeared in the Orange Coast.

As I stand in the doorway of the cavernous Barrel House, intoxicated by the heady, almost sweet aromas of the aging and evaporating brandies below, I could be in Cognac at a centuries-old distiller * Instead, I'm at Carneros Alembic, just an hour north of San Francisco, in what may soon be known as one of the world's great brandy-producing regions.

The heavenly sound of chanting monks surrounds me, piped in through hidden speakers. This seems appropriate, at least in my light-headed state, because it was monks who first began distilling brandy in California a couple centuries ago, and also because this area is referred to as "The Angels' Share" after the poetic name given to the two to three percent annual evaporation that is part of the brandy aging process. Above me, a black mold called torula thrives on the fumes of the evaporation. It covers the tiles of the Barrel House roof. Below, the dirt floor of the warehouse-sized building is obscured by hundreds of large oak barrels stacked several high, within which rest various batches and blends of the aging brandies.

From this place and others like it may flow California's next major contribution to world culture--brandies of a quality that can hold their own among the best in France. Not everyone agrees with that sentiment, particularly the French, but California brandies are growing in popularity and acclaim. The brandy industry in California is still in its infancy, and the quantities produced, even by the largest of the houses, are minute, closer to Armagnac and its "hand-made" brandies than to Cognac.

It will be several decades before any of California's distillers will have the ability to blend 30-, 40- and 50-year-old brandies into their finest bottles, as do Delamain, Hine, Sempe and others in Cognac and Armagnac. But these bold Californians have announced their intentions to produce brandies that rank among the world's finest, and no one should doubt that they will succeed.

While many other countries produce brandies, it has long been France's Cognac region (and, to a lesser degree, Armagnac) that defines the term; for most of us, brandy is just another word for Cognac. The major Cognac houses--well-known labels such as including Courvoisier, Rémy Martin, Hine and others--produce millions of cases a year that are prized and consumed around the world. Spain learned the secrets of distillation long before France, and has been making brandies for hundreds of years. Mexico and Germany also produce a fair amount. But during the past 15 years, California has made the greatest strides in the production of Cognac-style brandies.

Brandies have long been produced in California, dating back to the first efforts of the Franciscan monks, but it's only in the last dozen or so years--since distillers have adopted the time-honored, time-consuming and costly traditions of Cognac--that they have been worth drinking.

In addition to Carneros Alembic, a small, select group of California distillers, including Jepson, Germain-Robin, Domaine Charbay and St. George Spirits, has taken it upon themselves to make the best possible brandies that California soil and grapes can produce, much as the wine makers of the Napa and Sonoma valleys challenged Bordeaux and the other giants of wine a few decades back. California wines have unique qualities due to their geography, and it took more than a few years for the world to embrace those wines and realize they often rivaled the finest from France and elsewhere. California's brandies are in the position now that its wines occupied a quarter century ago: poised for the worldwide acclaim and recognition they so richly deserve.

"You're missing out by not trying California brandies," says Master Sommelier Emmanuel Kemiji, formerly of the Ritz-Carlton, Laguna Niguel, now Wine & Spirits Manager at the Ritz-Carlton, San Francisco. "I have a passion for brandies, which are a natural extension of wine. With the California brandies, we get a lot more fruit in both the nose and the palate. We don't quite get the subtle wood complexities and oxidation that come with old Cognacs and Armagnacs, because the oldest here is only from 1982. But we're starting to get XO quality," Kemiji says, referring to pricey high-end, long-aged Cognacs.

Kemiji is concerned, though, that prices for these California products have escalated too quickly. "I think the prices are a little high, especially for the top-end stuff. We're starting to see $100 California bottles. Germain-Robin set the standard. They said, 'We can make brandy here of a quality that is world-class,' and they priced it accordingly." While he's not ready to say that these local brandies are superior to France's best, Kemiji finds much to praise. "The raw product that goes into our stuff--more fruit comes through. Cognac has climatic limitations that California doesn't."

But perhaps the biggest plus for these Californians is their relative freedom. Government regulations in France cover virtually every step of the brandy-making process in Cognac, from which grape varieties can be used and where they must be grown, to when they must be harvested and how they must be aged. "I think California brandy makers have a definite advantage over those in Cognac--a lot more elements to play with, and they don't have the strict rules that they do in Cognac," says Kemiji. The different grapes used by distillers are one of the great strengths he perceives in the local efforts. "That's why California brandy is so exciting--the contrasts in style and flavor. Not everything might be to one's taste, but the range is interesting, the quality is frequently superb."

"We've gone far beyond just making good brandy in California," says Germain-Robin founding partner Ansley Coale. "We're now acknowledged as [among] the best in the world. The French laughed at us at first, told us these grapes were too expensive. But to have flawless spirits, you must have flawless wines."

It is through the use of superior grapes, oak casks and the traditional alembic still--and the patience and commitment to wait years for the brandies to mature--that these new distillers have made such enormous leaps in quality. By combining centuries of European knowledge, traditions and equipment with the best California fruit and technology, and a willingness to experiment, these California brandy makers have reached new levels of excellence. They often create brandies with stronger fruit flavors and a cleaner taste and bouquet than their French cousins.

A visit to Carneros Alembic is as close as you'll get to Cognac without crossing the Atlantic. Black and white historical photos from Rémy Martin in France line the walls of the high-ceilinged, stone-walled Still House-- just a stone's throw from the Barrel House--which contains eight enormous, sparkling copper alembic stills within its barn-like confines. Here, the chanting monks have been replaced by classical music that plays softly in the background. This is the room where French Colombard, chenin blanc, pinot noir, palomino, folle blanche and muscat grapes are distilled, beginning the process that transforms them from wine to brandy.

A cool breeze blows almost constantly, and that's one of the reasons this location, at the windy northern tip of San Pablo Bay, was selected for Carneros Alembic. Its temperate and humid climate makes it ideal for cellaring. Four thousand barrels rest peacefully here, awaiting blending and bottling. Brandies from individual grapes age alone for two to five years before they are mixed, and they may be blended as many as three or four times before they are bottled, aged again to "marry" the flavors, and finally ready for release.

Distillation Master Brad Skibbins likes to include some of the sediment normally strained out when he distills the wines for the extra flavors they contribute, much as cooking meat on the bone produces a more flavorful meal than cooking a boneless cut. Distilling begins in late August and runs virtually nonstop for three months.

Carneros Alembic’s QE (Quality Extraordinaire) is a highly acclaimed 12-year-old brandy that rivals all but the finest Cognacs and Armagnacs-- and, with a retail price of nearly $100, places itself in the company of "XO" Cognacs. Skibbins calls QE "a perfume you can drink." It is delicately flavored with scents of vanilla and cinnamon, and is the result of blending the brandies primarily from 1982 and 1983, making it the longest-aged California brandy on the market. Skibbins says "QE came about from sampling. We had one blend that always got the highest marks, so we set it aside for long-term aging."

Carneros Alembic also makes the 100 percent folle blanche brandy. It's aged 10 years, and is creamy with hints of vanilla, apricot, honey and more, with a long, smooth finish. RMS Special Reserve is a blend of six- to eight-year old brandies. Skibbins describes his ultimate goal at Carneros: "To create the best brandy one can in America"--a goal shared by his peers at Germain-Robin, Jepson, Domaine Charbay, St. George Spirits and all the other distillers of premium brandy in California. According to the evidence in the snifter, they're on their way. OC

Brandy is made by distilling wine. Distillation began with the medieval wizards known as alchemists, whose goal was to turn base metals into gold. While we have no proof that they succeeded in their original task, the lasting legacy of their efforts is the alembic still, essential to the production of fine brandy.

The still heats the wine (the word brandy derives from the Dutch word for "burnt wine") to separate the alcohol from the water, and, for brandy, the wine undergoes this twice. It is a delicate process--and for every 10 bottles of wine that go in, only one bottle of brandy will come out. Of course, it's not quite that simple. What trickles out of the still is eau-de-vie, a clear, high-alcohol distillate, and, in the Middle Ages, this "water of life" was thought to be a panacea.

Through careful aging in oak casks and blending of different batches, these raw liquors are tamed and refined to create the finesse and delicacy associated with the world's best brandies. -- Chris Rubin

CARNEROS ALAMBIC (1250 Cuttings Wharf Road, Napa, 707-253-9055). This company was among the first alembic brandy producers in California. It started out in 1982 as RMS, French Cognac maker Rémy Martin's venture into California brandy (in a short-lived partnership with top-notch California sparkling wine maker Schramsberg). While honoring and observing tradition, it breaks the rules in an attempt to create a California brandy worthy of the Cognac heritage: like some of the other California distillers, it uses pinot noir, a red grape, for the extra fruit flavors it imparts. One of its specialties is a 100 percent folle blanche brandy, which uses the grape that once dominated Cognac.

GERMAIN-ROBIN (P.O. Box 175, Ukiah, 707-462-3221). Its Alembic brandy is made a bit north of California's primary wine region in a one-room wooden shed that is home to an imported antique alembic still. Co-founder Hubert Germain-Robin comes from a family that began making Cognac in 1783. The facility is very much like what a small turn-of-the-century distiller in Cognac might have had, plus a few modern innovations. Everything is done by hand at Germain-Robin, as they keep one foot in the 19th century, yet they are very experimental. Barrels holding brandy dating back to 1982 age in the chai, an underground cellar accumulating the traditional black mold that can be found all through Cognac. "We're like a hypermodern lab experiment," says co-founder Ansley Coale of their work with new yeasts, new grapes and various technologies.

DOMAINE CHARBAY (4001 Spring Mountain Road, St. Helena, 800-M-DISTILL). Twelfth-generation master distiller and wine maker Miles Karakasevic comes from Yugoslavia, where he graduated from the University of Belgrade with a degree in enology and viticulture. Charbay's brandy is not yet available on its own. Karakasevic is waiting until it's just right, somewhere within the next couple of years. But it can be tried in Charbay, a smooth and tasty blend of brandy and chardonnay much like Moët et Chandon's Petite Liqueur without the bubbles. Karakasevic hosts occasional seminars where you can learn the fine art of distilling, and even take home a small bottle of your work.

ST. GEORGE SPIRITS (5421 Belgrave Place, Oakland, 510-769-1601). "I come from the eau-de-vie side, where the flavor of fruit is more important than the wood," says St. George founder Jorg Rupf. He says he was the first to distill brandy in the United States, beginning in 1982. Prize ribbons from state fairs cover one wall of his warehouse distillery, which also houses a 65-gallon, Jules Verne-like Holstein still imported from Germany, a pair of enormous stainless steel tanks, and a couple dozen barrels of aging brandy. In addition to Pale Brandy (375 ml, $30) released under his own label, Rupf also makes brandy for Acacia Winery. Befitting an eau-de-vie maker, Rupf uses no additives of any kind, and doesn't look to long years in wood casks to make his product good. His unique distilling methods yield a smoother brandy that captures more of the qualities of the fruit.

ACACIA (2750 Las Amigas Road, Napa, 707-226-9991). Wine maker Larry Brooks always liked brandy and had some extra grapes with which to experiment, so he contacted St. George's Rupf, and now Acacia now has three brandies under its own label, sold by mail and in its tasting room. "I knew Jorg and I thought he did great work, so we started distilling and aging." Brooks has focused on the chardonnay grape, which is too costly for most distillers to use. "It keeps its fruit through wood and age," he says. And Acacia's brandy is as pure as possible. "Just wine, wood and spring water, no additives." Acacia's brandy program is strictly at the hobby level with only a couple hundred cases a year, but Brooks hopes to expand.

JEPSON (10400 S. Highway 101, Ukiah, 707-468-8936). This Mendocino vineyard, which also produces prize-winning chardonnays, sauvignon blancs and sparkling wines, does things a little differently from the other California distillers, using only French colombard grapes (one of the original Cognac and Armagnac varietals) grown in its own vineyards on 50-year-old vines, making Jepson Rare Brandy one of the very few single-vineyard, single-varietal brandies in the world. Jepson may be the most traditional brandy maker in California, closely following the methods of Cognac and using one of their approved grapes, but it's all with the aim of producing a distinctly California brandy that will reflect the region's fruit and soil. At under $30 a bottle, Jepson's Rare Brandy is one of the best bargains in California bottles.

DOMAINE CHANDON (1 California Drive, Yountville, 707-944-8844). The American division of the famous French champagne house had a few vineyards growing ugni blanc and folle blanche, two of the classic Cognac grapes, so winemaker Dawnine Dyer enlisted the help of Charbay's Miles Karakasevic to distill them. The resulting Chandon Brandy has nine years of oak aging, and comes in one of the loveliest bottles on either side of the Atlantic. It is sold ($32.50) in the winery's gift shop and by mail, and served in the restaurant.

Chris Rubin

COGNAC

Surely the most famous brandy of all is Cognac, but many consumers do not understand the relationship between Cognac and brandy. Put as simply as possible; Cognac is brandy, but only one brandy is Cognac. To qualify, the brandy must be made from grapes which have been grown in a legally delimited region in France; the Cognac region. It is located on the Atlantic coast, just north of the Bordeaux wine region. The grapes have to be fermented into wine there and the distillation must also be done there, using traditional methods and equipment.

When the Romans came, much of this area was covered by forests except in the case of drier areas, such as the Champagne regions. In the third Century, the Roman Emperor Probus allowed the Gauls to plant their own vineyards, and in the next century the Emperor Constantine recognized the Christian faith. Since wine was needed for the Mass, every church required its own vineyards. Gradually, the forests were cleared and the land planted. The Romans encouraged the panning of salt from the sea and this stimulated a great deal of traffic on the various seas and waterways. This traffic was of benefit to the wine trade, although it took several centuries for it to truly develop. The lucrative Anglo-Saxon and Scandinavian markets did not become available to the large vineyard area that had formed around La Rochelle until Eleanor of Aquitaine was wed to the future king of England, Henry II Plantagenet, in 1152. The wines of the region thus began their international career under the English flag. When the Dutch built their huge fleet, they gradually replaced the English as masters of the wine trade.

This was not the beginning of international trade in the Charente region because there had been a demand for the local sea salt, famous for the preservation of fish, since the 5th century. Eventually, the sailors who came to stock up with salt also started to buy wine. During this time, the famous wines were the whites grown on the slopes of the Champagne subregion within Cognac.

Through the years, three main varieties of grape, each of which had its period of dominance, were responsible for the wines. The first was Colombard, which produced a sweet, bright, alcoholic wine. While it is no longer used for distillation, the Colombard is required for the production of the famous local aperitif wine, Pineau des Charentes. The Colombard dominated up to the 17th century, when it was replaced by the Folle Blanche. The switch to the Folle Blanche eventually resulted in overproduction of wine due to the rapid spread of the variety and the wine it produced was more delicate. The rapid development of international markets meant, however, that wines had to travel ever increasing distances, and the wine from the Folle Blanche was ill-suited for this. Distillation proved to be the answer to both the overproduction and the lack of longevity. It took care of surplus stocks, and stabilized production and shipment. Cognac’s fame is thus due to the Folle Blanche vine, which eventually was planted on as many as 200,000 hectares (nearly 500,000 acres; a hectare = 1,000 square meters), not all of which were genuine vineyard land.

The Folle Blanche, however, fared no better than its predecessor. It had two fatal flaws. It was too frequently subject to attacks of gray rot, making the wine unfit for the still, and it was difficult to graft. This latter had been made necessary by the phylloxera disaster which struck the vineyards in the 19th century. The solution was to graft vitis vinifera vines (the European grape species) on to American rootstock since they were immune to the pest. Today, Folle Blanche vines represent barely two percent of all Cognac vineyards, which total about 90,000 hectares. It was replaced by the Ugni Blanc grape (also known as Trebbiano and/or St. Emilion), which has now achieved almost complete domination (97%). It is easy to graft, sturdy, crops heavily, and provides a light, acidic, aromatic wine ideal for distillation. The decrees of 15 May 1936, 13 January 1938 and 3 February 1955 also permit the use of the following varieties: Meslier Saint François, Jurançon Blanc, Sémillon, Sauvignon Blanc and Select.

In the 1870s, the Cognac vineyards produced up to 15 million hl (about 568,000 gallons) of wine annually and was the largest white wine vineyard area in the world. Although devastated by the phylloxera at the end of the 19th century, it’s current plantings of 80,000ha are still enough to retain its title of the largest white wine vineyard area in the world. Thirty thousand wine growers tend the vines, many of them in small plots, almost on a gardening basis, and often as part of a mixed farming concern. Only 2,500 properties have more than 10ha of vines.

The Regions of Cognac

The decrees of I August 1909, 13 January 1938 and 16 February 1978 delimited the area of production and brought cognac into the fold of appellations d’Origine contrôlées the mechanism by which France regulates its wine industry. The area of production, which groups together the west part of Charente, most of Charente-Maritime, and two small enclaves in Dordogne and in Deux-Sevres, is itself divided into six crus. This classification is based on geological factors, and on the influence of sea winds, which are more active in the west part of the region. It is also respectful of ancient traditions.

The secret of Cognac lies in the soil. It produces a wine that is not particularly good as a wine but which is ideal for distillation. Quality variations in the soil are based on the amount of chalk, the hardness of the chalk, and the amount of clay mixed in with the chalk. The more chalk, the better; the softer the chalk, the better; the less clay, the better. Chalk in the soil is important because it retains humidity (moisture). Grand Champagne has the softest chalk and the least clay; therefore, it is considered the best and has been for centuries.

Prior to the appellations d’Origine contrôlées, there had been an understanding of what the preferred regions were, but they were not legally demarked. The six are: Grand Champagne, Petite Champagne, Borderies, Fins Bois, Bons Bois, and Bois Ordinaires. See the map of Cognac.

The differences among the districts show in the flavor, body, bouquet, and aging time and potential. Brandies from the Grande Champagne will have the finest and most delicate flavor; those from the Bon Bois and Bois Ordinaires will be much coarser in flavor. Grande Champagne brandies will have the lightest body; those from the lowest classifications will be heavy and clumsy. The Champagne brandies will develop a refined and elegant bouquet, the others will not. Brandies made from Grande Champagne grapes have far more potential for aging, but they will age much more slowly and take longer to mature. Because of these differences, most Cognacs are blends of brandies from different regions, mostly from the first three. Little, if any, of the three Bois goes into the better Cognacs. At least one firm, Rémy Martin, only uses Grand and Petite Champagne. Blending is done to balance the quality characteristics of the regions. Borderies blended with Champagne brandy would, for example, accelerate the aging and provide a little more body.

Grand Champagne has 13,000 hectares (32,000 acres). It should be considered as a "Grand Cru" in the tradition of the French wine regions such as Burgundy and Bordeaux. Oyster fossils in the soil make the chalk soft enough that the vines can penetrate deeply into the soil. Because the subsoil is porous and holds water which is fed slowly to the vines, they grow slowly. This is especially the case while the grapes are ripening. While the wines, when distilled, show the greatest promise, they also take the longest time to reveal their qualities.

The Petite Champagne district, next in quality, has harder chalk and more clay. It is more or less crescent shaped and partially surrounds Grand Champagne. Petite Champagne is slightly larger than Grand Champagne, 16,000 hectares (39,500 acres). Its brandies age nearly as slowly as Grand Champagne, and are capable of attaining nearly the same quality when matured. In these two districts, the soil layer is so thin that the chalk lying underneath it makes it appear gray, nearly white.

The two most prestigious district labels in Cognac are Grand Fine Champagne or Grand Champagne which must be made 100% from grapes grown in Grand Champagne, and Fine Champagne. The latter must contain a minimum of 50% Grand Champagne, the remainder coming only from the Petite Champagne district.

Borderies. The part of Grand Champagne not surrounded by Petite Champagne is bordered to the northwest by the Borderies district. The brandies from Borderies are softer, faster to mature and are highly useful in blending for this reason.

Most quality Cognacs contain brandies distilled from grapes grown only in these 3 districts. The Fins Bois soil is reddish brown and the brandies are coarser and age relatively fast. The Bon Bois and Bois Ordinaires districts produces very light Eaux-de-vie of little refinement and subtlety. The wine yields are greater in these districts but the alcohol is lower than desired. There are 80,000 hectares of vines in Cognac.

Vine Cultivation and Fermentation

Although the vines have changed over the years, there have been few changes in cultivation techniques. One has been to plant the vines farther apart, to enable the use of tractors. Another has been to change the cutting back of the vines since the discovery that frost, along with hail the most dangerous enemy of the vines, is less destructive 20-30 cm above the ground. Fertilizers are probably less relied upon than in other French vineyards; it seems to negatively affect the distilled eau-de-vie.

An unusual practice in Cognac is to harvest, not when the grapes reach their physiological maturity, but when they attain aromatic maturity. Other wine makers pick when the relationship between sugar and acid reaches it optimum. The wine is not particularly good, but it would be difficult to find a wine more suited for distillation. The decree of 15 May 1936 imposed two strict rules: it forbade both chaptalization (the addition of sugar to the must to increase the alcohol level of the wine) and the use of continuous presses, which have Archimedes' screws and press the grapes so powerfully that the result is detrimental to the quality of the wines and brandies. Another necessity in Cognac is the removal of the pips when pressing the grapes. Otherwise, tannins extracted from the pips would corrupt the distilled product.

Fermentation is natural; that is, the native, wild, yeasts are allowed to convert the sugar into alcohol. The vinification takes place without the addition of antioxidants or of sulfur, which is very unusual. Sulfur is prohibited because it would emerge as an undesirable element in the final brandy. Fermentation takes from one to two weeks. The wine is quite delicate and must be distilled when as fresh as possible. This is why Cognac regulations require the distillation from a harvest to be completed by April 1st of the following year. The distillation begins on November 1st. Because the wine is low in alcohol, about 10 gallons of wine are needed to produce one gallon of Cognac. It would be more efficient and less expensive to distill wines of higher alcohol content, but the result would not be as satisfactory. The Charente wines typically have from 7 to 8% alcohol (compared to the normal table wine level of 10-14%).

Cognac Distillation

The Dutch were responsible for the development of distillation in Charente. They controlled the wine trade at the time and bought a lot of wine from La Rochelle. The wine was delicate and did not travel particularly well and as trade developed, the quantities to be shipped became a problem. The answer seemed to be to distill the wines, what the Dutch called brande-wijn (burnt wine), anglicized to brandy. The distilled wine was more stable in travel and certainly occupied less space for shipment. This is not unlike what happened in Kentucky when the excess, and cumbersome, corn crops were distilled into the more manageable Bourbon whisky. When consumed, they put the water which had been removed back by drinking it with water. It did not convert the brandy back to wine, but seemed to be popular nonetheless.

One of the unusual aspects of the Cognac region is that the large and famous firms do not necessarily do their own distillation. The usual custom is for many of the growers to not only make the wine, but distill it into brandy. They then either age this brandy and then sell it to the large firms, or, more typically, sell the freshly distilled spirits. Rémy Martin, for example, have 2,001 growers; 500 of which have alembics and distill for them. Rémy Martin has only four stills and distills only 2% of their needs. Martell distills 10% of their needs and Courvoisier does not distill at all. In general, the Cognac firms buy, blend, age and market Cognac; they do not distill it.

The first to use the pot still to make brandy from wine was Arnaud de Villeneuve, a Catalan (Spain) doctor. This was in the 13th century. The secret of distillation then found its way to Ireland and Scotland where it was used for the distillation of grain spirits, or whisky. Scandinavia used the apparatus for the production of acquavit and Holland for gin. In the Charente, distillation was being practiced as early as the beginning of the 16th century when the first pot stills were brought in by the Dutch traders. They were greatly impressed by the quality of the eau-de-vie produced in Charente and the fame of Cognac began. One of the factors in this was that the basic distillate, not yet Cognac as we know it, was quite palatable when freshly distilled. Previously, distillates had to be heavily flavored to even be drinkable.

One of the major advances towards transformation of this rather, by present day standards, crude distillate into Cognac was the addition of a second distillation. This took place during the 17th century. The Chevalier de la Croix Maron, of what is today the Grand Champagne district, supposedly had a dream in which he was told to give the wine a second distillation. He did so and took two casks to the monks of Renorville near Angles. While the first was quickly consumed, the second was put away for a suitable occasion. A visit to the monastery some 15 years later by the Bishop of Saintes provided the occasion. Two unexpected things were discovered. One was that the barrel was no longer full - evaporation had depleted the contents. The other was that the years in wood had magically transformed the contents into something altogether different from anything they had experienced before. The eau-de-vie had acquired an amber color, it had become smoother and more mellow and had developed a rich bouquet. Thus, the discovery of double distillation coincided with that of the benefits of wood aging.

The pot stills underwent continuous evolution for nearly two centuries until the modern charentais pot-still was devised. The use of copper was important because the contact between copper and liquid "selects the finest characteristics of the wine, trapping the fatty acids and elements of sulfur, and allowing the aromas to develop. The smaller the still, the more evenly the heat is distributed and the better the contact."

"The boiler has the form of a flat-bottomed bowl, the sides of which gradually decrease in thickness to ensure even heating. It is placed over the naked flame in a brick chimney. The bowl is closed over by a dome, capped with an onion-shaped bulb through which the vapors rise into the swan-neck. They then pass through a long tube into the condenser coil, encased in its cooling shaft."

The first distillate is known as brouillis. In Scotland, where malt whisky also undergoes double distillation, it is called low wine. Re-distillation of the brouillis yields Cognac. Material called lees consists of the grape yeasts mixed with minute particles of fruit and is what settles to the bottom during fermentation. The first distillation may include the lees with the wine; this is optional for the distiller. Some firms, Rémy Martin is one, insist on such inclusion. The lees contribute to the complexity of the rancio, or nutty fragrance that is a trademark of a fine Cognac aged for many years. It also provides more body and power and the taste lingers longer. It is a risky process however, and great skill must be used to avoid stewing or cooking the lees. This would result in a taste known as rimé, similar to the taste of boiled fat.

The heads are obtained in the early part of the distillation. These are the substances that volatilize the easiest and fastest. They are aggressive, contain many watery substances and are low in alcohol. They are added to new wine for redistillation.

The middle cut of the first distillation is the brouillis. This is retained for careful filtering and a second distillation. It takes about 8 hours before the brouillis has been fully obtained. The last portion of the distillate, the tails, is weak in alcohol and is combined with the heads for inclusion in another first distillation.

The brouillis has an alcohol content of from 27 to 30 percent. It is redistilled and again separated into fractions. The early distillate forms the heads and are recycled as before. The portion that will become Cognac is drawn off at 70%; this takes about 5 hours. As the distillation continues, the alcoholic strength begins to very slowly decrease. When it drops below 60% the heart has been fully collected and the distiller now draws off what is knows as seconds. The last fraction is again termed the tails. The seconds are redistilled either with new wine (in a first distillation) or with the brouillis (in the second distillation). It is considered a quality factor as to how much is used with the wine and how much with the brouillis. Rémy Martin, for example, only use from 20 to 25 percent of the seconds with the brouillis; the remainder being mixed with new wine for a complete (two times) distillation cycle. Use of excessive amounts of seconds in the second distillation is considered to be detrimental to the quality of the finished Cognac.

Separation into the various fractions and, especially, the heart of the second distillation is considered of critical importance and is part of the art of distillation (as opposed to the science). Skill and experience count for everything here.

As an example of exactly how this works these are the specific procedures of Rémy Martin.

  • First Distillation: Each initial batch contains 25 hl (660 gallons) wine and lees (total of 90%) and heads/tails (10%). Some firms distill the wine on its lees. Rémy Martin does this and considers it to be one of their important quality factors. The size of the alembic is also important; 25 hl is considered relatively small.

    Yield from 1st distillation:

  • Heads = 12 liters @ 60%.
  • Brouillis = 8 hl @ 28%.
  • Tails = 100 liters @ 3%.

  • The second distillation again starts with 25 hl. containing secondes (20%) and brouillis (80%)

    Yield from 2nd distillation:

  • Heads = 30 liters @ 72%.
  • Cognac = 700 liters @ 70%
  • Secondes = 600 liters @ 30%.
  • Tails = 150 liters @ 3%.

Fresh distillates, called Eaux-de-vie at this point, not Cognac, are taken to the Cellar Master of whichever firm(s) the distiller is working with. There, a judgment is made as to the suitability for that particular firm considering their style, quality standards and so forth. Such selections are made prior to March 31 of each year (Cognac is distilled only until March 31) and the spirits are given a rating of 00. On April 1, the rating changes to 0 and the spirits will be moved to wood for their long and slow maturation. On the first of April the next year, it is 1; the following year, 2 and so forth. This continues for a maximum of 8 years. The aging continues, of course, but the official age ends at 8.

Cognac Aging

Cognac regulations permit the use either of the local Limousin oak or that obtained from the forests of Tronçais. The use of Limousin oak for maturing came about somewhat fortuitously. The Charente wine trade developed because of the salt pans. In the Middle Ages, the carters who came to pick up loads at the river port of Cognac were unwilling to travel empty. With no other goods to exchange for the salt, they loaded up with timber, cut from the forests covering their land. Which is better is a matter of conjecture. Some will use both; others are adamant in the use of only one.

Rémy Martin, for example, uses only Limousin oak. Martell, by contrast, uses Tronçais oak, which is tougher and less generous with its tannins, in its continuing search for a certain austerity of style. Both Rémy Martin and Hennessy own their own cooperage’s (Taransaud for Hennessy and Seguin-Moreau for Rémy Martin). At Seguin-Moreau, the largest cooperage in Europe, Rémy produces many more barrels than they can use themselves. The remainder of the production is for other Cognac firms, for wine and so forth. Limousin wood is large grained which makes for an excellent exchange between the oak and the brandy. The distillers refer to the fact that it has "good oxidation." Tronçais wood has a tighter grain, less tannins, and the oxidation is slower than with Limousin. The evaporation is about the same but the "exchanges" are not as good. Freshly distilled Cognac is placed in new barrels; perhaps for 16-18 months. Although it is common for mature Cognacs to have spent their maturing time in barrels of varying ages, the Cognac moves; the barrels do not. They stay in the same place.

The trees are 150 years old and one tree can produce wood sufficient for only 2 or 3 barrels of 360 liters (95 gallons) each. Trees are harvested during the winter when the sap is not running. They are cut into pieces called balks. Each balk is then cut into four quarters, each quarter producing one stave. The center and the outside (the bark side) portion of the wood are not suitable and the stave must be cut as illustrated.

At Seguin-Moreau, the wood is always split, never sawn which would cut the grain thereby losing the flavor of the wood. The staves are seasoned outdoors for 3 or 4 year before being formed into barrels. The cooper assembles the staves in the form of a ‘rose’ with the hooped end uppermost. This is placed over a wood fire and the staves are alternately heated and moistened to soften the fibers of the wood. The cooper must be highly skilled since the wood must be softened but not charred (as would be the case with Bourbon barrels). When the wood is ready to give, the cooper will tighten the staves with a winch. This is a gradual procedure and slowly the correct curved shape emerges and the winch cable is replaced with a second iron hoop. In like manner the remaining hoops are placed on the barrel. The top and bottom of the barrel is assembled entirely without the use of nails or glue. Acacia wooden pegs and river bank rushes (obtained from Belgium since they do not grow in France) are used for sealing. A sort of dough is made from flour and water and the top is set in. When fully assembled, the barrel is filled with from 20 to 30 liters of boiling water to check for flaws and watertightness. The top of the barrel is joined by acacia wood pegs. River rushes are used between each piece of wood.

Wood maturation is becoming increasingly expensive, adding to the costs of production. New barrels cost 4,000 FF ($860.00) in 1995. At Rémy Martin, their 240,000 barrels are thus worth over $200 million. Further, they need between 10,000 and 20,000 new barrels a year; the average is probably somewhere around 15,000 (or, nearly $13 million).

Barrels are considered new the first three times they are used. Each time, only young, newly distilled, Cognac will be placed in them. The first of the three will be for only a few months since the wood is so aggressive at this point and will impart excessive tannin to the spirit. The second use may be for up to two years and the third even longer. A barrel filled for the fourth time is called a red barrel. The barrels are fully mature after 10 years and can continue to be used for up to 90 more. Delamain, a shipper specializing in light, delicate brandies, insists that their distillers use only mature, used wood, even for newly distilled spirits.

Maturation is monitored continuously by the Cellar Master and his staff. The rating system mentioned earlier proceeds and, at April 1 of each year, the Cognac is promoted one level. It moves from 0 to 1 to 2 and so forth. A two can be sold as a three star or VS and a four qualifies as a VSOP, and, after six years, it can be labeled an Napoléon or XO. These are the legal minimums and many such bottles would substantially exceed these ages. The official rating system does not go beyond 6.

During the long years of sleeping in wood, the Cognac breathes, absorbing oxygen from the air and evaporating through the porous oak. The escaping vapors form what is known as "The Angels Share" and it blackens the walls and roof of the cellars over time. 70% Cognac in the barrel will lose 2 to 3% (or 12-15 liters) each year during this maturation and slowly drops to the 40% at which it must be bottled. Cognacs bottled before dropping to this level have to be cut with distilled water to the legal proof. A well-matured Cognac does not require such "cutting" due to the loss of alcohol. After 50 years, the strength would be about 40%, but there may be only 120 liters left (from the original 350 liters/92.4 gallons). The evaporation loss slows over time; mostly because the alcohol content decreases. One interesting fact is that the barrels are kept "topped up." They must always remain full (unlike Bourbon and Malt Scotch whisky).

The aging process is quite unpredictable. The Cellar Master will follow his instinct and order the Cognac to be transferred to a "new" cask, from this to a "red" and then a very old cask before returning to a "red." Or he will move the Cognac to another cellar. In a humid cellar, the eau-de-vie loses its alcohol more rapidly and can become flat. In a dry cellar, the liquid evaporates faster and the eau-de-vie can harden. In some cases even, the Cognac spends a while in a loft, to give it a complete change of climate, as in days gone by during its long voyages across the ocean.

Cognac Blending

Blending is the key to Cognac.

The Cellar Master has the responsibility of understanding the life cycle of all the maturing eau-de-vies and in combining flavors and aromas in such a way as to maximize the qualities of each in a harmonious whole as well as to maintain consistency in such blends over time. When a blend is decided on, it is carefully evaluated and, when judged satisfactory, is returned to cask for an additional 1 to 3 years before being bottled. As an example of the importance of blending, Rémy Martin XO is blended some 800 times before being bottled, and their flagship brand, Louis XIII, is blended 3,000 times! The Cognac producers will say over and over that the "blending is what is responsible for the aroma of Cognac. A straight (unblended) Cognac, even one of 25 years, will not have any aroma."

How to Drink Cognac

Cognac should not be warmed prior to drinking, even by cradling the glass in the palm of the hand. The most volatile, elegant part of the fragrance can be lost. On the other hand, it is now recognized that ice can do no harm. A mature Cognac can stand up to the cold which can even stimulate some of its more subtle flavors. In Cognac, it is also being currently recommended with soda water since the bubbles emphasize the richness of the bouquet. Cognac with ice and/or soda water are recommended as an aperitif; neat for a digestif.

The fragrance releases a hint of violet and gingerbread, lily and dry barley. The Limousin oak adds vanilla. A very old Cognac should have faint scents of port wine and dried raisins and a hint of jasmine, saffron, tropical fruits and sandalwood. In fact, the latter odors are very much in evidence in the cellars containing the very old Cognacs - those from 50 to 80 years old.

Styles of Cognac

Because of the pattern of wood usage and since Cognac is a blend of spirits aged for different periods, it is not accurate to speak of a specific age as is done with Bourbon and Scotch for example.

There are three basic types of Cognac made.

  • One, accounting for some 80-90% of the production, is usually labeled three- star, VS., or simply Cognac. It is the youngest blend of each shipper and, as pointed out, only requires 2 years in wood. It may be primarily composed of brandies which have spent about three to five years in wood, with a small portion of more mature brandy added to increase the smoothness and complexity. The actual age of a Cognac is always a matter of conjecture, but since the total aging stocks in Cognac are between three and four times the annual sales, it would be mathematically difficult for the average blend to be older than four years.
  • The next level is that commonly designated as VSOP. The letters used by the Cognac trade are, it is interesting to note, English in origin. VSOP, for example, means Very Superior Old Pale, an interesting phrase since spirits, unlike wines, become darker, not lighter, as they mature in wood. Some of the other frequently used letters are F (fine) and X (extra). A VSOP (or VO or Reserve) Cognac must be at least 4 years old and generally has an average age of from seven to ten years. Its flavor will be fuller and smoother than a three-star and it will have a more complex bouquet. VSOP Cognacs are fine premium brandies and are meant to be "sipped" as opposed to being mixed. They are also relative bargains since the quality differential (relative to VS) is usually greater than the price difference.
  • The next level is occupied by more mature, scarce, and expensive brandies. Some examples are: "Napoleon" (Courvoisier), "Cordon Bleu" (Martell), "Bras d'Or" (Hennessy), "Anniversaire" (Monnet), and "Reserve Prince Hubert" (Polignac). The average age is probably from fifteen to twenty-five years and they will have developed considerable complexity in both flavor and bouquet from the long period in wood. They will also have higher tannin levels and more oak character than will younger brandies. In Cognac it is legal to use sugar to round out the flavors and reduce the harshness of younger brandies, but on this quality level it should not be necessary. Many houses use a small quantity of caramel to smooth out color variations from cask to cask. Because caramel has no effect on taste, a dry, dark-brown brandy is certainly a theoretical possibility, but, because consumers generally associate brown with sweetness, color is used as an indicator of taste. Sugar syrup is used to sweeten and enrich young cognacs, particularly by firms such as Courvoisier, with their prominently rounded style. Both caramel and sugar syrup are legal and regulated additives. There is another practice, unregulated and largely unmentioned but extremely important shaper of cognac style. That is the use of boisé, oak chips soaked in old cognac and left in cask for months or years. To cognac connoisseurs, the richness boisé imparts to the brandy is rather hard and tannic and cannot be mistaken for real rancio.
  • There are Cognac brandies beyond the ones described but they are not available in commercial qualities and are fabulously expensive. They are designated as Extra Vieille, Extra, XO, Grande Reserve, Cordon Argent and so forth. They contain brandies of considerable age, often fifty years or more and have subtle, elusive scents of jasmine and other floral and spicy odors.

Rémy Martin provides an excellent example of how a Cognac firm blends and differentiates their various brands.

  • VS = Only about 2% of production; difficult to find in US.
  • VSOP = 65% of production; average age of 8 years (blend ranges from 4 to 12 years) and has 60% Grand Champagne.
  • Club (Japan market) = 70% Grand Champagne and has an average age of 12 years.
  • Napoleon = 75% Grand Champagne; average age = 15 years.
  • XO = 15% of production; 80% Grand Champagne; average age of 22 years with a range of 6 to 30/35 years. It would have been blended 800 times by the time it is bottled.
  • Extra Perfection = average age of 35 years, 90% Grand Champagne.
  • Louis XIII = 100% Grand Champagne. The average age is about 50 with a range of blending Cognacs between 35 and 70/80 years. It would have been blended 3,000 times by the time it is bottled.

The Modern Cognac Market

There has been a trend for Cognac to return to its older, heavier, stickier, and 'browner' style in response to demand from Asia. The Japanese and Chinese communities have a custom of drinking Cognac with water throughout their meals. Hong Kong has the highest per-capita Cognac consumption in the world. The total consumption from the affluent Chinese in Taiwan, Thailand, Singapore, and Malaysia makes them, collectively, the biggest single market for cognac. In the early 1990’s, the Asian market totaled nearly 29% of Cognac exports (about double the 15% of 1983). During this period, exports to the United States had a minimal increase; from 19.1% to 20.8%.

Armagnac producers have never had the economic success enjoyed by their counterparts in Cognac so they have no mass-produced house styles of brandy. Therefore, many Armagnac producers have a specialist appeal foreign to those in Cognac. As a result, outside the Far East, Cognac was on the decline in the early 1990’s. To counter this, a few producers have developed a market for fine old brandies from individual estates in the heart of the Grande Champagne. Also, the cognac regulators have also recognized the need for single vintage cognacs, one of Armagnac’s strong marketing points. New regulations, first introduced at the time of the 1989 vintage, allow vintage-dated cognacs. A few houses such as Croizet and, above all, Hine, are now producing such brandies.

A Cognac Specialty - Pineau des Charentes

This specialty of the Cognac region is said to have been discovered in 1589, in harvest time, when a vintner mistakenly added grape must to a barrel that contained Cognac. Realizing his error and noticing that no fermentation had occurred, he abandoned the cask in a remote part of his cellar. Several years later, when he started to empty the cask, he discovered inside a delicate, clear liquid, with a mild, fruity flavor; Pineau des Charentes had been born.

The juice used can be produced only from grapes grown in the appellation controllee area for Cognac. The grapes for white Pineau des Charentes come from Ugni Blanc (St. Emilion; Trebbiano), Colombard and Semillon. Rosé Pineau des Charentes is made from Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot and Malbec.

Production:

  • Fresh (unfermented) grape juice is mixed in an oak barrel with Cognac. The traditional ratio is ¾ juice and ¼ Cognac.
  • The juice has to be produced within the delimited cognac region from approved grapes and there is a yield limit of 50 hl/ha. The grapes must have sufficient ripeness for an alcohol potential of 10%.
  • The grapes are lightly pressed to obtain the juice. The Cognac must be aged a minimum of one year in cask. At this minimum, it is not yet legally cognac (which requires at least two years).
  • The Pineau des Charentes is required to be aged "en lees" for at least one year in the barrel.
  • The residual sugar will be between 1.25 and 1.4% and the alcohol content from 16 to 22%.
  • The wine cannot be officially classified as Pineau des Charentes, even after meeting the above criteria, until it passes a tasting by an official jury charged with determining whether or not its taste qualities merit such an appellation.

Pineau des Charentes may be consumed young (after two years); it then yields all its fruity aromas and its freshness. It improves with aging and may be preserved in bottles kept upright for several years in a cool cellar.

This is traditionally used as an aperitif or dessert wine. Some advise serving it with foie gras, melons and strawberries and its fruitiness is said to bring additional freshness to oysters.

It is best served chilled (40O to 50O F.) in tulip shaped glasses that emphasize its aromas.

Cognac Houses

Partially taken from from: Cognac, Axel and Bibiana Behrendt, Abbeville Press Publishers, NY, London, Paris, 1997

COURVOISIER

One of the Big Four. Every Courvoisier distillate bears as its subtitle the protected designation "Le Cognac de Napoleon." The preference of Napoleon Bonaparte and his successor Napoleon III for the cognacs of Courvoisier not only helped this cognac house to reach the top but also gave the name to a whole age category Napoléon. The founding father of the firm, Emmanuel Courvoisier, was a wine merchant from Paris whose excellent connections in the capital enabled him to sell the brandies produced and aged for him in Cognac directly to customers-and to Napoleon. After Napoleon's defeat at Waterloo, the ship he used for his flight lay off the coast of the Charentes, and the wine merchant richly supplied it with Courvoisier. It wasn't until Napoleon had capitulated to the British that the latter referred to Courvoisier for the first time as "Napoleon's cognac." London promptly opened its doors to Emmanuel Courvoisier as well. As it happens, Courvoisier now belongs to the British foodstuffs concern Allied Lyons.

In the course of the 20th century, Courvoisier was owned by an English family, confiscated by the Germans during World War II and projected to best-selling status in France in the postwar years by the Braastads, a dynamic Norwegian family. Today, Ivar Braastad works with the brand and Alain Braastad is chairman of Delamain. Courvoisier takes grapes from the four best growing zones, and the combination of these yield full-bodied, well-flavored cognac.

As always, however, the present-day producers cling fast to the old traditions: no vineyards of their own, no distillery of their own, but a virtually free choice from among the wines of 2,500 vintners, which are then distilled into young eaux-de-vie by four huge distilleries. Naturally, the cellar master of the famous house oversees the cellaring and later the assemblage himself. Some 45,000 barrels are filled with aging brandies at all times, and 3,000 new ones are purchased each year. The man responsible for them searches out woods from the Limousin the Tronçais, and skilled coopers construct the barrels to his precise specifications. All told, as many as 150,000 hectoliters (3,960,000 U.S. gallons) of cognac are in storage at Courvoisier at any given moment. In its treasury, its "paradise," there are more than 3,000 ancient bottles, some of them 200 years old.

The firm has two distilleries of its own and commissions 400 independent distillers to make spirit to its specifications. Since wood is so important, Courvoisier even chooses the trees for its casks and the staves are seasoned in the open air for three years before being made up into barrels.

At the top end of the range are the decanters designed by Russian art deco artist Erté (a.k.a. Roman de Tirtoff). The cognac museum in the Courvoisier chateau on the river bank in Cognac is excellent.

Courvoisier Brands:

  • VS
    An assemblage primarily from the quickly aging Fins Bois de Jarnac, with a component of petite Champagne; aged at least five years, a majority of the distillates for eight years.

    A fresh, youthful cognac with grassy, green aroma accented by fruit and wood tones; rather light-bodied, with a fresh fruity taste.

  • VSOP
    Fine Champagne cognac, aged from eight to twelve years.

    Typical Champagne character. Fruity aroma with floral notes (rose, iris), offset by a certain amount of wood; round and soft on the tongue, with developing spicy overtones.

  • NAPOLEON
    Fine Champagne brandy, the individual components of which have been aged for fifteen to twenty-five years - the "Original Napoleon.

    A very expressive distillate: repeated waves of scent reveal ripe fruit (apricot, plum), then deeper aromas (cigars, wood, spaces) that continue to unfold, smoothly and full of body, on the palate; long, intense aftertaste.

  • XO IMPERIAL
    Assemblage of brandies from the Grande and Petite Champagnes and the Borderies, aged between twenty and thirty-five years. At the International Wine and Spirit Competition in 1986, it was awarded a gold medal as "the best XO cognac in the world."

    A cognac rich in nuances, with intense flower and fruit aromas (violets, tea rose, peach, plum) and warm spices (cocoa, vanilla, cinnamon). Subtle taste with round warmth and a long, amiable aftertaste.

  • INITIALE EXTRA
    An unusual mixture of borderies and Grande Champagne brandies, aged for more than fifty years in the Courvoisier chais in Jarnac.

    Very complex, rich brandy: a varied aroma of roasted almonds, light tobacco, and raisins, as well as mushrooms, cinnamon, and vanilla; pleasant rancio, which continues to develop enormous presence on the tongue, with a long, spicy aftertaste.

  • ERTÉ No. 7U
    A mature Grande Champagne assemblage based on the 1892 Vintage, bottled in a limited edition of 12,000 carafes, the seventh and last issue of the collection created by the Art Deco master Erté.

    A very classic, mature cognac: earthy and rich in aroma, with hints of nuts, mushrooms, leaves, and sweet, almost overripe fruit; round and ripe on the tongue, but seemingly a trifle tired. Long aftertaste.

DELAMAIN

Delamain is perhaps the most British of all the great cognac firms - even though the family has its roots in Jarnac. In 1625 Nicolas Delamain, born in Jarnac, accompanied Henrietta Maria of France as a courtier to London, where the princess married King Charles I of Great Britain and Ireland. Delamain served the British crown well and was knighted and given a small fortune, which he invested in properties in Ireland. His descendants lived either in Ireland, where the family had meanwhile established a porcelain factory, or in London, until James Delamain returned to the old family house in Jarnac in 1759. Three years later his father-in-law, Isaac Ranson, made him a partner in his venerable cognac firm, which was renamed Delamain & Ranson.

In 1791 a part of the estate, which had grown constantly, was given as a dowry to Françoise-Elisabeth Delamain and her husband, Thomas Hine. The Delamain and Hine chais stand side by side in Jarnac to this day. The main Delamain line has concentrated on good business with the British, whose aristocratic taste the house knows how to satisfy like almost no other.

The present-day director of the house, which has been known simply as Delamain since 1920, is Alain Braastadt. He and his cousin and partner, Patrick Peyrelongue, also descended from a Delamain daughter, continue to follow the family tradition. They buy their fifteen-year-old cognacs from vintner-distillers of the Grande Champagne and age them at least ten more years in Jarnac. For all of this time they are stored exclusively in old barrels that add very little color and tannin, which gives them the light color and elegant dryness so prized by the British. English wine reviewers often compare them to the finest Bordeaux.

Delamain specializes in old cognac exclusively from the top delimited production zone, Grande Champagne. It has no vineyards but buys brandies with a minimum age of 15 years and ages them gently in old wood for a further 10 to 40 years before careful and gradual blending. The Delamains have long been travelers in search of their fortune; a member of the family was part of the court of Charles I of England in the 17th century, another established a porcelain factory in Ireland, and in more recent times Delamains have distinguished themselves in the modern arts and sciences. There is a family connection with Courvoisier.

The Delamain house style is light and elegant, as befits Grande Champagne distillates. Three noses are involved in approving blends and there must be unanimity regarding approval of quality; a two-to-one majority is never accepted. Grande Champagne cognac can take 60 years to mature fully. Many of the brandies in the Delamain cellars are so old that they are removed from wood and stored in glass demijohns.

Flavor and balance at Delamain are close to perfect. The 'youngest' version, Pale and Dry, is minimum 25 years old, light and mellow in flavor and fine in texture. Top of the range of four is from a single cask so perfectly balanced it remains unblended.

From the Delamain Web Site:

"Situated along the quiet Charente River, in the heart of the tranquil small town of Jarnac, our Cognacs mature in our cellars that are many centuries old. We use solely 'ruby' French wooden casks containing 350 liters. 'Ruby' means that they have already lost their excess of tannin.

The evaporation of Cognac (3% each year), called the 'Angel's share', allows a dark fungus: the tortula, to spread and blacken the walls and roofs of the cellars.

In such hallowed cellars, the delicate perfume of the aging cognac is guaranteed to lift the spirits.

At Delamain, the Cognac comes entirely from the best growth , the Grande Champagne, situated at the heart of Cognac's protected area..

The Cognac will mature in our casks for a minimum of 20 years. For our older spirits, we wait until the Cognac has reached its full maturity, after 50 to 60 years spent in wood.

Our entire stock is controlled twice a year by our Cellar Master, who follows the evolution and evaporation of each Cognac. Every particular cellar, each slightest corner, adds its own subtle influence to the Cognac.

It is in the House of Delamain' s tasting room that the most important decisions are made. In the course of tasting sessions, we create the blends, we monitor the maturation of our Cognacs and control their particular quality .

The tasting is done by nose only, for we rarely actually sample the product. Each Cognac entering or departing daily from the House of Delamain will unmistakably meet the 'noses' of the top management and of the Cellar Master. A fascinating task that takes a great deal of concentration, expertise, and a true love for Cognac.

Most Delamain Cognacs are made with a blend of Grande Champagne Cognacs of equal age. At each stage of the process, both expertise and traditions are respected. Hence, each bottle will be inspected to insure its clarity and quality before being hand-dried. Each precious decanter is handled with the greatest of care. Genuine crystal, wood, seal and satin ornament our bottles with a discrete and thus elegant appearance."

Delamain Brands:

    • PALE & DRY
      A noble Grande Champagne cognac, aged twenty-five years.

      Light, clear gold color; refreshing, varied aroma (citrus, acacia, a hint of caraway, flowers); on the tongue an elegant, Christmasy spiciness becomes apparent, then evolves into a smooth but dry finish.

    • VESPER
      Thirty-five years in old barrels have given this premier cru cognac its glowing, golden amber color.

      A bouquet like a stroll in late fall. damp forest soil, dry wood, ripe fruit, spices, and herbs. With velvety smoothness the spicy notes intensify on the palate; long aftertaste.

    • TRES VENERABLE COGNAC DE GRANDE CHAMPAGNE
      Aged in old barrels like all Delamain cognacs produced in the Grande Champagne, this one matures for more than half a century before reaching its peak.

      Clear, amber gold color; very complex yet delicate almost feminine, aroma with hesitant floral notes (tea rose, violets) and rich fruit and spicy ones; a harmonious taste developing in successive waves with deepening secondary aromas; very long aftertaste that continues to reveal new components.

    • RÉSERVE DE LA FAMILLE
      The eau-de-vie for this very select cognac was distilled in about 1920 in St. Preuil, one of the best sections of the Grande Champagne. It was then aged in the barrel until it matured and was finally left to harmonize in glass basket-flasks. The alcohol content has naturally decreased by evaporation.

      A dark, clear topaz with golden lights; voluptuous, multi-layered aroma -a spicy, earthy scent emerges from a warm, rich fruit (yellow and purple plums) with overtones of nuts and bitter almonds. An amazing cornucopia of ripe fruit is apparent before the strong spicy and roasted scents (cinnamon, coffee, vanilla) give way to a smooth, moderately long aftertaste.

A. DE FUSSIGNY

"A long chain of patience and care, of expectation and enthusiasm, leads to the timeless enjoyment of a cognac." So it was only logical that Anne-Marie, née de Fussigny, a descendant of the wine-growing expert and explorer Antoine de Fussigny, and her husband, Alain Louis, a scion of the Royer cognac dynasty, would establish their own cognac house, and in 1987 they did. A family quarrel had ended Alain's promising and successful career at Royer, but today he uses his strong ties with old, established vintners and distillers to partake of the inherited cognac treasures in their "paradises." Together with their cellar master, the two cognac enthusiasts taste their finds and decide whether the Methuselahs end up in an expensive assemblage or step onto the stage of the cognac world as soloists in the Très Rares series. The Royers want to present "authentic" cognacs. The Bordelais painter Michel Bardin was infected by their enthusiasm; his watercolors adorn the labels of their asymmetrical bottles based on historical designs.

De Fussigny Brands:

  • SÉLECTION A. DE FUSSIGNY
    An assemblage from the Grande Champagne, Petite Champagne, and Fins Bois, bottled in the de Fussigny house.

    A fully harmonious distillate with a pleasant but full aroma – a heavy sweetness suggestive of wild honey, a trace of smoke and grass; long and intense on the palate, with a warm, bittersweet wave that holds its strength through the long aftertaste.

  • COGNAC XO
    An assemblage of 60 per-cent thirty-year-old Petite Champagne, 10 percent forty-year-old Grande Champagne, and 30 Percent fifteen-year-old Fins Bois.

    An exciting, lovely brandy, amber in color; its aroma full of the heavy sweetness of wild honey and roasted scents, delicately set off by fresh notes (lemon peel, orange). A smooth, substantial body and almost oily- smooth aftertaste, which at the very end develops delicate bitter notes.

  • GRANDE CHAMPAGNE SÉRIES TRÉS RARES
    Premier cru cognac aged more than fifty years in old oak barrels.

    Dark amber with golden lights; deep, very fruity aroma accented by fresh scents of grass and hay; harmonious, soft, and round on the palate.

  • TRÉS VIEILLE RÉSERVE
    Also various bottlings directly from the barrel.

HARDY

When the Scottish wine and spirits dealer Antony Hardy first arrived in the Charentes in the middle of the nineteenth century, it reminded him of his native Speyside, with its charming landscape and its river flanked by distilleries and warehouses. After going back and forth between Edinburgh, London, and Cognac for many years, he finally chose to make the Charentes his home. Antony changed his name to Antoine, bought a piece of property in Cognac and some vineyards outside of town, and in 1863 founded the cognac distillery A. Hardy. After Great Britain, his best market became Czarist Russia, Nicholas II being the most prominent buyer of his prestigious assemblage Cognac de I'Alliance.

The Hardy brand became the third-top-selling cognac in France in the 1950s, within only six years of appearing, in bottles for the first time; previously, it had been sold only in bulk. Today, the brand's main markets are the USA and the Far East, and fifth-generation sisters Bénédicte and Sophie Hardy have taken over much of the marketing. There is a family link with the Hardys who own the famous wine (and brandy) company in Australia. Both the top-end cognacs and the decanter designs from Hardy are very fine, and there is also a small range of Pineau Des Charentes. El Sublimado is Hardy's own brand of hand-made, cognac-impregnated corona cigars from the Cibao valley in the Dominican Republic.

Despite their Scottish heritage, Hardy's descendants are true Charentais; in 1978 his great-grandson Francis, the Hardy cellar master, was even elected mayor of Cognac. Today the family business is run by Benedicte and Sophie Hardy. In more than a century it has evolved into a cognac house in which quality is the prime concern. Its assemblage Perfection is listed in The Guinness Book of World Records as the most expensive cognac you can buy.

Hardy Brands:

  • RED CORNER FINE COGNAC VS
    An assemblage of distillates from the Grande and Petite Champagne, with the addition of cognacs from the Borderies and the Fins Bois, aged longer than the prescribed three years.

    Very dark, caramel-colored VS: floral fruity aroma (raisins, banana, violets) with as yet not fully integrated alcohol; winy and chocolaty on the palate.

  • BLACK CORNER FINE CHAMPAGNE VSOP

    For this VSOP the distillates from the Grande and Petite Champagnes are aged at least eight years.

    A promising cognac with an amiable aroma of nuts, honey and chocolate accented by notes of tobacco, flowers and spices; round and smooth.

  • FINE CHAMPAGNE XO
    An assemblage of Grande and Petite Champagne aged for twenty-five years.

    A delicately proportioned, elegant distillate that develops a complex aroma: at first mineral, then evolving into a summery floral bouquet with a touch of fruit. Pleasantly reserved on the palate, becoming spicier and drier at the finish.

  • LES NOCES D'OR
    A premier cru cognac created on the occasion of the golden wedding anniversary of the then head of the firm, Armand Hardy, who died in 1957. By then it had been aged in oak barrels for even more than half a century.

    Enormously forthright brandy with an appetizing aroma of concentrated floral and earthy notes, also rancio: tobacco, oak, spaces, and ripe fruit. Honey sweet, spicy, and fully mature on the palate, with a slight development of bitterness in the long aftertaste.

  • NAPOLÉON
    (15 years old)

  • PERFECTION ($4,000.00/bottle!!)

  • NOCES DE DIAMANT
  • NOCES DE PERLE

HENNESSY

Established in 1765 by the Irish immigrant and French army officer Richard Hennessy, today the house of Hennessy is the market leader in cognac. Captain Richard Hennessy, an Irish nobleman from Cork, had served in the French army and, having liked his surroundings when he was stationed near Cognac, subsequently settled there. In 1765, he began shipping cognac to British and Irish aristocrats and did very well out of it. The brand has never been embraced by the French and 98%, of production is still exported. Talleyrand and Alexandre Dumas, however, are two Frenchmen known to have regularly drunk Hennessy cognac.

Along with Martell, Hennessy helped determine the evolution of cognac for centuries, and it has been in the forefront not only because of its financial clout and first-class quality, but especially because of its good ideas. It was a Maurice Hennessy who in 1865 dreamed up the idea of designating age levels with stars and in 1870 gave the designation XO its present significance. In 1817, the British Prince Regent began ordering 'very superior old pale' cognac from Hennessy and, latterly, this was shortened to VSOP in orders and to describe shipments of this type bound for Britain. A little later, Hennessy was also the first to use stars and the term XO on bottle labels to indicate specific qualities of cognac. All of these terms are recognized in French law today.

Another Maurice was a leader in the creation of the cognac association, now called the Bureau National Interprofessionel du Cognac, in 1944. In 1971 Hennessy merged with the champagne firm Moët & Chandon to form Moët-Hennessy, which was also joined by the design firm Louis Vuitton. The luxury concern now known as LVMH (Louis Vuitton-Moët Hennessy) has majority holdings in a number of major brands in the wine, champagne, and spirits industry but allows these former family firms a maximum degree of autonomy.

Gilles Hennessy, of the eighth generation, is the current head of the house of Hennessy, which owns roughly 620 hectares (1,530 acres) of vineyards. For seven generations the Fillioux family of cellar masters has been loyal to the house. At present it is Yann Fillioux, born in 1947, who produces the house's full-bodied, fruity cognacs. Some 2,600 vintners harvest 78,869 hectares (194,806 acres) of vineyards and deliver their grapes to the twenty-eight distilleries that work exclusively for Hennessy according to Yann Fillioux's specifications.

Eight percent of France's wine output is turned into Hennessy cognac. In the house's coopering works old barrels are reconditioned and new ones are handcrafted out of oak from the Limousin and the Tronçais that has been dried for three years. On average, the firm has some 230,000 barrels of cognac aging in thirty-five different chais in the Cognac vicinity.

This is the best-selling cognac brand in the world, with sales now approaching three million cases a year. The company has 2,600 growers under contract to produce grapes and 27 distilleries producing spirit for it exclusively. At any given time, there are more than a quarter of a million casks of distillate maturing in Hennessy warehouses, yet for a while they had to suspend supply of certain categories of cognac to the duty free market due to stocks running dangerously low. The company even owns a forest in the Limousin, to ensure resources for oak casks.

The Hennessy house style is opulent and well flavored, for which a high percentage of Borderies is added to the Champagnes and Fins Bois in the blending. More than 100 different brandies go into the blending of Hennessy's XO, the oldest of which is almost 100 years old.

Hennessy Brands

  • VS
    An assemblage of forty different cognacs from the Grande and Petite Champagnes and from the Fins and Bons Bois, aged for more than three years.

    A golden honey color, with fine bouquet of nuts, Pineapple, Pear, and oak-scented caramel; smooth and round on the Palate.

  • VSOP PRIVILÉGE
    This brand VSOP is composed of distillates stored in old oak barrels for four and a half to twenty-five years.

    Amber colored, with a finely structured aroma of flowers (lily, freesia) and fruit (apricot, peach), round and full-bodied on the Palate - a Prototype VSOP.

  • XO
    A top-quality assemblage whose components have aged from ten to seventy years, bottled in a crystal carafe, the prototype of which was created in 1870 for the first XO ever.

    A rich, creamy brandy with a lively aroma of ripe fruit (pear, peach, plum) and sedate spices (cinnamon, vanilla), all of which intensity on the tongue and give way to a long, smooth aftertaste with roasted flavors.

  • PARADIS
    As the owner of the largest reserve of old cognacs, the house of Hennessy decided in 1979 to create an assemblage of cognacs that are as much as a hundred years old and aged in old oak barrels under the supervision of Fillioux cellar masters Emile (1825-1900), Alfred (1862-1941), Raymond (1888-1974), Maurice (born 1926), and now Yann (born 1947).

    A full-bodied, racy, and temperamental cognac despite its great age: a reserved aroma with floral and fruit notes and a pleasant rancio (butter, nuts, marzipan, a trace of mushroom), full of substance and strength, yet smooth on the palate.

MARTELL

The senior cognac firm, today Martell is the second-largest producer after the market leader, Hennessy. With sales of two million cases a year, the world's second largest cognac brand after Hennessy but, unlike the latter, it has a high profile in France, where it is the top seller. It was the cognac served after the signing of the World War I armistice in 1918.

In 1715 jean Martell came to Cognac from Europe's largest smuggler's nest, the Channel island of Jersey, and established a thriving legal trade in knitted goods, seeds, and groceries. He married into the Cognac aristocracy twice in succession, and his new family ties helped him to get into the business of selling the most interesting product of the region, which up to that time had been sold abroad as a young distillate, scarcely aged at all. With the liquid, nicely matured dowries of his two wives and his own purchases, which he laid down in his chais, Jean Martell was soon able to offer lovely cognacs, and Martell became the leading firm in the Charente until after the French Revolution.

A hundred years after he had established the firm, the family gave up the rest of the business and began concentrating solely on cognac. Subsequently, it invested broadly and wisely, buying vineyards, building a distillery that now has twenty-eight alembics, and expanding its cellars and warehouses.

The company owns vineyards in the Champagnes, the Borderies and the Fins Bois, but their contribution to Martell's production volume is nominal. Even an army of almost 2,500 growers providing wines for distillation (some of them for the past two centuries) furnishes only half of the annual requirements; the other half is bought in, in the form of young spirit. This all comes from the top four vineyard zones, but Martell's distinctively full and misty core flavor comes from an emphasis on Borderies spirit; in fact, 60%, of the entire Borderies production is taken up by Martell. For maturation, Martell prefers Tronçais oak, which has a very tight grain and imparts less tannin to the spirit. The evaporation known as ‘The angels share', which empties about 3%, of the volume from Cognac's casks every year, costs Martell alone 2.5 million bottles each season. Martell was bought by Seagram in 1988.

The company dates from 1715, when Jean Martell went from his native Jersey to Cognac; within five years, he was exporting 40,000 barrels a year to Hamburg, Liverpool and London. The first use of the term 'Extra' to indicate better quality was used for an order being sent to London. Towards the end of the century Martell began using a starring system to further indicate quality ranking.

Today, the brand is sold wherever cognac is drunk but Martell continues to seek out new markets. It is creating super-premium editions for the Far East and duty free (including the recent Classique in a Baccarat crystal decanter) and working, like many of the large drinks companies, to develop the enormous untapped potential of mainland China, where cognac has great prestige. New distilleries are also being built to produce non-cognac brandy outside France in countries like South Africa and Mexico.

Martell Brands

  • VS
    The distillates for this three-star brandy have aged for five to seven years.

    A cognac that strikes one as already quite mature, though still retaining much of its youthful character; an aroma of summer fruits (also pear, banana); round and gentle on the palate.

  • VSOP
    An assemblage with a large percentage of Borderies, aged from ten to twelve years-

    A delightful brandy with a delicate aroma, overtones of violets, peonies, and jasmine superimposed on ripe fruits: plums, peaches, apricots. Full-bodied and harmonious.

  • MARTELL CORDON BLEU
    Distillates from the Grande and Petite Champagnes, aged from twenty to thirty years and rounded out, in the house's signature style, with an appropriate addition of violet-toned Borderies.

    A rich but rather dry modern cognac of a deep, almost nut-brown color, with earthy notes in its fruity aroma of oranges. Full-bodied but very fruity.

  • MARTELL NOBLIGEU
    Martell has been marketing this prestige assemblage of old brandies, some of them aged for more than half a century, only since 1994.

    A very harmonious cognac with an attractive spice and well integrated woody tones in a creamy aroma dominated by dried fruit and vanilla. Caressingly soft, with a distinct honey sweetness and long, lingering, spicy aftertaste.

  • NAPOLÉON
    (15-20 years old)

  • CORDON RUBIS
  • XO SUPREME
  • EXTRA

REMY MARTIN

Cognac's number-three house. Established in 1724 by the Charentais winegrower Rémy Martin, the firm humbled along for two hundred years until André Renaud saw the potential in an old name and the quality of the vineyards associated with it and climbed aboard. Because his wife had inherited the cognac house of Frapin, he had access to a well-stocked cellar with very old distillates. Building on these, he soon produced assemblages whose distillates derived solely from the two Champagnes - a distinction that André Renaud developed as a trademark and that rapidly gave the firm a fine reputation, increased sales, profits, and capital for its continued rise.

André Renaud died in 1965, leaving the business to his two daughters. His son-in-law André Hériard-Dubreuil became director. After decades of quarreling over the inheritance with the liquor concern of the other son-in-law, Max Cointreau, Hériard-Dubreuil merged with Cointreau and thereby established one of the most important international spirit conglomerates, to which the champagne firms Krug, Charles Heidsieck, and Piper-Heidsieck, and the cognac house de Luze also belong.

Today André Hériard-Dubreuil's daughter Dominique is responsible for Rémy Martin - one of the rare cases of a woman at the helm of a cognac house. The firm continues to be based in Cognac, has 150 hectares (370.5 acres) of vineyards of its own, and in addition purchases distilling wines from more than 2,000 contract vintners in the two Champagnes. These wines are then distilled along with their sediments in especially small alembics, which give the distillates an unusual amount of fruit and a spicy character. They are aged in barrels of Limousin oak considerably longer than required by law. Guided tours of the vineyards, distillery, and chais of the hospitable house are available all year long.

Rémy Martin Brands

  • FINE CHAMPAGNE VSOP
    An assemblage of the Grande and Petite Champagnes, aged for seven years.

    A lovely amber color, a viscous cognac with a floral, fruity tone and wonderfully complementary overtones Of vanilla, roses, violets, linden blossoms, apricot jam, and hazelnuts. Soft on the palate and very dry, until a bitter sweetness develops in the aftertaste: the standard, for all brand VSOPS.
  • CLUB DE RÉMY MARTIN FINE CHAMPAGNE
    An assemblage of the best crus, aged for roughly ten years.

    A dark, clear amber color; forthright aroma with late-summer scents of hay, pot-pourri, and juicy, creamy fruit; very smooth and round in taste.
  • XO SPECIAL FINE CHAMPAGNE
    Before being bottled in an elegant crystal carafe, the distillates for this XO have aged in Limousin oak for twenty to twenty-five years.

    Dark gold with red lights; very forthright, spicy bouquet with slight floral scents (rose, freesia, jasmine) on top of chocolaty fruit tones (cherries, nuts, black currants). On the palate it develops a harmonious blend of ripe fruit, spices, and well-integrated secondary aromas.
  • EXTRA PERFECTION FINE CHAMPAGNE
    These brandies from the two best crus have aged in the Rémy Martin chais for roughly thirty years.

    Topaz in color; the aroma an exotic cornucopia of figs, sweet oranges, walnuts, and creamy bananas flanked by nutmeg and cinnamon. In a second wave spicy tobacco and roasted scents appear, which distinguish the-flavor along with dried fruit aromas. Long, gentle aftertaste.
  • LOUIS XIII GRANDE CHAMPAGNE
    A regal eye-catcher. The Baccarat carafe was patterned after an original created during the reign of Louis XIII. Filled with an assemblage of cognacs from the premier cru aged for more than fifty years. This cognac also represents the aristocracy in terms of price. Only 10,000 bottles are produced each year.

    A dark amber gold with orange accents; a very forthright aroma that 's astonishingly vivacious for a cognac of this age, composed of exotic fruits, nuts, chocolate, coffee, cigars, and surviving traces of floral notes. Spicy and strong on the palate, but pleasant clear through to its infinitely long finish.

BISCUIT

Alexandre Bisquit was just 20 years old when, in 1819, he set up his cognac firm in Jarnac. He hailed from Limoges, and knew well the special properties of the local Limousin oak for aging brandy, so he brought in quantities of it to build his maturation vats. Soon all his competitors were using the same wood, and today Limousin oak casks are in demand worldwide for aging wines and spirits. Bisquit has vineyards and distills its own cognac in a large, modern still house at the Chateau de Lignières, north of the town of Cognac. The casks of spirit age at Lignières, in temperature- and humidity-controlled cellars. Bisquit spirit runs off the still at a lower strength than most others, giving it a fuller, "grapier flavor. Normal range of qualities available, plus occasional 50- and 100- year old bottlings and single-vineyard Chateau de Lignières.

BOUJU

Fiercely traditional artisanal producer who uses only his own Grande Champagne grapes (the vintage is hand-picked) and makes small batches in a tiny still. It is only the third still the little family business has had since it began making cognac in 1805. Small stills mean more emptying and refilling but allow more control over the final product, which is what M. Bouju likes. The still is wood fired and during the winter distillation runs someone has to sleep in the still room to keep an eye on things. Blending decisions are easy for M. Bouju since his stocks amount to 17 times his annual sales rate.

No caramel or sugar is added and the cognac has the mouth-filling style of armagnac—'virile, rustic and substantial', as M. Bouju himself puts it. Long, patrician and dry finish. There is a Four-Star quality (following an old tradition whereby each star indicates a year's aging), many different average ages and a spread of cask strengths.

CAMUS

The company specializes in top-end cognac, much produced in its own distilleries. Sixty per cent of Camus' turnover is in Napoléon-quality and a fifth of all Napoléon sold has the Camus name on it. The firm began in 1863, as a small consortium formed by a grower to compete with the large buyers. Jean-Baptiste Camus wanted to retain full control of the final cognac and from the outset sold on quality. To this end, the trademark, La Grande Marque, was created and export markets were cultivated; today, more than 85%, of Camus' sales are outside France. The company has four large vineyards, each with a chateau and its own distillery, but mature brandy at least 20 years old is also bought in. The opulent and elegant Camus house style is created by combining distillates principally from Grande Champagne and the Borderies vineyard zones; the latter's brandies tend to be big and fuller flavored. The company has done well in recent years in the International Wine & Spirit Competition in London: three entries, three gold medals awarded, these being for Vielle Reserve, Extra and XO, the latter two packed in decanters.

CHÂTEAU-PAULET

Established in 1848, the business is still family-run and in the hands of the grandsons of the founder. Château-Paulet’s XO won the trophy for 'Best Cognac' twice in three years in London's International Wine & Spirit Competition in the early 1 990s. The XO is an elegant Fine Champagne but the company also concentrates to some degree on blending well-flavored brandies from the Borderies vineyards with old cognac from its stocks (part of which are over a century in age).

DAVIDOFF

High-quality blend developed to complement fine Havana cigars. Zino Davidoff formed strong opinions as to the best style of cognac to accompany the best cigars and this blend embodies his preferences. His 'Selection' goes against the grain of current and recent trends towards lighter and subtler cognacs; his is rich, intense of aroma and oaky. Taste is big, mouth-filling and a little pungent, with good length.

DELON

Luxury brand using the fame of, and actively promoted by, French film star Alain Delon. It is an XO Reserve Speciale from Grande Champagne, Petite Champagne and Fins Bois, with an average age of 30 years, and aimed at prestige outlets, particularly duty free.

DOR

Remarkable small company which, in addition to a fine current range, has cognacs going back to the year of Napoléon's victory over the Russians and Austrians at Austerlitz. There are several pre-phylloxera cognacs which have dropped naturally in strength to between 31% and 37% by volume and which, due to the special circumstances, are allowed to be sold with a year of vintage indicated.

FRAPIN

Prestigious brand that distills its own Grande Champagne wines. François Rabelais was a member of the Frapin family, and Pierre Frapin was apothecary to Louis XIV. The coat of arms the king granted him appears on the labels of Frapin cognac today. The family has lived in the Charente since 1210 and today own the largest vineyard in the Grande Champagne. There was a link through marriage with Rémy Martin, to whom they used to sell cognac, but following an inter-family feud in the 1970s, that arrangement came to an end. Frapin now has its own distinguished niche in the top-end cognac market, all of its qualities (except the Three-Star ) comprising 100% Grande Champagne eaux de vie. When well developed, the style is soft, slightly oaky and earthy with a mellow fruit rancio and succulent finish.

GODET

A family firm still run by the Godets, who descend from the Dutch who settled around 1600 in the La Rochelle area to show the local growers how to distill 'burnt wine'—brandy—for export north to the Netherlands. Not only did King Henri IV buy the Godet's cognac, he granted them the right to carry swords, a considerable honor in those days. For a small firm, Godet has a high profile in the USA and international duty-tree outlets. The range includes an innovative bottle design which is square in cross section but uniquely long and slim, in order to lit snugly into a standard businessman's briefcase.

HINE

High-quality cognac from a company also associated with early-landed late-bottled' vintage cognac. Thomas Hine went to France from Dorset in the late 18th century and was stranded there, at least to begin with, by the effects of the French Revolution. He joined the cognac firm of Ranson & Delamain, married the boss's daughter and eventually became its proprietor. The firm's name was changed to Hine in 1817, and a logo of a hind, punning his surname, was introduced. This was later changed to the splendid stag emblem which now adorns Hine cognac labels.

Today, cousins Jacques and Bernard Hine buy in both young and mature brandies for blending and aging in small casks. The first eight months are spent in new wood, followed by long-term maturation in used casks seasoned with cognac. The Hine style is light, elegant and silky, from Champagnes and Fins Bois origins. The starter quality, Signature, is not designated Three-Star because it is at least as good as other firms' VSOPs. The middle range is Fine Champagne and the top end qualities are exclusively Grande Champagne. Napoléon Old Reserve was recently launched.

Hine Cognac (from their web site)

When young Thomas Hine left the little village of Beaminster in Dorset, England in 1791 for the faraway Cognac region of southwestern France, he had no idea that he, an Englishman, was destined to spend his life developing one of the most distinguished Cognac firms in the world, the firm which today continues to bear his family name and to ship its Cognacs to more than 150 countries.

He set off for Cognac not to make the famous brandy, but to learn French. Two years later, however, fate intervened just as he was due to return to his family in Dorset. France and England were at war and the borders were closed.

So the young Englishman--he was then a mere 19--settled in the pretty village of Jarnac, a few miles upstream along the Charente River from the town of Cognac. There he joined a local firm which had been producing Cognac brandy since 1763. He evidently worked hard and made a good impression, for he went on to marry the owner's daughter. He became a partner, and later the firm took his name to become Thomas HINE & Co.

As a British subject who retained his nationality, Hine experienced difficult times during the Napoleonic wars. Being English, he was jailed for some time in Jarnac castle, hence probably the Hine family's traditional reluctance to call one of its qualities "Napoléon." Even so, Thomas Hine was so highly regarded that he was later elected a member of the local council, probably the first Briton ever to hold such a position.

Since Thomas Hine's death in 1822, his direct descendants have continued his work. Today, the sixth generation of the Hine family, cousins Jacques and Bernard Hine, continue the tradition of aging and blending only the finest natural Cognac brandies. The firm remains headquartered in the beautiful, old riverside premises in Jarnac where Thomas Hine ran the firm.

Hine Rare & Delicate

Blended exclusively from Cognacs of Grande Champagne and Petite Champagne, the two highest quality growing districts in Cognac. Rare & Delicate is aged an average of eight to ten years, far longer than required at the VSOP level. According to Bernard Hine, the taste is forward, balanced by overall structure and a long finish. Initially the nose perceives delicacy, finesse and elegance, especially characterized by a bouquet of fruit and floral aromas. The structure asserts itself on the palate where fruit and flowers are re-emphasized and a certain mellowness becomes evident.

Hine Antique

Aged an average of 20 to 25 years, Antique is exquisitely balanced: light and delicate but still complex. It is a blend of Cognacs from the Grande and Petite Champagne districts only. On both the nose and the palate a great deal of fruitiness is tempered by rancio (a pungent, nutty, woodsy flavor), which marks Antique as a mature Cognac. The taste is mellow and supple with a wealth of sustained flavors, floral nuances, hints of honey, leather and vine and a pronounced taste of vanilla, carried by finesse and endurance.

Hine Triomphe

Aged an average of 40 to 50 years, Triomphe is made only of Cognacs from the premier Grande Champagne district. Elegance predominates on the nose, underscored by nuances of flowers, tobacco and underwood (an attractive mossy, woodsy note). On the palate the rancio has developed into a very rich taste, supported by complex and spicy long-lasting flavors and a sustained finish. Overall one senses finesse, slightly sylvan warmth and an aristocratic tone.

Hine Family Reserve

Aged an average of 45 to 55 years, Family Reserve is made of Cognacs from the Grande Champagne district only. It carries on a tradition established by previous Hine generations, who reserved small batches of a specially created blend in their cellars, appropriately named Paradis. That Family Reserve was strictly rationed for family occasions and privileged guests; today's Family Reserve is released in a limited number of bottles each year. Family Reserve has extraordinary breeding which unites all the qualities of a great Cognac: the nose is extremely rich and aromatic, marked by great distinction and strength of character, subtle floral and sylvan perfumes and delightful rancio. The palate notes mellowness, plenitude, and finally a long finish. The smallest sip lingers.

Hine 1956 Grande Champagne Cognac

Hine is revered among connoisseurs for its extensive stocks of rare vintage Cognacs. Now, from its closely-guarded paradis, Hine releases its 1956 Grande Champagne Cognac. One of the best vintages of the Fifties, and remarkable in its fourth decade, the 1956 is a singular experience for the connoisseur.

Aging

After distillation, the young Cognac is transferred for aging into casks of Limousin oak, preferred over Tronçais oak because its bigger pores allow the Cognac to have more contact with the tannins of the wood. At this point, more of Hine's unique experience comes into play. The Hine family still insists on aging Cognacs in FÛTS--small traditional-style casks--and on aging new Cognacs for nine months to a year in new oak casks.

Blending and Bottling

At Hine, it is important that each new distillation of Cognac be aged separately before blending. Unlike Houses that claim there are practically no differences in the distillations from year to year, Hine considers that as Cognacs from various districts age differently, it is better to age them separately and to blend them later. "Some years a new Cognac will have a beautiful bouquet, while in others it is dry, flat," says Bernard Hine. "Therefore, all of us must blend, because if we don't find all of the characteristics from the different districts of the same year, we can blend Cognacs of different years."

With almost 200 years of family tradition and skill behind them, cellarmasters Bernard and Jacques Hine personally control all distillation, aging and blending. The great skill of blenders such as Hine is deciding which Cognacs to buy for aging, how long and how quickly to age them and then, most importantly, how to blend them to produce the finest styles of Cognac for which the House is famous.

To control the style of aging, Hine prefers to age its Cognacs on their own premises rather than to allow farmers to age them in possibly unsuitable casks and conditions. "Most of the techniques here are empirical," says Bernard Hine. "If our fathers chose a particular size of cask, for example, they had good experience behind their decisions."

When the Cognac is first placed in the barrel, it contains about 70 percent alcohol. As it ages, the Cognac's alcoholic content is reduced to approximately 40 percent. For high quality Cognacs, reduction has to be done gradually over a long period of time. "Like most of us," says Bernard Hine, "Cognac doesn't like too much water, and breaking down the strength has to be done in stages."

Hine takes no short cuts and makes no attempt to speed up the aging process. "If you break down the Cognac to 40 percent right at the beginning, and let it age, you would be facing a major problem in that the alcoholic content of the Cognac would not be strong enough to extract the tannin from the wood," continues Jacques Hine. "So you can't do it. You must start the breaking down gradually, because you need the extracts from the wood."

Normally at Hine, newly distilled Cognacs at 70 percent are immediately brought down to 60 percent and put into casks. That strength is enough to extract the tannins. After a year, different batches of, say, Grande Champagne or Petite Champagne, are blended, and a little more water is added to reduce the strength a step further.

At Hine, the final blending is done 9 to 12 months before bottling to allow the blend to marry, and at this stage the strength is reduced to 41 percent. "Marrying is very important before bottling," says Jacques Hine. "Our Cognacs stay in wood the maximum length of time." Next the Cognac is chilled to below 0 degrees Celsius to remove all the particles, mainly fatty acids, which would make the bottle of Cognac cloudy, and eventually create a deposit. After the Cognac sits three to four days in insulated tanks, the fatty acids become solid and are filtered out.

"Whatever you do, three years is the minimum to reduce a Cognac from natural strength down to selling strength at 40 percent and have a decent bouquet," insists Bernard Hine who, like other master blenders, is dedicated to maintaining the integrity of his company's distinctive character and signature taste.

The final chapter in the story of Cognac involves bottling, which is the only phase in the entire process done with strictly modern machinery. Cognac, unlike wine, stops aging as soon as it is in the bottle. Therefore, a Cognac that perhaps has aged three years in oak, then bottled and stored for 50 years more is still considered a three-year-old Cognac.

Hine's vocation has always been that of the specialist in producing the finest Cognacs and it is therefore not surprising that, in contrast to the Cognac region as a whole, its older Cognacs account for the great majority of its total sales, thus confirming the upmarket positioning of this venerable House.

Hine is justifiably proud to be the only Cognac House to have been granted the Royal Warrant as suppliers of Cognac to Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II. By remaining unswervingly faithful to its standards of quality, Hine has created its enviable worldwide reputation as a Cognac for connoisseurs...tradition would have it no other way.

OTARD

The smallest of the big brands, or biggest of the small brands, as the company itself puts it. The Otard lineage is stiff with history, family ancestors including a Viking noble and a Norman soldier in William the Conqueror's 1066 invasion of England. The Otards were latterly Scottish Jacobites, who fled to France when the Stuart Rebellions failed.

Jean Otard was sentenced to death in the French Revolution but he escaped and, in 1799, set up in partnership with a local grower in Cognac where he had land. The company has no vineyards or distillery, but buys in young brandies for aging and blending. The historic Chateau de Cognac in the town is the company HQ and what is now the town hall used to be the Otard family home. The distinctive Otard bottle was inspired by the 'teardrop' shape of the brandy that runs down the inside of a glass after being swirled.

The VSOP is a Fine Champagne of up to eight years of age and the higher qualities bring in cognacs from other zones to round out flavor and aroma. The Napoléon is up to 15 years old and the top quality, Extra, has some 50-year-old brandy in it.

POLIGNAC

High-profile brand of the largest cooperative in Cognac. The growers' membership is around 3,600, most of it in the Fins Bois and Bons Bois vineyards, so the house style is quite light and soft. The spirit is made in more than 100 stills in nearly 30 distilleries. The de Polignacs are one of France's oldest and most distinguished families and they gave permission for their name and escutcheon to be used for the brand. It has been very successful since its introduction in the late 1950s, business in the USA doing particularly well. Japan, the UK and duty free are also important markets, which have given the company opportunities to introduce presentation packs and de luxe editions.

RENAULT

Important brand in Scandinavian and duty-free markets. Jean Renault founded his company in 1835, and he was one of the first to export cognac in bottle. In the 1970s, the company used the Castillon brand name for an expansion program in some export markets but the Renault branding is now firmly established. By concentrating on a single high quality—Carte Noire Extra has an average age of 20 years—the brand is well understood and appreciated. It is round, soft and has a pleasant wood fragrance throughout.

ROBIN

The first cognac company to sell in bottle and the first to register a bottle label. Customers were slow to convince on the merits of bottles and to begin with Robin had to insist on them buying six cases of bottled cognac for every cask they bought. The label was to protect against counterfeiting once the idea caught on in the trade. Hubert Germain-Robin, who produces small-batch brandy in the USA, is a member of the family. The company is now part of Martell, and specializes in top-end editions such as their soft and gracious Extra.

ARMAGNAC

Armagnac is, following Cognac, probably the second most famous French brandy. The Armagnac region is part of the ancient province of Gascony and is located in southwest France, midway between Bordeaux (about 100 miles south) and Toulouse, facing the Pyrenees and in an area channeled by valleys fanning out from this mountain range. The Gascons date from the end of the 6th century. They appear to have been a mountain people, and they gave their name to this region: in 670 it became the first duchy of Gascony. The Gascons regard Armagnac as both the oldest and youngest spirit in France. The oldest because it was distilled earlier than other spirits, as early as the 15th century. Its youth stems from the unusual fact that the producers still cannot agree on how it should be distilled.

One of the reasons for the relative, compared to Cognac, lack of fame of Armagnac is that the region did not provide adequate exposure to trade. Cognac, because of its location near the ocean and to navigable rivers, has been an important trade center for centuries. Until the middle of the 19th century, when the river Baïse was canalized, the Gascons did not have direct access to the important and lucrative Bordeaux market.

The Regions of Armagnac

There are three subregions which are important for brandy production: Haut Armagnac, Tenareze, and Bas Armagnac. These were legally established first by a decree of 25 May 1909 which defined the area of production of Armagnac brandy; and then one of 6 August 1936, defining the Armagnac, Bas-Armagnac, Haut-Armagnac and Tenareze appellations contrôlées. See the Map of Armagnac.

The Haut Armagnac, the "upper" Armagnac, is named not for its elevation or brandy quality, but because it is the most distant of the three from the ocean. Its soil is the chalkiest of the three, the most similar to the best Cognac soil but, surprisingly, in Armagnac this soil results in the least desirable brandies. In fact, very little of the Haut Armagnac brandy is used in the blends today. The grapes are now used almost exclusively for wine, most noticeably Vin de Pays des Côtes de Gascogne.

The central section of Armagnac is Tenareze and its brandies, while seldom bottled straight, are considered to be of high quality and essential to a well-balanced blend. This region consists of a narrow corridor in the center of the appellation. The hills here are steeper than in Bas-Armagnac and the vineyards cover 5,500ha. The soil is a mixture of clay and chalk and produces floral brandies that sometimes suggest violets.

The third subregion, Bas Armagnac, is ranked first both for quality and quantity. It is located in the west of the production area and has many small valleys. It produces the best-known and finest of all Armagnac’s, from 7,500ha of vines. Its soil is composed of a mixture of sand, slate, and clay and produces a brandy which is more refined and elegant than the others, said to evoke associations of plums and prunes. Armagnac is unusual in this respect since alcoholic beverages from sandy soil are generally not highly regarded. Unblended Bas Armagnac is available and, to qualify, it must be 100% Bas Armagnac and be blended in a separate warehouse if the merchant handles any other types. Most Bas Armagnac however is blended with brandy from the other regions, mostly Tenareze, and sold as Armagnac.

The Grapes of Armagnac

The Armagnac region is warmer than Cognac and, as a result, the grapes ripen more completely and dependably. The Armagnac grapes are a little different from Cognac. While the Ugni Blanc, the universal grape of Cognac, is widely planted in Armagnac, the region also retains a little of the formerly traditional Cognac grape, the Folle Blanche and the relatively aromatic Colombard. Armagnac grows a great deal of the only hybrid allowed in any Appellation Contrôlée wine or spirit, Baco 22a. This latter comes from a cross of the Folle Blanche and the disreputable and over-productive American grape, the Noah. Baco 22A will have to be phased out by the year 2010, but in the meantime provides the older spirits with a unique combination: the florality of the Folle Blanche and the foxiness of the Noah. It seems particularly well-suited to the sandy soil of the Bas Armagnac and Tenareze and makes a wine similar to the Folle Blanche.

The Distillation of Armagnac

Although there are soil and grape differences between Armagnac and Cognac, a major differentiation lies in the method of distillation. When Edouard Adam of Montpellier invented a type of continuous still in the early 19th century, the Armagnacais immediately realized its potential for producing larger quantities of spirit than the small pot stills they had used until then. While the semi-continuous still (alembic armagnacais) is now the traditional still of Armagnac, it is distilled today in several ways.

The use of a Cognac style pot still was allowed in 1972. This came about because of the establishment in Armagnac, in the 1950’s and 1960’s, of a number of cognac houses. They felt that the time it took for brandy distilled by traditional armagnac methods to mature was much too long and wanted to institute Cognac-style distillation equipment and techniques. These do produce a lighter spirit that needs less wood maturation but not enough years have passed to make any reasonable judgments or draw any firm conclusions. The extent of this was limited: no more than 10 to 15 percent of Armagnac is distilled in this manner. One favorable result of the experimentation was that it encouraged the Armagnac producers to tinker with their own type of continuous stills, trying to retain the characteristic richness of flavor, while losing some of the impurities traditionally associated with it. Armagnac is also permitted to be distilled in a number of different fashions in a Coffey still.

The strength of the final spirit depends on the number of plates in the still. The maximum is probably 15, which would produce a spirit of 70 percent alcohol (140 proof). The traditional Armagnac still, with its five plates, will produce a lower strength spirit of 60 percent alcohol. The older stills had even fewer plates and distilled at around 52-53 percent. The differences in the spirits are quite distinctive. Wine distilled to 52 per cent (104 proof) contains twice as much of the congener-heavy queues, or tails, than one distilled at the 60 per cent or so that is normal in modern stills. By way of comparison, this difference in potential richness (and potential impurities) is far greater than that between spirits distilled to 60 and those at the 70 percent that is normal in the pot stills used for cognac. The maximum strength at which Armagnac can be distilled, whatever method is used, is 72 percent (144 proof). Armagnac is, relative to Cognac, generally fuller bodied and drier on the palate. This latter is because no sugar is used to reduce the harshness and make the brandy smoother. Distillation is started as quickly as possible after the grape harvest and has to be completed by 30 April of the following year.

Maturation of Armagnac

Following distillation, maturation in wood is the essential next step in production and the spirit is generally left to mature in cask until being bottled. Maturation takes place in the local black oak of Gascony. Most other spirits, including Cognac, are matured in white oak. The black oak of Armagnac is much more "sappy."

Nicholas Faith, a noted writer on Cognac and brandies, states that Armagnac ages more slowly than does Cognac and often receives too little wood maturation. The slower maturation is a result of the lower distillation proof and higher congeneric content. "At its best armagnac offers the drinker a depth, a natural sweetness, and a fullness unmatched by even the finest Cognac. Armagnac is underrated, however, because far too high a proportion is sold young." Nicholas Faith, The Oxford Companion to Wine, Edited by Jancis Robinson, Oxford University Press, 1994.

Armagnac, unlike Cognac (until 1989), is "vintage" bottled and may be labeled either as "10 years old", or with the actual vintage date. The general practice is to mature the freshly distilled Armagnac in new wood for a year or two and then transfer it to used cooperage. This slows the extraction of tannin and reduces the woody character inherent from long maturation in oak. Evaporation—called, as in Cognac, 'the angels' share'—is around 3 per cent per year of all stocks.

"By a quirk of French law, Armagnac, which matures so much more slowly than Cognac, can be sold even younger, from two years (as opposed to three for cognac), while five-year-old armagnacs can be Labeled VO, VSOP, or Reserve, and six-year-old armagnacs qualify as Extra, Napoleon, XO, Vielle Reserve, or indeed any other name which takes the producer's fancy." Nicholas Faith, The Oxford Companion to Wine, Edited by Jancis Robinson, Oxford University Press, 1994.

For bottling, the required alcoholic strength (40°) is reached in successive stages by the addition of petites eaux— mixtures of distilled water and armagnac. Following this is the assemblage of the coupes: blends of a number of armagnacs of different ages and origins so as to achieve a consistent and distinctive product. As with other spirits, the age of the blend is taken to be that of the youngest armagnac in it when the blend was assembled. If a 30-year-old brandy is blended with a four-year-old one, the result will be a 'four-year-old armagnac'.

A fine, mature Armagnac is one of the world's great brandies and should be enjoyed similar to a fine Cognac; sipped "neat" (not mixed) in a snifter after a meal.

Miscellaneous Armagnac Information Taken From the Internet

Armagnac, or rather the counts of Armagnac, the Albrets, were an important political force in France in the 14th, 15th & 16th Centuries, they created a political party opposed to the absolute power of the Monarchy and were responsible for the introduction of Protestantism into the South West of France. It was during their rule of Armagnac and Bearn that the local 'Eau-de-Vie' began to be commercialized and sold in the rest of France as 'Armagnac'.

The invention of the drink is attributed to Arnaud de Villeneuve (now Villeneuve-de-Marsan in the Armagnac producing region of Chalosse), an alchemist who died in 1311. The production of Armagnac involves the aging of the drink in oak barrels, anywhere between 4 and 20 years. The length of the aging process dictates the color and strength of the Armagnac - older Armagnac is more amber-colored and less alcoholic (losing 1 degree every 3 years).

Armagnac can now only be produced from one of 11 specified strains of grape, cultivated over an area that covers the departements of the Gers, Landes and Lot-et-Garonne, centered around Aire sur L'Adour and Eauze. The Armagnac (drink) is a major export of France, with more than half the number of bottles produced annually going abroad (Japan, Great Britain, Germany and the USA being the major importers).

It is a result of a traditional distillation of white wine made of grapes from Gers and a few cantons (parishes) in Lot-et- Garonne and Landes departments of South West France. The name dates back to the gallo-roman times of Arminius. The first known distillation was in 1411 and first commercial activity involving Armagnac was registered in 1414 in Saint-Sever in Landes. In addition this area produces Floc de Gascogne; a fortified sweet wine.

Partially overlapping the same area is an area producing St.Mont and Madiran wines.

Today, Armagnac is produced in three areas of Gers and Landes departments:

Bas Armagnac; lies in the west of the region. Bas Armagnacs are delicate and fruity reflecting sandy soil of this area. It is known as Black Armagnac for its dense pine and black oak forests. Main town is Eauze

La Ténarèze; in the center of the region is an area where soil is predominantly clay and chalky. Ténarèze Armagnacs are more lively and vigorous. Their richness is best expressed through long aging process. Main town is Condom.

Haut Armagnac; to the east where the soil has limestone characteristics is the area which was primarily developed in the nineteenth century. It is called White Armagnac for its chalky soil. Today, Haut Armagnac production is very small but of high quality. Main town is Auch

Once the wine distillation is completed by 31 March* following the October harvest it is placed in the oak casks (pièces). All Armagnac ages in oak casks made of Limousin or Monlezun black oak woods. The aging process allows reaction between tannic and aromatic substances in the oak to dissolve in the alcohol. The alcohol content decreases and the color changes during aging process.

Maître de Chais (Cellar Master) blends brandies of different ages and origins to produce commercially available Armagnac. The minimum alcohol content is 40%. There are small quantities of vintage Armagnac which are available at their natural aging proof. Once Armagnac is transferred to the bottle it stops aging. It must be stored vertically to prevent Armagnac interacting with the cork.

Age of the sold Armagnac is indicated by the following designations reflecting the age of the youngest blend used:

*** or V.S. at least two years old

V.O., V.S.O.P or Réserve at least five years old

X.O., Extra, Napoléon and Vieille Réserve at least six years old

Hors d'Age at least ten years old.

In general, when tasting Armagnac you will recognize rich taste with hints of rose and plum of Armagnac from Ténarèze area. While Bas Armagnac will be finer, drier with more spicy taste of cinnamon, violet and wood.

THE ART OF TASTING ARMAGNAC

  • Making the Armagnac is an art, tasting it is another.

  • The Armagnac is smelt, tasted and breathed.

  • It is advised to serve it in beautifully shaped glasses, the "balloon" glass being suitable for the concentration of aromas and for warming the beverage with your palms.

  • The art of tasting : it is a bit of our South-Western France art of living. You must take your time in order to appreciate this privileged moment. All the feelings are invoked for the tasting session.

  • The sight appreciates the color and clearness.

  • The smelling detects the aromas and the bouquet : stir the armagnac in a rotating movement and the finest aromas are smelt.

  • The tasting : after having smelt all the scents the amateur can sip the armagnac by rolling it in the mouth to allow the taste buds get all the aromas.

  • When the glass is empty, you must warm it in your palms again to smell the scent which comes out from it. This empty glass practice is very common with the Armagnac.

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Armagnac may not be as well known as its bigger brother, Cognac, throughout the world of brandy drinkers but among aficionados it is appreciated for its greater sophistication and subtleties. Indeed, someone once said : ``Cognac is like a fresh young girl, but armagnac is like a woman of a certain age that you do not wish to take home to meet your mother.''

There is a hint too of romanticism about Armagnac. It is part of the world of Gascony, which also gave birth to those great adventurers of French literature, d'Artagnan and the three musketeers, who have captured the imagination of many generations even outside France, and - inevitably - Hollywood.

One reason for the relative obscurity of Armagnac is perhaps that with one exception it is still produced by myriad small `chais' which do not have the resources to commercialize it in the same way as the big names of Cognac.

One of the principal differences between Armagnac and Cognac is the system of distillation, the Alembic. This has five to eight stages in the one distillation machine. The spirit that emerges at the end of the process is more complete, because it has kept those parts that are lost at the beginning and the end of simpler distillations. These fragrant esters impart to Armagnac a greater fruitiness, reminding the discerning connoisseur of the fruit from which the spirit came. The bouquet of a fine Armagnac has wonderful hints of prune and other fruits which are driven out in other eaux-de-vie.

This unusual distillation process has made possible another innovation: recent developments in the control of rot in grapes have meant that some Armagnac producers have been able to produce a single grape Armagnac - folle blanche - a magically scented spirit.

The Armagnac growing area is divided into three: Bas Armagnac, around Aire-sur-l'Adour and Eauze, which produces the most prestigious Armagnacs, the Ténarèze, (Nérac, Condom and Vic-Fezensac), which produces some highly perfumed spirits sometimes rather coarser, and the Haut Armagnac (Mirande, Auch and Lectoure) which produces very little Armagnac nowadays.

There are four main varieties of grape used mainly in Armagnac: Folle Blanche (known as gros plant elsewhere), Colombard, Ugni Blanc and the Baco22a. Once the spirit emerges from the alembic (at anything between 52 and 72 degrees alcohol) it is stored in new oak barrels. Although the spirit takes the color faster than cognac, the maturing process takes longer to round the raw spirit -at least five years.

Armagnac Brands

  • Janneau Selection Armagnac:
    Imported brandy from the Armagnac region of France. Armagnac is differs from Cognac in that it is single distilled (cognac is double distilled) and aged in black oak (rather than white oak like cognac). Armagnacs are traditionally hearty, fruity and flavorful. Janneau is topaz colored. It has an unusual nose with hints of corn husk and biscuits. Initial robust flavors that quickly fade in the aftertaste.

  • Marquis de Montesquiou:
    Napoleon Armagnac: Aged in Gascon wood for at least 5 years. Hearty and flavorful. Bolder and more robust than cognac. The House of Montesquiou was founded in the 11th century and began distilling wine for brandy in the 15th century.

OTHER FRUIT BRANDIES

APPLE BRANDY.

Apple brandy is made by distilling fermented apple juice or "hard" cider. In the United States this is called Applejack and was an important beverage in the early days of our country. There was another, hopefully no longer used, method of making applejack. If hard cider is frozen, only the water portion will freeze; the alcohol will not. Therefore, if the ice portion is removed, what remains is nearly pure alcohol. This must have been a rather rough and fiery spirit.

The Federal Standards of Identity allow for the designations of either apple brandy or applejack if the product is entirely derived from apples. Applejack is produced today by double pot distillation and US Standards of Identity require a minimum of two years of oak maturation. Blended Applejack or Applejack - a Blend is a spirit composed of at least 20% of apple brandy, stored in oak containers for a minimum of 2 years, and not more than 80% of neutral spirits, and bottled at not less than 80o proof. Blended applejack is the type most likely to be found in the United States since it is lighter than straight apple brandy and is more in line with current taste preferences. It is not however, sold in any significant quantities.

  • Laird's Applejack:
    Apple brandy that is the oldest native distilled spirit beverage in the U.S. Made with tree ripened apples, double distilled and aged in charred oak barrels for four to eight years. It has received a silver medal at the World Spirits Championships and is considered a Best Buy by Wine Enthusiast.

    The only large US producer is Laird who also happen to be the oldest brandy distillery in the country, having been established in 1780 by Scotch immigrants. They produce their brandy from tree-ripened apples produced in the Delaware Valley. Their process calls for natural fermentation of the whole apples in 20,000 gallon oak vats. This takes place immediately following the harvest and lasts up to one month. Following a double pot distillation the spirit is reduced to 65 percent alcohol and aged from four to ten years in large charred oak cooperage.

    Products:
  • Laird’s Bonded 100 proof is aged 10 years.
  • Apple Brandy; lower proof and not aged as long.
  • Blended Applejack; straight apple brandy blended with neutral fruit spirits.

In the US Bonny Doon, the Santa Cruz winery, produces an apple eaux de vie from Golden Delicious apples called Pomme Golden. In Oregon, Clear Creek produces an Eau de Vie de Pomme that is aged for two years in Limousin oak, just as is done with the finest Calvados brandies of France.

CALVADOS

Normandy, France, site of the Allied landings during World War II, is apple country. As a result, they make cider, not wine as do so many of the other regions in France. From cider it is a short step to brandy, and Normandy is famed for its apple brandy, Calvados. The production of Calvados is controlled by the French Institut National des Appellations d'Origine, the same agency that regulates the production of France's finest wines. Three categories of brandy are recognized and regulated. They are Calvados du Pays d'Auge, Calvados, and eau-de-vie de cidre.

Calvados du Pays d'Auge is the most prestigious and produces the most distinctive brandies. It comes from a small area in central Normandy. The term Calvados is used for brandies produced in ten other regions surrounding the Pays d'Auge and is classified as "appellation Reglementee", not the more limited and higher regarded "appellation controlee". The distinction is intended to be the same as with the finest French wines. Eau-de- vie de cidre is a more general appellation, also Reglementee, which covers most of the rest of the traditional cider producing regions in western France.

Calvados du Pays d'Auge must be produced nearly exactly like Cognac. It is double distilled in pot stills at about 140o proof. It is required to have a minimum of one year of age in wood, today generally from the Limousin Forest, but typically receives much more. The aging casks are quite large, often holding 2,500 gallons or more. The optimum maximum age is said to be from twenty-five to thirty years although it may go much longer.

Brandy labeled simply as Calvados, without the appellation controlee of Pays d'Auge, does not have to be pot distilled and is prepared in small continuous stills similar to those used in Armagnac. Bottling is done at a relatively young age, two to three years although some older brandies are usually used in the blend. A good younger Calvados has a fresh apple aroma but lacks the complexity and smoothness of the older examples. Eau-de-vie de cidre would not generally be found on the American market, being mostly consumed in France. Age declarations and estate bottling are permitted and regulated. The label term for a single property Calvados is Produit Fermier or Production Fermiére.

Calvados Producers:

  • Bizouard.
  • Boulard
    Established by Pierre Boulard in 1825. They have been shipping beyond Frances borders since the mid-50’s and exports now account for nearly half of their business. Small pears are grown in Normandy and are allowed to be distilled and added to the apple brandy. Boulard uses up to 10 percent in their fruit blend to boost acidity. They are associated with Martini & Rossi but control of the business is still in family hands. Pays d’Auge.

    Calvados Boulard Grande Fine: Apple brandy from the Normandy region of France. The apple cider is distilled twice and aged in Limousin oak casks. Ones that are aged for long periods are similar in flavor to cognac.

  • Busnel
    The largest producer. They were founded in 1820 and possess substantial quantities of mature brandy for blending. They are now owned by the Pernod Ricard group. Pays d’Auge.

  • Chateau du Breuil
    A highly regarded brand that was sold by the Bizouard family to the Affentrangers, a Swiss family of distillers. They use only local hand-picked apples and do not use any pears in the fruit blend.

  • Pére Magloire
    Founded in 1821 and now exporting to some 65 countries. They make the cider and distill it at Sainte Foy de Montgoméry and age in Limousin oak in their cellars at Pont-l’Evéque. They are quite large and have the equivalent of about 15 million bottles aging at any one time.

FRUIT EAUX-DE-VIE

Distilled fruit spirits are called fruit eaux-de-vie, true fruit brandies, white spirits, or white alcohol. This is because, without wood aging, they retain the colorless, sparkling clear appearance of all freshly distilled spirits. The objective of the distiller is to capture the unique essence of the fruit being used, and to avoid altering or diluting it in any way; such as by aging in wood, or by adding sugar and other adulterants.

These products are pretty much a European specialty; most Americans are not very familiar with them and little is produced by American firms. Production of these eaux-de-vie is centered primarily in three areas in central Europe: Switzerland, the Black Forest (Schwarzwald) of Germany, and Alsace in France. In these areas, especially in Alsace, they distill virtually all fruits, and some flowers, into spirits, but there are only a few which are made in commercially important quantities. These are: cherries, pears, raspberries, and plums.

There are two basic production methods. One is to ferment a fruit into a wine and distill it into a brandy of about 100o proof. Distillation is generally done in pot stills and the middle portion of the second distillation becomes the eaux-de-vie. This is nearly identical to Cognac distillation and copper pots stills similar to those used in Cognac are used. This method is used for the stone fruits, such as cherries and plums, and for pears.

The other method is used for the soft fruits, such as raspberries. These fruits contain insufficient sugar to follow the normal routine of fermentation, then distillation. The fruits are first macerated in a high proof spirit and the highly- flavored infusion is distilled. In Germany and Switzerland, neutral, high- proof alcohol is used for the maceration and the product is known as a "geist" (in German, a ghost or spirit). A raspberry brandy thus becomes Himbeergeist, or, literally, "spirit of raspberry." In France, they retain the term, eaux-de-vie, but are required to use fruit spirits to prepare the infusion. The best firms use unaged Cognac brandy.

None of the fruits used contain, relative to grapes, appreciable amounts of sugar. As a result, the "wine" is quite low in alcohol, about 4-8%, and a great deal of fruit is needed. A one liter bottle of pear or strawberry brandy could require fifty pounds or more of fruit and for this reason the good fruit eaux- de- vie must necessarily be expensive.

  • Cherry (Kirsch, Kirschwasser):
    Kirsch is made in all three areas, but the most famous is the one from the German Black Forest, the Schwarzwalder Kirsch. It is said to be the most complex and fullest-bodied.

    The French kirsch, like most French eaux-de-vie, tend to be lighter and more delicate than those from Switzerland and Germany. In Germany, and in the German-speaking part of Switzerland they use the term "wasser" (water), to distinguish a fermented and distilled beverage from a macerated and distilled one, a "geist." Kirsch (along with the other stone fruits) appears to be improved by aging and the better ones will be matured prior to bottling, but never in wood. Glass and enamel- lined containers are common, and stainless steel is being used as well.
  • Pear (Poire Williams, Williams Birnenbrand):
    A good pear brandy will have an intense and delightful aroma of fresh pears but the taste is seldom as distinctive. The Bartlett pear, called the Williams pear in Europe, is the variety used, and its aroma makes it probably the most easily identified of the white brandies.
  • Raspberry (Framboise, Himbeergeist):
    Raspberry brandy, like the other soft-fruit brandies, does not improve with aging and will typically be bottled soon after distillation. It has a character distinctly evocative of ripe raspberries and is very popular in the United States. The Alsatian products, which must be macerated with fruit brandies rather than neutral spirits, are very highly regarded. The German and Swiss Himbeergeists are felt to be a little lighter and perhaps less complex. In the French speaking section of Switzerland the brandy will be called a Framboise but does not have to be macerated with fruit eaux-de-vie.
  • Yellow Plum (Mirabelle, Mirabellenwasser):
    This is generally considered to be a French specialty although there are yellow plum brandies made in Germany and Switzerland also. Some consumers and many producers feel that these are the finest of all the fruit eaux- de-vie. Mirabelle will not have as distinctive an aroma as will the pear and raspberry brandies, but will be more perfumed and flowery. The flavors will be round and fruity with some complexity and a lingering aftertaste. Like kirsch, mirabelle will be improved with aging and one to four years is suggested.
  • Violet Plum (Quetsch, Zwetschgenwasser, Slivowitz):
    Produced in Alsace, Germany, and Switzerland, the violet plum produces a brandy which has a spicy plum character and is more full than the mirabelle but probably not as complex.

    In Yugoslavia and other eastern European countries, a specialty is Slivowitz, a yellow plum eaux-de-vie which obtains its distinctive character from wood aging, sometimes for as much as eight to twelve years. It will have a straw to medium yellow color but will not be at all similar to the wood aged grape and apple brandies discussed earlier.

These are the most popular and widely produced white fruit brandies but there are as many others as there are fruits (and flowers) to make them from. Eaux-de- vie are also produced from apricots, peaches, acacia flowers, currants, strawberries, blackberries, elderberries, and even holly. The latter is probably the most expensive of all since the berries must be hand-harvested and the cost of the berries alone could be twenty dollars per liter of brandy.

POMACE BRANDY

Pomace brandy is produced from the mass of skins and stalks left behind after the pressing of the grapes during wine making. Also, for the purpose of making grappa and other pomace brandies, the lees remaining after fermentation. Not too many years ago, it was regarded as somewhat of an acquired taste but is today quite popular and upscale. One reason for its popularity is that the distillate has the characteristic fresh aromas of the grapes from which it has been distilled. For this reason, it is generally consumed young, perhaps at six months and does not ordinarily receive wood aging (although some now get a little wood). Italian grappa and French marc are the best-known examples of pomace brandy although some American firms now produce these specialties.

Marc

French pomace brandy. Before distillation the pomace is sealed into airtight vats for several days to allow build-up of aromas; these add to the final bouquet of the brandy. Marc is distilled in most of the wine-producing areas of France but has only local importance. In France, marc usually only has local importance except in Burgundy and Champagne where many of the great vineyards produce their own. On French labels, the word marc is usually followed by the vineyard region where the grapes used in its making were grown.

Grappa

At one time, this spirit was the exclusive property of Italy but the 1980’s and ‘90’s produced a world-wide demand and production has emerged in many other locales, in particular, California and Oregon in the United States.

In Italy, grappa was originally the common man’s brandy. A century ago in northern Italy, portable stills followed the grape vintage from village to village, distilling the growers' pomace. The distiller received a proportion of the spirit produced as payment. The grappa thus produced was rough and fiery but had the virtue of warming these alpine peoples throughout the winters. From these humble beginnings the spirit has today evolved to very elegant and high-priced products packaged in often spectacular hand blown bottles. The Italian government has had a hand in the rise in popularity of grappa since they require the pomace to be distilled into alcohol. Their objective is, of course, revenue in the form of alcohol taxes, but many producers seemingly have regarded this as an opportunity to promote their label in other venues and have taken to producing single grape and even single vineyard grappas.

Grappa is made by adding a little water to the pomace, fermenting it and distilling it. It takes about 25 pounds of pomace (vinaccia in Italian) to make a liter of grappa. Some small distillers in Italy use a local type of steam-heated bain-marie still with double walls, which requires two distillations just like the Charentais pot still. Bonny Doon, in the Santa Cruz mountains of California, has such a still.

Grappa Labeling

The term invecchiata means aged in Italian and indicates some wood aging. Grappa that is aged in oak will lose some of its fresh aromatic qualities and will no longer be colorless. It is not, however, aged to the point where the color turns amber, as with, for example, French Marc. Mass market grappas are labeled with brand names but the most interesting and sought after ones will indicate the single grape type (monovitigno), or even the specific vineyard from which they are made. An alternative name for Italian grappa is Acquavite di vinaccia.

Notes on specific grappa producers. Taken from Classic Spirits of the World by Gordon Brown, Abbeville Press, 488 Madison Avenue, New York, NY, 10022, 1996.

Italian Producers

  • Ceretto
    Small range of single-vineyard varietal grappas from distinguished producer of Barolo and Barbaresco wines. Bruno Ceretto is a single-vineyard specialist and his grappas derive from three of these. Ceretto was the first in the Langhe area to offer varietal grappa back in 1974. Brunate and Zonchera are the best-known vineyards and the grappas are from Nebbiolo grapes and carry a year of distillation on the labels. Rossana vineyard's vines are Dolcetto. The double-distillation takes two hours each run.
  • Con Senso
    Brand name of the Bonollo distillery in Formigine. This unaged grappa from Chianti grapes is light and zingy with a spicy nose. Among the company's brandies is a toffee-nosed, sharp textured 20 year-old. Bonollo also runs a grappa information center.
  • Gratacul
    Hand-made grappa from dog roses that grow at 1,600 meters above sea level in the Sestriere Alps. The delightful name means "bum scratcher", no doubt referring to the contacts made with the roses as you walk among them. The Chaberton distillery in the Susa Valley collects fruits, roots, berries and plants, both wild and cultivated, from the Alpine slopes and meadows that go right up to the glaciers. A wide range of grappas, distillates and bitters are produced. and the owners have an ancient collection of 15,000 formulae for drinks and potions, many of which would be illegal if they were to be made up today. Gratacul has a delicate but long fragrance and pleasing flavor that balances acidly and sweetness.
  • Inga
    Range of fine, monovitigno (varietal) grappas. The majority of the pomace comes from Piedmont, where the distillery is located, and the Oltrepo Pavese, in Lombardy. Hence the range features grappas produced in small, steam-heated pot stills from grape types used in the making of Barolo, Gavi, Asti spumante and other distinguished Piedmont wines. Top of the range are Brachetto and Nebbiolo, in Murano glass hand-blown bottles. These are all unmixed, single-vine grappas. The company dates from 1832 under its old name, Gambarotta, but the present title was introduced in 1938. Inga launched the award-winning Libarna grappa brand in 1966, but it passed to Giovanni Buton in 1982.
  • Julia
    Brand leader from the Stock company. Grappa does not easily lend itself to large-scale production since pomace is best distilled fresh, i.e. on the spot. Stock gets round this by commissioning lots of small distillers during vintage time and buying the spirit in for bottling and/or aging. Julia is aged for two years but Stock has young grappas with fresh, clean scent and zesty fruit pungency.
  • Romano Levi
    One of the original grappa gurus, who emerged in the initial boom of the 1970s. Romano Levi is an artist in distillation; he produces grappa as an artifact. Amid a confusion of books, bottles and cats, he distills, bottles and handwrites individual labels deep in the Piedmont countryside. The labels are charming and look like a page from a child's story-book. For his 'Grappa della Donna Selvatica che Salta le Montagne' he draws stick figures in color of the countrywoman—la Donna— crossing the mountains. His eaux de vie vary from one distillation to the next, depending on the vinaccia he is using, but they are all superb, graceful and polished examples of slow, patient production.
  • Libarna
    Two complementary, continuously distilled styles from the proprietors of Vecchia Romagna brandy. Libarna Cristallo is young and unaged from Barbera, Dolcetto and Cortese grapes, probably grown in Piedmont. Smooth, strong and clean in taste. Libarna Invecchiata is made from selected but unspecified pomace, although it must include Moscato, the Asti spumante grape, going by the ripe, muscatty nose. Clean, softish and smooth in its finish.
  • Lungarotti
    Small, fine range from one of Italy's best wine makers. Giorgio Lungarotti has been something of a tail wagging a dog. The non-appellation red Rubesco and white Torre di Giano wines he produced near Perugia were so good that the authorities were eventually obliged to create a delimited zone around him and base it on his methods. The Rubesco Riserva is now one of the country's very best red wines. His grappas are from Sangiovese, Canaiolo and Chardonnay grape pomace, collected from individual vineyards close to the distillery— important for freshness—and distillation is all done in pot stills. The Grappa di Chardonnay uses pomace from the single-vineyard Vigna I Palazzi wine; it is unaged and has a rich, floral, fruit fragrance and full, clean taste. Grappa di Rubesco, also unaged, is from Sangiovese and Canaiolo pomace with fresh grape aromas and soft, round flavor. Grappa Riserva 'L' is made in very small quantities from similar pomace from the single Monticchio vineyard that yields Lungarotti's elite Rubesco Riserva wine. It is briefly aged in old oak and comes in a hand-blown glass ampoule. Smooth, elegant and lengthy.
  • Marolo
    Artisanal production from pomace yielded by a number of famous vineyards, among them Gavi La Scolca, Brunello Lisini and Barolo Montez-emolo. The Marolo brothers make over a score of grappas, including a rare Arneis, at their little Santa Teresa distillery in a bain-marie type of still traditional in Piedmont, where they are located. Their bottles (31,000 a year) are in great demand and a 10th-anniversary Barolo grappa produced in 1987 fetched £1,200! The grappas all show intensity of aroma, particularly the Moscato and the Barolo, although the latter is a bit austere. Acacia, as well as oak, is used in aging.
  • Nardini
    Respected and long established brand in the Veneto. With a pedigree going back more than 200 years, Nardini tended to stand out in a marketplace tilled with rustic and unambitious products. It is now surrounded by up-market achiever brands but still holds its own—just. Both the unaged and the aged (three years in gentle oak) sell widely.
  • Nonino
    Prestige range of distinguished grappas from family firm. Back in the 1880s, Grandpa Nonino was an itinerant distiller in Friuli, and the present generation began distilling in 1973. Nonino introduced the new idea of distilling whole grapes (the spirit is called ue) and, to encourage growers to plant near-extinct local vines, it instituted an annual award. The battery of small pot stills has overflowed from the old forge where Benito Nonino's father-in-law used to make plows. Vuisinar is perhaps the most widely available type but the Picolit, from a local vine rare through floral abortion, is the most famous. The specialties are very expensive, the beautiful bottles hand-blown in Murano glass.
  • Vite d’Oro
    Wide and interesting range of commercial grappas from the Camel firm in Udine, northeast Italy. The brand comes in Classico style (water-white and unaged) and stravecchio, i.e. aged for three years in casks made of ash—a light wood which removes the fire of the spirit but does not impose too much flavor or any color. A]l the grappas are distilled from Friuli vinacce. There is also a Riserva, a high-strength (50% vol.) Teresa Ratz and some other different classico styles. The distillery was founded in 1944 by Giuseppe Tosolini, who is commemorated in the up-market 'Mosto' series of monovitigno (varietal or single grape type) eaux de vie presented in hand-blown flasks. Like fully fledged brandies, these are made from grape musts, not pomace, but bottled unaged as young spirits. Refosco and Picolit are the best-known Friuli types.
  • Ca'Rugate Grappa:
    Imported from the Veneto region of Italy, Ca'Rugate is located directly in the heart of the Soave Classico zone. It is made from the marc (residue left after pressing) of the grapes used to make sweet desert wines. This grappa is full bodied with just a hint of sweetness. The World Spirits Championships tasting panel describes it as 'Medium body with a creamy texture. Very warm. Some grassy flavors, with dried apricot and black pepper'. It received a silver medal at this event and is rated 88 out of 100 by Wine Enthusiast. Packaged in a tall Italian-made 375ml bottle.

UNITED STATES PRODUCERS

  • Bonny Doon
    Uses an authentic Italian bagna-maria still which heats distillates with steam. The pot still holds only 250 liters, which means lots of work for small amounts of distillate at a time but it is ideally suited for artisanal production. These grappas are unaged and made from the entire fruit (called ue in north Italian dialect); they thus have an unusually fruity aroma, somewhat reminiscent of an eaux-de-vie. They produce a Grappa di Moscato and a Ca' del Solo Grappa di Malvasia. These grappas are not aged in wood for this would mute the distinctively fresh aromas and flavors.
  • Clear Creek
    Small distillery in Portland, Oregon, producing grappa from local vineyards' pomace. Stephen McCarthy and his brothers use small, German-made pot stills to produce a range of grappas and fruit brandies based on production methods in Switzerland and the Black Forest. McCarthy takes pomace from David Lett's distinguished vineyard, The Eyrie, and adds a little yeast to get combustive fermentation and intensely aromatic grappa. The Muscat Ottonel grape is naturally spicy and rich but it is remarkable just how much fragrance and flavor McCarthy manages to pull over in the distillation.
  • Creekside
    Distillery in Gordon Valley, Solano County, run by Don Johnson, who makes grappa from Cabernet Sauvignon grapes.
  • St. George Spirits
    Jorg Rupf was born in Alsace, France, and, having quit a legal post in the Ministry of Culture in Munich, he went to California. He set up a tiny distillery where he hand produces eaux de vie in the European traditions that his family had been following in the Black Forest for generations. The fruit is crushed at the peak of ripeness and fermented on the lees with cultured yeasts.

    The German copper stills are small and specially made to retain intensity of fruit aromas. The Marc de Gewürztraminer is aged in oak and, although it is Jorg's tribute to Alsace, his version is made from whole grapes and not the grape pomace. Like the companion Marc de Traminer, it is smooth and floral in character from the grape flesh presented to the yeasts. Zinfandel grapes are regarded as America's contribution to the world vines' Hall of Fame and his Grappa di Zinfandel is, of course, the ultimate American grappa. It is made from wet pomace from Sonoma and Napa Zinfandel, and is smooth, fruity and spicy. All 40% vol.

OTHER BRANDIES

  • Asbach Uralt:
    German brandy blended from 25 different wine distillations, then aged for up to 3 years in Limousin oak casks. Has a deep golden color, cognac character but fruitier. Grape and oak aroma. Clean, crisp, and rather astringent flavor.
  • Christian Brothers Brandy:
    American brandy with a deep topaz color and sweet almost candied nose. The flavors however are quite dry and the alcohol is pronounced with a bit of a bite.
  • Coronet VSQ Brandy:
    American brandy. Light amber color. Mild bouquet and light grapy flavor with a dash of caramel.
  • E & J Superior Res. VSOP:
    American grape brandy (Very Superior Old Pale) made by the Gallo wine company. Pale amber/ honey color. Sweet aromas of fruit and caramel. Sweet flavors of caramel and nougat candy. Very little grape flavor.
  • E & J Brandy:
    American brandy made by the Gallo wine company. Amber color. Bouquets of fruit particularly banana and apricot. Dry with a smooth texture. Mild finish of fruit, spice and caramel.
  • Korbel Brandy:
    American brandy made by the same people that make Korbel Champagne. Light amber/honey color. Uncomplicated bouquet of spirit and grapes. Rich, creamy, very grapy flavor. Extended, raisiny finish. 'Kindred Spirits' gives it a *** (recommended) rating.
  • Paul Masson Grande Amber Brandy:
    American brandy made by the same people that produce Paul Masson wines. Aged three years in oak. Medium amber color. Grapy, fruity bouquet. Smooth, clean and slightly tart. Medium-long finish.
  • Allen’s Blackberry Brandy: All natural blackberry flavors combined with a brandy base. Sweet and viscous. Higher in proof than most other fruit cordials such as schnapps or cremes. M.S. Walker has been producing cordials for over 50 years.

    Allen's Peach Brandy: American made cordial that combines all natural peach flavors with a brandy base. Sweet and higher in proof than other forms of fruit cordials such as schnapps or cremes. M.S. Walker has been producing cordials for over 50 years.

    Allen's Coffee Brandy: American made cordial that combines all natural coffee flavors with a brandy base. Sweet and higher in proof than most other types of cordials such as liqueurs or schnapps. M.S. Walker has been in the business of making cordials for over 50 years.
  • Germain-Robin Brandies
    The Underground Wine Journal says: "Germain-Robin is one of a small group of artisan distillers who compete with the Europeans in the market for high-quality, ultra-premium brandy, eaux-de-vie, and grappa. He combines European equipment and methods with California grapes and wine-making technology. The brandies produced by Germain-Robin rival the finest cognacs."

    Germain-RobinAlembic was founded in the early 80s by Hubert Germain-Robin and Ansley Coale, Jr. They met in a chance happening when Ansley picked up Hubert and his wife who were hitchhiking through California. Ansley is a former professor of classics at Berkeley turned sheep farmer and Hubert came from a prominent family of distillers in France (who have been producing cognac since 1782). With Coale's suggestion that Hubert distill local grapes, Hubert returned to France and obtained an "alembic" still (one with a long neck which produces a smoother product) which was installed in a small wooden cabin overlooking the sheep farm. Each year Hubert, using traditional methods that have been almost entirely abandoned in France, hand-distills 80 barrels of a true connoisseur's brandy, equal to cognacs from the finest smaller producers.

    The individual wines are distilled twice then placed in new French oak barrels for a year then moved to seasoned old barrels from Cognac. Finally, they are blended to create the fine line of Germain-Robin brandies.

    Germain-Robin brandies display fruity delicacy, finesse, and uncommon smoothness. The distinctive fruity richness comes from the brilliant California sun and from the distillation of premium varietals, including Pinot Noir.

    Blend Information

    Except for the single-barrel, all GERMAIN-ROBIN brandies are blends of different varietals and different vintages. Unlike European grape spirits (cognac, armagnac), GERMAIN-ROBIN is distilled from premium grapes: pinot noir, chenin blanc, semillon. Better wine-making equipment means the varietal characteristics of the wines emerge clear, pure and rich. Hand-distillation, using a small cognac still, evokes a refined and elegant concentration of flavor.

    FINE
    The younger (VSOP) brandies have wonderful Californian fruit overtones. The basic wines are Colombard and Chenin Blanc, with Gamay Beaujolais and Pinot Noir. Other varietals are used for complexity and balance. Pure and flavorful.

    SHAREHOLDERS' BLEND
    200 cases/year. The blend given to shareholders. Younger brandies selected for fragrance and delicacy are blended with older brandies distilled from Pinot Noir, which gives the blend structure, depth, and a rich finish. Average age about 7 years. Amazingly smooth.

    SELECT BARREL XO
    Astonishing quality in the classic XO tradition. Very deep and rich, with hints of vanilla and dark chocolate. Eleven years in small Limousin barrels, chosen from the brandies which are put aside for long aging. High proportion of brandies from Pinot Noir. The finish is astoundingly long and full.

    CIGAR BLEND
    Brandies with cedar and tobacco overtones create a "humidor" fragrance. Contains brandy distilled from Sauvignon Blanc which delivers lush fruit on the forward palate, where it balances a cigar's earthy dryness.

    SINGLE-BARREL BRANDIES
    Limited release, two barrels/year. Brandy from a single varietal, unblended while aging. No caramel, no sugar, simply a pure essence of the original wine, brought to bottling proof with rainwater. Pure, soft intensity.

    GRAPPA OF ZINFADEL
    One batch, about 45 cases/year. Whole-grape grappa (technically, an "ue") distilled in a cognac still (elegance and delicacy) from very special grapes: 75-year-old high-bench vines, organically dry-farmed. Amazing intensity, without the usual grappa-kerosene overtones.

Storage and Service of Distilled Spirits

Distilled spirits storage requirements are rather simple; in most establishments the only requirement is that the products be secured from theft and pilferage. With other types of products stored in foodservice and beverage operations, protection from quality deterioration and contamination/spoilage is at least as important as security, often more important. Distilled spirits however are basically inert products; the alcoholic content assures that they cannot become contaminated nor will they deteriorate in quality over time or if stored improperly. There are a few exceptions to this but they mostly apply to products which have been opened. Very mature brandies, Cognacs and Armagnacs for example, are necessarily more delicate than most spirits, and tend to lose their unique character after being opened. Until they are opened however, they are as stable as any of the other types of products.

Distilled spirits, because of their high levels of alcohol, should be stored upright. Wines, you may recall, are stored on their sides so that the corks can remain moist and avoid drying which could allow the entry of air. Some spirits are also corked and lengthy exposure to liquids containing high percentages of alcohol could result in deterioration of the cork. Spirits which are sealed with a screw type closure could be stored upright or on their sides but upright storage is far more efficient in terms of space requirements, shelving design, and ease of access.

Other than assuring that the storage area is secure, the normal rules of storage do not apply. Time and temperature considerations are not important. Spirits change and mature only in wood, not in the bottle. A wine made in 1975 will be eleven years old in 1986 while an eight-year old Bourbon bottled in 1975 will still be eight years old in 1986. Temperatures, as long as they are reasonable, do not matter either. Even in an area such as Las Vegas, where the summertime temperatures can get as high as 115oF., spirits would not be harmed in an uncooled storage area. This would not be true of most other alcoholic beverages, particularly wines and beers. Spirits also do not have any specific ventilation requirements; there is no need to have any particular number of air changes per hour in the storage room.

Spirits must however be held in a secure area. Other than cash, distilled beverages are probably more desirable than anything else in a food and beverage operation and it must be assumed that, if they are readily accessible, they will disappear and probably sooner rather than later. A secure area is one which cannot be easily accessed by unauthorized individuals and whose access is limited to as few persons as possible. It is also recommended that the number of times that authorized personnel have to use it be limited. In a well-run beverage operation, it is possible to reduce these occasions to a few deliveries per week and the daily issue to the bar(s).

It is also quite feasible to maintain a perpetual inventory over the liquor storeroom. This is a running account that shows the stock on hand at any given time. Once the beginning inventory is known, the procedure is to post all deliveries to the perpetual.

The delivery invoices are used for this purpose. The only authorization for removing any bottles from the storeroom should be written requisitions generated by the bar(s) and these are also posted to the perpetual. If these posting are done properly, the perpetual will accurately show how many bottles of the various brands should be present at any time. It is then a simple matter to spot check the actual counts whenever a delivery is being stored or an issue made.

Distilled spirits are the most versatile of all alcoholic beverages as regards their service. Spirits can be taken "neat", without being mixed with anything else, but they are typically used with one or more additional ingredients. They are mixed, combined, shaken, and blended with a range of ingredients that is limited only by the imagination. Just a few examples are water, ice, fruit juices, vegetable juices, milk, cream, ice cream, soft drinks, cordials, wines, fruits, eggs, and condiments such as Tabasco sauce, bitters, and Worcestershire sauce. Spirits are also frequently mixed with other spirits. The potential drink combinations are vast and new ones are constantly being developed.

Drinks made with distilled spirits also rely a great deal on food garnishes. Flowers, fruits, herbs, vegetables, and condiments such as olives and pickled onions are several examples of the foods used. Spirits are unique in the variety of ways in which they are served since wines, beers, and to a large extent, cordials and liqueurs, are mostly used by themselves.

Spirits and drinks prepared with spirits are not generally thought of as beverages to be used to accompany meals as are wines and beers. One of their traditional uses was as an aperitif, a before-dinner drink, but, during the 1970's, they lost a considerable amount of this business to wines.

Distilled spirits, when mixed, are most likely to be used as social beverages and even this usage has been eroded by increasing wine consumption during non-meal periods. One area which seems not to be affected by the switch to wines and lighter beverages is the after-dinner drink market. Spirits which best lend themselves to being used in this manner are the brandies; both the wood aged Cognacs and Armagnacs, and the non-wood aged fruit brandies such as kirsch and framboise. A fine, well-aged single malt Scotch would also be suitable for after-dinner, as would some of the more mature wood-aged rums. There are dessert wines, but they have been steadily losing their once impressive share of the wine market. Cordials and liqueurs, on the other hand, do very well as after- dinner drinks.

Since spirits are used in a greater variety of ways relative to other types of alcoholic beverages, it follows that they would be served in a greater variety of glassware. The better Cognacs and Armagnacs are best served in snifters while the small, stemmed pony or cordial glass is suitable for lighter brandies and the unaged fruit brandies. There are rocks glasses, cocktail glasses, old-fashioned glasses, highball glasses, collins glasses, zombie glasses, hurricane glasses, sour glasses, Margarita glasses, and, of course, shot glasses. These are only the traditional glass styles; the companies which manufacture glassware are constantly developing new styles for specialty drinks. All of these, particularly the traditional styles, are available in a wide range of sizes which further complicates glassware selection, purchasing, storage, handling, and use.



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