The Mysteries and Secrets of Distilling in Cognac, the Cellar Master’s Essential Work and Classic Cognac

This one’s quite a mouthful… Sunday morning, bleary-eyed and unhappy to be awake, I stumbled to the Royal Sonesta for Dale De Groff’s cognac seminar.

His panelists included Salvatore Calabrese, Alain Royer, and Olivier Paultes. Calabrese is one of the world’s most famous bartenders and also author of a book about cognac. Alain Royer has worked with cognac for most of his life and now works with Renaud-Cointreau Group. Olivier Paultes has also worked with cognac most of his life; he is now cellar master for Frapin and Fontpinot. And if you don’t know who Dale is …

So DdG started off with a history of cognac, the region and the spirit. He moved quickly through this material, so my notes are somewhat sketchy. He wanted to get right into the first tasting portion of the panel. We started with a 2009 distillate of cognac, bottled off the still. Not a lot of complexity to this, as you’d imagine. Floral (lavender, violet) and fruity (a hint of citrus zest) on the nose and tongue, but also quite hot. It needed a few drops of water to open it up and get past the alcohol burn. We moved on to a VSOP Frapin, then a VSOP Château Montifaud and an XO Château de Fontpinot. I’m pretty inexperienced when it comes to cognacs of this caliber, so I don’t really trust my tasting notes. I’ll just say I thought the Fontpinot was just gorgeous, though.

A quick aside here: if I remember Dale’s definition correctly, in cognac terms, a château is a single house producing all its own cognac. These cognacs don’t blend their cognacs with distillates from other houses, like mass-market cognacs do. This is, in a rough sense, analogous to a single-malt scotch.

The final cognac tested was called Vat 49, and it was unusual. It’s from the Forgotten Casks program imported by Preiss Imports. A blend of older cognacs, containing brandies from 1904 and 1955. Interesting and a bit of a challenge.

Next part of the panel dealt with still construction in the cognac region, and this part was great. Royer played a video showing craftsmen taking a flat sheet of copper and hammering, bending, and shaping it into the rounded wall of the boiler. Someone interrupted with a question to Royer: “What’s the price of a cognac still these days?” Answer: “A Ferrari.” As labor intensive as it is to build one, I’m not surprised.

We were running low on time at this point, but Calabrese, the mad bastard, had a couple of surprises for us. First up, a pre-phyloxera cognac from 1865. That’s Eighteen Sixty-Five, the year Abraham Lincoln was assassinated. Phyloxera is a pest that nearly destroyed the European wine industry in the late 1800s. The only salvation was to take European vines and graft them onto North American rootstock, which had evolved alongside phyloxera and was thus resistant. Many wine and brandy experts insist that pre-phyloxera wines and brandies were much different in flavor and character from today’s. I don’t know the provenance of the stuff that Calabrese brought along, but it’s a survivor. I thought it nosed like a madeira or a sherry, and caught a lot of complex aromas, but I also thought that the flavor was a little flat.

However, it was the other surprise that was a true treat, an 1805 Sazerac cognac.

A little history here: when the Sazerac cocktail–now rye whiskey, sugar, absinthe, and Peychaud’s bitters–was originally a brandy cocktail. And the brandy of choice was Sazerac. From what I can tell, though, the Sazerac cognac succumbed to the phyloxera pest. A bottle from 1805 is a rare thing indeed.

Which made it surprising when Calabrese mixed about half of a 200ml bottle into a Sazerac. I was one of the few who caught a sip of it, and zoh-mah-gah. The drink was far richer and more complex than any Sazerac I’ve made or tasted with rye or modern cognac, and I can reasonably suspect, a tipple I’ll probably never taste the likes of again.

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