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16/02/2017

Liberating the 1914 Cognac

by Richard Ellis (Spirits Buyer)

Unless you know how to fly a single seater aeroplane, and have military clearance, the chances are you will fly into Bordeaux to get to Cognac. Alas, with no single seater to my name, and some of the worst weather the area had seen for some time, I was in relative pieces by the time I eventually touched down in Bordeaux to start my journey about 1hr30 mins north to Cognac. My main task was to pick up the demi-john that housed the wonderful 1914 that we are soon to bottle and start shipping out. I was with my long-term friend and resident ‘Cognac Encyclopaedia’, David Baker, and to tell you the truth, we were both more than a little excited at the prospect of unearthing yet more of this wonderful golden liquid...

First stop, Paul Beau in Segonzac, in the heart of Grande Champagne. Distillation must be completed by 31st March following the harvest - so this time of year, Cognac is a hive of activity as distilleries work flat out to make sure they have distilled all of their wine by the deadline. Very worrying then, when we were told on arrival that the storms of the previous night had caused damage to the nearby electricity pylons; thus the only means of electricity for this small family owned operation was an old tractor connected to a rather rickety old generator!

Cognac Barrels

The majority of what these families distil is destined for the heavy weights of the Cognac industry, namely Hennessy, Martell, Remy Martin, and Courvoisier. Interestingly, they all request the distillate destined for their cognacs to be distilled in different ways so the flexibility of these producers really is incredible. 

Sensing that time was against them, we took our leave and made our way to Petite Champagne and Ch.Betrand.

The family has been making Cognac since 1731 and is now run by the 7th generation. François Bertrand started with two hectares of vines inherited from his father - but little did he know that his descendants would be doing the very same, but now with over 110 hectares to look after. Here I was lucky enough to try a 50YO cognac of theirs that they weren’t able to release under the Ch.Betrand brand, due to strict rules banning the use of age statements on bottles – evidently a constant source of disappointment for them, given the outstanding quality of what I was drinking. Think bitter chocolate and cardamom truffles and you would be well on your way to understanding what I was experiencing...

Visit to Chateau Bertrand in Cognac

The ringing of David’s phone rudely interrupted my enjoyment of this wonderful Cognac but all was forgiven when he informed me that the call was to tell us that the 1914 was ready to collect. Cue lottery-winning excitement.

After having our photograph taken in front of the diligently working stills, we made our way back to Segonzac, to the little village of Chez Richon. 

Christophe, a good friend of David’s, had been charged with guarding the precious liquid. As it transpired he was having a hard time getting anything done as a documentary following celebrity chef James Martin around France had been aired the previous week - and in said TV show, James had turned up at Christophe’s door for a tasting of his family’s cognacs. As a result, the phone had been ringing off the hook ever since! It wasn’t every day that he got to deal with a 1914 cognac, however, so off we went to his warehouse for the big reveal. By this point it was no longer in its glass demi-john as it had been moved to suitable shipping containers; but on opening the vessels, I was hit with the unmistakeable waft of truffle, pear and muscat aromas that captivated me the first time we tasted the cognac at BI HQ before Christmas. Delighted that I finally had my hands on it, my mind shifted to what else we might find at our last stops lined up for the next day. 

An early start saw us making our way to the town of Jarnac, home to the likes of Hine and Courvoisier. Here we made our way to meet a chap named Bernard, whose main business is to create blends for the export market. However, rumours abounded that he had an enviable collection of cognacs in his ‘Paradis’ cellar. Wow... The rumours couldn’t have been more true as he led us into a dusty old cellar, where we were confronted with row after row of demi-johns, some containing cognacs dating back to the late 1890s. Without saying a word he produced some glasses and for the next 20 minutes, we tasted through his family jewels - 1893, 1898, 1900… simply one of the most amazing experiences ever and one that I certainly won’t forget.

1893 Cognac Demi John

This is where the hard work begins as I try and prise away some of these treasures: these have to be amongst some of the most unique spirits in the world. Watch this space!