Dust-covered Cognac passion (part 1)
He unlocks the door and I follow him into a cool, faintly lit room with ancient beams and red tiles. Rows and rows of dusty bottles of cognac, armagnac, port, chartreuse and other liquors stand proudly together on the many shelves like an army of old friends, their heads dripping wax as if they’ve just emerged from a snowstorm. I can sense we’re in a special place.
Elixir of the gods
“This is the world’s largest private collection of old liquors, among which the world’s oldest cognac from 1760”, the collector says proudly. “The most famous one? That’s the one from 1789 – the year the French Revolution started”, he beams.
Cognac is a medieval town which bears the name of the famous wine-growing region where this ‘elixir of the gods’ of the same name has been created since the 17th century. All cognac may be brandy, but not all brandy is cognac.
It has to come from a designated area of France by law – the Charente region near Bordeaux – which is divided up into six ‘crus’ – and has to be made according to strict, legal guidelines, ensuring that the 300-year old production process remains unchanged.
That means that it must be distilled twice in copper pot stills, the design and dimensions of which are also legally controlled. The resulting eau-de-vie, a French phrase which literally means ‘water of life’, is a colourless spirit containing about 70 percent or more alcohol.
Next, it must age for at least two years in French barrels made from oak trees from the forests of Limousin or Tronçais before it can be called cognac.
The final product is usually diluted to a 40 percent alcohol content with pure and distilled water.
The age of the cognac is calculated as that of the youngest eau-de-vie used in the blend, which is usually of different ages.
This blending, or ‘marriage’, of different eaux-de-vie is important to obtain the complexity of flavours absent from an eau-de-vie from a single distillery or vineyard.
Each cognac house has a master taster, a ‘maître de chai’ who is responsible for creating this delicate blend of spirits.
The collector points to an enormous bottle, covered in dust. “That one is from 1795. Napoleon’s army took up to 20 or 30 of these bottles with them on campaign for their officers.
It’s worth something between 100 and 150 thousand Euros.” I try, but fail to estimate the value of what I see on these shelves, but am too embarrassed to ask how much money’s worth there is in this room. I sense that – for the collector – this has nothing to do with money. “It’s about passion”, he says, reading my thoughts, “and greed, maybe, but passion sounds so much better, doesn’t it?”
When I ask him what his collection means to him, he smiles dreamily. “Look at that one.” He points out a – to me – inconspicuous bottle.
“It’s from 1789, which means it started gathering dust in the year the French Revolution started, the year of the storming of the Bastille!
It’s amazing that you can drink something that looks so dirty and old, coming from such a turbulent year; something that is more than 200 years old but still tastes so great.
I love that contradiction. You know that you will never eat anything that old, do you? This bottle has stood in twenty or thirty cellars. Who was the previous owner? The people who picked the grapes were born 270 years ago. Who were they? Taste changes. Not only during a lifetime, also throughout the ages. The taste of cognac however, and its appreciation, have never changed and even after 220 years it is still a delicacy. There’s nothing else man-made in the world that’s this old that you can eat or drink. That’s what makes it so unique.”Fact is: cognac would never have become so famous if everyone wasn’t in complete agreement about its consistent superb quality.
“Did you know that cognac is a Dutch invention?” he asks me. “The French may not like it, but it is.” In the 17th century Dutch ships bought white wine in the French region of Charante, but found it didn’t keep well. They burned the wine to reduce its volume, producing ‘brandewijn’ or, literally ‘burnt wine’. It was also noticed that this brandy, traditionally kept in casks, improved with age and could be drank dry. At the end of the 17th century the inhabitants of Charente developed the second distillation. Cognac was born.
Oldliquors is an exclusive and private Old Liquors Collection of 250 years old cognac, armagnac and other old liquors. The whole Liquor Collection is currently for sale!
Also read the second part of this interesting story! See: Dust-covered Cognac passion (part 2)