Friday, 3 January 2020

Discovering cognac with the Drinks by the Dram cognac advent calendar


Advent calendars have become big business these days, haven’t they? Gone are the days when you could buy a simple chocolate-based advent calendar for your significant other.

This year I was treated to one of Drinks By the Dram’s excellent calendars by my better half - I had mentioned to her that I was interested in learning more about cognac and their cognac-based Advent calendar was the perfect way to learn about it. 24 individual offerings that came in nice wax-sealed 35ml bottle, what better way to treat yourself on those long December evenings then through sampling a lovely cognac?

The educational bit...


Map taken from Wikipedia under CCL
So, before I start taking you through some of the highlights - what is cognac? Cognac is a type of brandy (i.e. a spirit that has been made from the distillation of grapes), it is important to note that all cognac is brandy - but not all brandies are cognac! Cognac production is protected under the French “appellation d'origine contrôlée” system that is used to designate wine production areas like Champagne (see map to the right).

Cognac must be double-distilled in copper pots and aged for at least two years in French oak barrels in order to meet the criteria. Furthermore, to be known as a true “cru” cognac, 90% of the spirit must have been produced using the Ugni Blanc grape. 

There is a grading system that is used in the production of cognac to denote quality, this will hopefully demystify some of the acronyms that you see on the label and provide a bit of context:

  • Very Special (V.S.), which indicates that the youngest spirit in the blend has been aged in wood for at least two years.
  • Very Superior Old Pale (V.S.O.P.), which indicates that the youngest spirit in the blend has been aged in wood for at least four years.
  • Extra Old (X.O.), which as of 2018 indicates that the youngest spirit in the blend has been aged in wood for at least 10 years (before 2018 this was only six years). They are going to introduce a new designation “Napoleon” to indicate drinks that meet the previous six year ageing requirement.

As with wine, the general consideration is that extra ageing in barrel allows the spirit to develop more complexity and more depth.

The selection from the calendar allowed me plenty of opportunities to try different cognacs from across the ageing spectrum, which was exactly what I wanted as my knowledge of cognac was limited and I wanted to try a variety of cognacs to help figure out where my preferences were.

Here were some of the highlights (grouped by producer) for me, for brevity’s sake I have not reviewed all 24! All prices quoted below (unless I note otherwise are taken from Master of Malt):

Ragnaud Sabourin


This was a producer that I didn’t know about at all, but I really enjoyed their cognacs. Their No. 4 V.S. was a revelation, it had a rather exotic nose with sweet spices and a little perfume. On the palate it was nice and light, pretty and delicate. When I found a bottle of this online for £37 on a website called Premiers Grand Crus I ordered it immediately!

I also tried their V.S.O.P. which had a red apple nose with a little sweet spice. Quite complex and decent mouth-feel, which featured a bit of heat - despite this it still possessed a certain elegance. 


Naud


Another new producer for me. Their X.O. had a really beautiful and classical nose featuring slightly sweet, caramel-like notes. I could barely detect any heat on it at all. On tasting you could feel the extra quality, there was definite heat there, but it was really refined and poised with touches of caramel to it. You could get this on Master of Malt for £70/bottle, which is expensive but I think given the prices of other X.O.s which are usually north of £100 this represents a good option if you’re looking to splash out! 

The Naud V.S. was quite a gentle drink, refined on the nose and on the palate - rather elegant. Not a particularly showy cognac, but decent (available on Master of Malt for £31/bottle).

Hine


More of a household name this time!

We started the calendar off with Hine’s “Homage to Thomas Hine”, which had a very pretty and delicate nose. Notably low on heat. Nice sweet notes on the mouth. A very enjoyable drinking experience. However, at £105/bottle, this is certainly on the more expensive end of things!

Later on, we had “H by Hine”, a V.S.O.P., which had aromas of apple, as well as slightly sweet spice notes of cinnamon. I found this to be a beautiful drink, really elegant and refined with nice sweet notes. Priced at £37/bottle, this represents fantastic value and is certainly one that I’ll be looking to buy.

Towards the end of the month we had Hine’s Antique X.O., a beautiful nose full of apple and butterscotch, with accompanying notes of cinnamon and clove. Possessed an exceptional mouth feel with definite heat to it but really refined. At £120/bottle, this is a wonderful drink but certainly at the “special occasion” end of the cognac spectrum.

Hermitage


The name of this brand alone exudes class and quality. We finished the calendar with two corkers from this producer, starting with their 20yo Grand Champagne Cognac which had a really elegant and perfumed nose that was very inviting, but not overtly powerful. There was some heat to it, but very subtle. On tasting, it was quite warming with a really long and pronounced finish featuring a little bit of butterscotch. A punchy cognac, with a price of £100/bottle - I think this is warranted though.

The last cognac on the calendar was Hermitage’s 45yo Segonzac Grande Champagne Cognac. The first thing that I noted was that this was very dark in the glass - sitting a nice mahogany brown. This smelt considerably more powerful than the 20yo and featured caramel notes and dark chocolate. On the palate there was a lot of structure and power, with darker notes and a front palate burn of alcohol, which surprised me, before softening into a long, pronounced finish. This is a box-office drink and comes with a price tag to match: £375/bottle, if I’m honest I actually preferred the 20yo so I’ll be more than happy to not purchase this one!

Conclusion


There you have it a guide through some of the cognacs that I enjoyed during December. This is just the start of my cognac adventure as I want to learn a lot more about this beautiful drink over the next few years.

Thank you to Drinks By the Dram for putting together such an excellent selection and, most importantly, thank you to my wife for treating me to this!

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