For cognac, being single doesn’t cut it

April 10, 2012

COGNAC, FRANCE — I have a lot of faith  in my ability to taste and evaluate. I’m the dude who sniffs and sips and opines, and I’m arrogant enough to think that my palate should be heeded by others.

So it felt weird to be, literally, on the other side of table. Here, inside the white-walled tasting room at Remy Martin, I recently fidgeted nervously as cellar master Pierrette Trichet nosed the cognac I’d just blended.

This was no small judgment. Trichet has 36 years experience in the cognac business, and has been Remy Martin’s cellarmaster since 2003. Sure, this was a friendly challenge, but for me it felt like a matter of professional pride was at stake.

I undertook an exercise similar to what a master blender would face on a daily basis. I’d been given bottles of five-year-old, 15-year-old and 30-year-old eaux de vie (what they call the spirit before it’s officially called cognac) and told to blend them into an XO (or “extra old”) cognac — one that would sell for $80 or more.


(Frank Tschakert /ALAMY)

As I measured out various ratios of eaux de vie into beakers and flasks and started blending, I thought about how rarely this aspect of the spirits business is discussed. Sure, we hear a lot about raw ingredients, and distilling techniques and barrel aging, but when it comes to spirits, blending is an essential and often misunderstood aspect of production. Aged rums from the Caribbean, bourbons from Kentucky, and, of course, blended scotches like Johnny Walker, all rely on a blending to find the right recipe to bring about a consistent product.

Mostly, though, American drinkers don’t want to hear about blending. We love to talk about singular things: single-malts, single vineyards, single barrels, certain vintages singled out for their singularity. Blending? You may as well be speaking French. For instance, it’s a widely accepted fact within the wine industry that Americans prefer labels listing a single grape, rather than a blend from a geographic region.

Blending often removes an easy shortcut to connoisseurship: citing age. Is this a six-year-old? A 12-year-old? A 30-year-old? Drinkers just love to know the number. An age statement on the bottle becomes like a seal of approval to drop more cash. People will shell out more for a 25 year old whiskey than they will for a 12-year-old, even if the older one has simply turned to oak-flavored juice. If the label says the older spirit comes from a single cask, you can bet people will pay even more.

Blended spirits are more of a leap of faith, and one a lot of aficionados won’t take. Ron Zacapa for instance is a wonderful blend of aged rums that includes some 23-year-old spirits. I’ve heard spirits geeks grumble because Zacapa puts the number “23” on its bottles, suggesting they are somehow being “duped” into drinking younger rum. Eye roll.

Another eye roll for me was when the excellent High West Rendezvous Rye was challenged by bourbon nerds a couple years ago after it won an award from the American Distillers Institute. Purists insisted High West hadn’t “made” the rye whiskey, it had “only” blended six- and 16-year-old whiskeys. In the world of trendy spirits, distilling is seen as an art, while blending is just, you know, following a recipe.

That would come as a shock to a cellarmaster like Trichet, and her 18-member tasting panel, who manage a warehouse of thousands of barrels, many dating back decades. A barrel is a living environment, sensitive to temperature and other elements, with different floors aging differently. Additionally, cognac comes from distilled wine, which has it own variations from year to year.

“The important thing with blending is to, as we say, ‘close the gaps between the ages,’ ” Trichet says. This means Trichet and her team are tasting all the time, year-round, so they know which barrels they can tap for young, fresh fruit aromas, where to find dried fruit and spice, where to find intensity, and where to find the older, sought-after notes of nuttiness, baked apple pie, and toffee you find in fine, balanced cognacs.

Because I was creating an XO cognac, that meant the youngest brandies in the finished cognac must be aged at least six years. Most good XOs seek a “tasting age” of about 20 years.

Given that I was working with five-, 15-, and 30-year old eaux de vie, I assumed whatever I created would hypothetically be need to go into the barrel again for at least another year.

In my first attempt, I used 50 percent of the 15-year-old, which was the most concentrated and intense. Of the remaining half, I used two parts 30-year-old eau de vie to one part five-year-old. Because the alcohol level was at cask strength (around 100 proof), I added a tiny amount of distilled water to bring the mix down to 80 proof — which is what most cognac is bottled at. The result, in my humble opinion, was delicious.

Trichet took a long time nosing. And then she smiled. “Mmmm,” she said. “That is a very expensive XO you have there.”

More expensive than Remy Martin’s XO? I asked, knowing that costs about $120.

“Oh yes, definitely. You have very expensive taste.”

On my second attempt, I used about 60 percent of the five-year-old, with its fresh apricot aromas and buttery mouthfeel; 30 percent of the 15-year-old; and just about 10 percent of the 30-year-old. Trichet told me I was much closer to Remy Martin’s XO blend on this one.

This was eye-opening to me. I always imagined that expensive cognacs had much more older eau de vie in the blend. But doing the exercise, I began to see how a small amount of the older spirit went a long way.

Still, afterward, Trichet went back to my first attempt, using the older cognacs. She took a full sip of the golden liquid. “Mmm,” she said. “This is a very good cognac.”

For a moment, I allowed myself to daydream. Would she consider using my cognac in a new product launch? Would she release my cognac in a special-edition crystal carafe, like the one I saw in the gift shop priced at $16,000? Would Chinese billionaires and Russian oligarchs start clamoring for Le Jason XO?

Trichet quickly brought me back to Earth. “Very nice,” she said, and scribbled a little star on my tasting sheet. I guess that will have to be validation enough.

Follow Wilson on Twitter: @boozecolumnist.

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