Spirits: The indescribable lure of cognac

By Jason Wilson
Wednesday, January 6, 2010; E05

Last month, in Paris, the landmark 427-year-old restaurant La Tour d'Argent cleaned out its cellar and auctioned off 18,000 bottles, including some extremely rare bottles of cognac. Three bottles, dating to 1788, sold individually for about $37,000, $31,000 and $27,300. The same week, at Christie's in New York, a bottle of 50-year-old Glenfiddich Scotch sold at auction for $38,000. Just over a week later, Bonhams in New York auctioned off the coveted Willard S. Folsom Collection of Old and Rare Whiskies. Among the 895 bottles on sale, more than 50 Scotches sold for at least $1,000 apiece; among them were a 50-year-old Dalmore and a 50-year-old Balvenie, each of which sold for over $7,000.

For me, this flurry of high bidding raised a few questions. Such as: Isn't there a financial crisis going on? And: Why does the value of booze go up while the value of my portfolio remains in the toilet? Have cognac and Scotch become better investments than real estate?

I'd seen firsthand some indicators of this coming madness when I visited Cognac, France, in September. I was there during the annual Le Part des Anges auction, where the bigwigs of the local spirits industry bid on very rare cognacs for charity. (The name means "The Angels' Share," the nickname for the amount of cognac that evaporates from a barrel as it ages over decades.) There, among the highlights, I witnessed a 40-year-old Delamain sell for 3,000 euros, a 1975 Hine go for 3,200 euros and a Martell in a crystal decanter painted with 20-carat gold get snapped up for 5,500 euros.

On the afternoon before the auction, cognac giant Courvoisier held a press conference to unveil its L'Essence de Courvoisier, which would go on sale in only one store in the world, Harrods of London, for 1,800 pounds (about $2,850). I immediately texted my editor: "Hey, Courvoisier's showing off a cognac that costs 1,800£. Can I expense one?"

"Yeah, sure," he very snidely texted back. "Why not pick up two."

Meanwhile, the crowd was gushing over the Baccarat crystal decanter suspended on a metal hoop. "Look at the bottle! How gorgeous!"

"But what about liquid inside?" I asked.

"It doesn't really seem to matter," grumbled one of the other journalists. That is my main beef with expensive cognac in particular. Much of the perceived value is in the limited-edition crystal decanter, with designs by Baccarat or Erté or Sevres or whoever.

There is a delusional aspect to the marketing of cognac, with its air of unattainable affluence and sophistication on one hand and its dogged attempts to connect cognac with the general consumer on the other. Only an hour before the unveiling of L'Essence de Courvoisier, the master distiller told me that Courvoisier's Exclusif, which retails at around $45 to $50, was the best for mixing; that "bartenders like to use it behind the bar." First of all, there are definitely better, cheaper mixing cognacs than this one (Pierre Ferrand Ambre at $30 to $35 springs to mind). But beyond that, if I want an affordable alternative, I can use a good brandy from somewhere else -- say, a $25 Asbach Uralt from Germany or the best Spanish brandies at around $30 -- to mix in a sidecar or a stinger. That's not a knock on cognac, which I enjoy very much. But the cold, hard reality is that good cognac is expensive. An investment, really. But at what return?

I'd been in Paris before Cognac, and while there I stopped into Au Verger de la Madeleine, a well-respected dealer in rare wines and spirits. Sitting on the shelves were a dozen or so cognacs with several-thousand-dollar price tags, including a Delamain ("Le Voyage") in a Baccarat crystal decanter for 6,500 euros. Olivier Madinier, one of the managing partners, told me that collectors certainly like to buy these pricey bottles. But if someone comes in and just wants a cognac to enjoy, Madinier often steers them toward something like Fillioux Reserve Familiale. At around $200, it's definitely pricey as hell, though it feels like a downright bargain compared with those at auction. "But if you like to drink cognac, this is what we recommend," he said.

Madinier took a look at my auction catalog for Le Part des Anges and shrugged, seeming to imply, "nothing special here." He pointed to a bottle of Delamain from 1840 on his shelves. "We once opened a bottle of this." He sighed: "Only a few hours later, it was bad." He let that fact silently sink in for a moment.

"Why?" I said.

"I don't know," he said, with a shrug. "Maybe it was the keeping. But at the end of the day, it was bad." With a chuckle he said, "I guess you have to drink it rapidly. I got to taste some before it went bad."

"How was it different?" I asked.

"There are so many different flavors. Leather. . . . " Then he just clammed up, as if even trying to put words to the taste would be a kind of heresy. "There are flavors you just can't find in a younger cognac."

I stared dumbly at him. I hoped he'd go on. "Really?" I said, not knowing what to say. "Yes," he said. "It was -- amazing."

"Well," I said, "it sounds like maybe it's impossible to describe?" No response. "So . . . would you say that it's impossible to describe?"

He now looked at me as if I were profoundly stupid. "Yes" is all he said.

Later, at the auction, I had a chance to spend some time with a 70-year-old Pierre Ferrand Ancestrale, and I mean not just tasting a little quarter-ounce sample, but sipping -- drinking -- a couple of glasses over a couple of hours. That cognac retails for, oh, well north of $500 a bottle. And I will answer your questions. Was it amazing? Yes. Impossible to describe? Yes. Worth it? Hmmmm. . . .

Wilson can be reached at food@washpost.com.

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