France: Day 3 - Fins Bois to Bas-Armagnac

We started Tuesday by driving north of Cognac, through the Borderies region, and to a new producer in the Fins Bois called Bernard Boutinet. It’s amazing how many of the buildings in Cognac look similar to one another, not just in style but also in floor plan and design. Boutinet’s home looked identical to the bed and breakfast near Dudognon we’ve stayed in over the years. We asked Mr. Boutinet about this phenomenon and he told us, “When they built these places in the 1830s, they just built the same house over and over again.” I guess these beautiful limestone maisons are like French track homes from the 19th century!

Boutinet had an interesting variety of standard VS-XO expressions, along with a number of single vintage releases that were also interesting in our opinion. It wasn’t until last year that we began visiting producers outside of the three main Cognac-producing regions—Grand Champagne, Petit Champagne, and the Borderies—so none of us were well-versed in deciphering the differences between these varied terroirs. Tasting through Boutinet’s different brandies, however—especially after having visited Hine and Hennessy—it's becoming pretty clear what the differences are. There’s much less fruit and delicacy with the Cognacs from the outer regions like the Fins Bois. It doesn’t mean they’re not good though. They’re just more straight-forward, earthy, and simple.

The soils around Boutinet are mostly clay and sand, unlike in say Grand Champagne where you have mostly limestone and chalk. Cognac is one of the few spirits where I can safely say that the location of where the base material is grown makes a huge difference in the flavor of the ultimate distillate. A comparison to the wines of Burgundy is particularly useful in understanding, I believe. The best vineyards for making white wine in the Cote d’Or are those with the best drainage, the best weather, and, of course, the best soils. However, the wines made from the chalkiest and most-mineral of terrain need to be aged in the bottle before they can express their true character. They’re so tightly-wound in their youth that they need time to soften. Contrast something like Montrachet with a white wine from the Macon—crisp, clean, simply, and ready to drink from the get go. There’s a similar relationship between the Cognacs from Grand Champagne and the Fins Bois. The former needs decades in wood before the complexities contained within the spirit can be savored, whereas the best Cognacs we tasted from Boutinet were the youngest and freshest. I actually preferred them to many of the young Grand Champagne expressions we had tasted. That being said, I wouldn’t ever lay down a case of Macon-Village chardonnay and expect greatness after a decade in the cellar. The same goes for older expressions of Fins Bois Cognac.

After leaving Boutinet we drove south, back through Cognac, and down through Bordeaux on our way to Armagnac. Our first stop of the afternoon was Miquer, but Jacques wasn’t there when we arrived, so we decided to do a few cold calls in the area. One place that Charles was interested in checking out was called Domaine de Jean-Bon and apparently wasn’t too far away. “Did you say Jambon?” I asked, “As in ham?” We pulled up to a small farmhouse a few minutes later and didn’t see anyone around. There was a lazy dog lying in the grass nearby and a cat staring at me through a window, but no sign of human life elsewhere. Charles went to investigate while David and I hung back in wait. That’s when Beatrice Sourdois found us standing in her driveway, and we explained to her who we were and why we were there. She invited us inside for a tasting and we whistled for Charles to come back and join us.

Domaine Jean-Bon was started by a family with three brothers, all of whom were named Jean crazily enough. It turns out, however, that one of the Jeans was liked more than the other two, so they named the estate after him: Jean-Bon, or the "good" Jean. Much like I had said in the car to Charles, when the family would tell others the name of the domaine, people would reply: “Did you say Domaine de Jambon? As in ham?” We all laughed when Beatrice told us this. “At that point it was too late too change the name, so they kept it,” she told us. Jean-Bon produces about four to six barrels of Armagnac per year, all distilled from Baco (although they’ve started now with a bit of Ugni Blanc). After visiting the chai, we sat down for some tasting.

We started off with the XO, but soon dove into the vintage expressions. These brandies were no joke. They had the dark, full-boded power of Baraillon, balanced by the rich oak flavor that some of Pellehaut’s Armagnacs can sometimes have. They were very, very good. Then we landed on a 1987 vintage that just exploded on the palate—rich vanilla, big spice, a blast of oak on the back end, and a long, layered finish that went on for minutes. We might be making a power play at Domaine de Jean-Bon. When I told Beatrice how much we were possibly looking for, she seemed a bit hesitant, but she also said she knew the Claveries from Baraillon. I told her they would vouch for us. You need street cred to do any business out here in the Bas-Armagnac.

We circled back to Miquer and this time Jacques was there. We did a quick run through some of his newer barrels, but decided that we still really loved the 1987 we had bottled in the past and that we might buttress that purchase with a bit of the 1990 vintage. The Miquer Armagnacs tend to have a bit less fruit and more of the delicate spice of Folle Blanche. The extra time in wood doesn’t always add richness at Miquer, but almost a drying, pencil lead character, so we wanted to be extra careful that we chose the proper casks. We tasted about four from each vintage to be absolutely sure. I’m happy with what we ultimately found.

After Miquer, it was time to visit our oldest and closest friends: the Claverie family from Baraillon. We pulled up to the house and our old friend le chien ran up to the van, eager to wag his tail and lick our faces. Laurence was right behind him with her father Paul in tow. 

The routine never changes at Baraillon. We taste in the same room and Laurence brings us some terrine on white bread. It's becoming tradition. I live for this moment each year.

We’ve never been to France with such warm weather before, so I noticed there was actually some bud-break on the vines outside. Spring has definitely sprung in Gascony. So much for all the thermals and sweaters I packed in my suitcase.

We picked up a few more vintages from Baraillon to bolster our incoming supply of 10 and 20 year Armagnac, before saying goodbye and heading back to Montreal du Gers for dinner with Charles’s mother-in-law Simone. David and I dropped our bags off at the hotel nearby and who was there waiting for me? My best friend in all of France: le chat Pipeau. He ran right up to me and had me pet his belly. “How in the hell does that cat always remember who you are?” David asked in disbelief. This little guy comes into my room every year and we play together in the mornings while I type out these blog posts. I’m hoping to get more quality time this year as well.

Then it was over to Chez Simone for soup (Simone was once known as the Queen of Soup in Gascony), foie gros, and some duck confit with fried potatoes. We busted out the wine. Charles’s in-laws Bernard and Vero soon came over, and we partied late into the night.

-David Driscoll


France: Day 2 - Hennessy Seminar: Part II

We had been to the warehouses of Hennessy in 2013—when we did the regular tour of the Cognac facility as part of a quick romp through town. Back then, when we saw the perfectly-poised chalk calligraphy adorning each barrel, we assumed these markings were just for the casks being kept in the one chai that allows visitors—a nice addition to the Disneyland effect reserved for the tourists. We asked Maurice, however, if we could visit one of the functioning facilities to see part of the bottling process. “No problem,” he said. We assumed the “real” warehouses would be much more rustic and less curated for guests. Yet, as soon as we walked in we realized that the beautiful handwriting was just as prevalent. 

The workers were there pulling older brandies out of the cask and getting some of the mature liquid ready for blending. Again, like I mentioned before with Hine, you walk through these buildings—all full of Cognac from 50 to 150 years ago—and you think this can’t be functional. These can’t be real. They’re probably empty, or just for show. But I watched these guys uncork ancient barriques and pump the aged Cognac out of the wood and into a container. It’s a real place, making real brandies, despite the fact that it all seems too fantastic to be real.

We walked through another building with Maurice so that he could show us where his own estate Cognac was aging. 

And then we found the treasure trove: the casks containing the new 250th anniversary blend. 270 liter barrels, re-coopered to hold 250 liters (a great gimmick) in tribute to the significance of the moment. We would get a preview of the new edition later that evening.

After walking through the warehouses, Maurice left us with Raphael Gerard: the chief historian of Hennessy’s archive department. He’s the guy who digs through records and old documents in search of more information about Hennessy’s past. I wish I would have had a tape recorder going because he told us a story so long and incredible that there’s no way I’ll ever be able to type it up now. It involved the role of Hennessy from the time of the French and American Revolutions until Prohibition was eventually lifted in the U.S. This was a photo of a famous jazz singer sitting on the first crates of Hennessy to enter the states after the ban was lifted.

If you think Hennessy isn’t authentic or doesn’t have a romantic and real heritage, then look at these original letters written by the brand’s first American importer back in 1786. These are real documents that are still around, thanks to James Hennessy—the son of Richard—who was fanatical about keeping everything in order for future generations. We spent a good twenty minutes digging through old boxes of this stuff! It didn’t seem like it could be real, but then again Hennessy Cognac is older than the United States, so it all makes sense in the end.

At 5 PM it was time to sit down with Olivier Paultes, the director of distilleries and part of the prestigious Hennessy tasting team. His job is to taste more than seventy different eaux-de-vie each day, and to ultimately keep track of quality control. I was very, very impressed by him. He was open-minded, interested in what our experiences with smaller producers were, and eager to help us learn more without seeming pedantic. More importantly, his passion for Cognac in general was clear and contagious. 

Finally, I got to experience something at Hennessy that I have been dying to do for years: taste the unblended brandies, from single vintages and individual estates, that make up the vast selection of Hennessy’s collection. Imagine if you were only able to taste Johnnie Walker Blended Whisky, and never the components like Caol Ila, Talisker, or Clynelish on their own. That’s kind of how I’ve long felt about Hennessy. I’ve always heard they have incredible stocks. I had just seen those vast inventories aging in person! But up until this point we had never been able to try them on their own. Olivier had set up a blending table for us, full of different sample bottles pulled from various estates and vintages, to show us how each component brandy ultimately contributes to the blend. I was in heaven. We tasted a 1965 cask so ridiculously good that it made my head spin.

Ultimately, however, the back stocks of Hennessy are so vast and the demand for their Cognac so great, that the individualities of their single expressions will never be experienced by the general consumer. That’s simply not the business that Hennessy is in. They’re an incredibly large house that ships Cognac to every booze market there is. In the end, the Walker comparison is apt—except that, unlike young grain whisky made from inexpensive barley and distilled quickly on a column still, there’s nothing inexpensive or easy about making real Cognac. And, of course, there’s only so much that can be made each year. If a Scottish producer runs out of barley or wheat, they can always buy more from Eastern Europe or any other neighbor willing to sell them more supplies. They can distill year-round as long as they can get more grain. Cognac, however, is limited. It must be made from grapes and those grapes must be grown within the geographical borders of the region, harvested only once per year. Hence, why Hennessy buys as much brandy as they can get and meticulously manages their aging supplies.

We finished our visit to Hennessy with a fantastic dinner back at Chateau de Bagnolet; joined by our friends Jean-Baptiste and Olivier this time. We talked strategy and emerging trends in the new boutique market until late in the evening, Eventually Maurice took his leave, and as I walked with him out to the car I told him, “You delivered on your promise. You definitely showed me a side of Hennessy that I did not think existed.”

“I told you how it was. And was it indeed like I said?” he asked.

It was indeed, Maurice. While I still don’t know how successful K&L can be selling Hennessy and its ubiquitous marks, I know that my opinion of the Cognac brand is completely changed. Just because you’re supplying the world’s thirst for French brandy doesn’t mean you’re doing it at the expense of tradition or quality. It just means you have a much more difficult job, and sometimes that comes at a price. Hennessy could very well release the most incredible single vintage, single cask, single producer expressions ever seen within the industry, but that’s not their gig. They’re supplying the mass market—the Costcos and the duty free shops of airports all over the globe. It’s nice to know, however, that within those blends are some pretty incredible components. It’s nice to know that there is indeed a soul to Cognac’s reigning king.

-David Driscoll


France: Day 2 - Hennessy Seminar: Part I

I first met Maurice Hennessy at a dinner in San Francisco in 2014; a bottle signing event downtown. We hit it off almost immediately. I was just stopping by to say hello on my way home, but the LVMH rep invited me to eat with them and eventually I was seated next to Maurice himself. We naturally started talking about the business. He asked what I did, and I told him about K&L. An hour or so later I was still having trouble explaining to him why we struggle to sell Hennessy Cognac. He was intrigued by the conversation, however. Not many people had ever told him specifically that the larger and more successful the company, the harder it is to market. "But that's K&L for you," I said. "What works for everyone else doesn't work for us."

"So you will need to come to Cognac soon and let me show you around," he replied. "I promise it will be very different."

I smiled and thanked him for the kind offer, understanding that this was just polite small talk and that the kind invitation would never actually happen. Yet, eight months later, I found myself staying at Maurice's family estate, eating lunch with him at Bistro de Claude in downtown Cognac, getting ready for an in-depth look at the company's complex operation. Let's be honest here: in the new era of boutique alcohol, many customers assume that big is bad. They think something mass produced must equate to a lower quality. Corporate ownership means a lack of authenticity; the removal of anything endearing about the humble people making the product by hand. Because of this new way of thinking, our customers assume that anything produced from a gigantic Cognac house must be total slop compared to the small and rustic producers making tiny amounts of brandy on their own estate. "I need to see how Hennessy is actually made," I told Maurice, "because that's the only way I'll be able to convince our most discerning customers that this is not only the industry's largest Cognac producer, it's also one of the best."

"That shouldn't be a problem," he said with a smile.

2015 marks the 250th anniversary of the Hennessy house, which was founded in 1765 by Richard Hennessy; the forefather of Maurice. I knew that the company had something big in store for us, as they took my words as a personal challenge. They wanted to prove to me that Hennessy was as focused on boutique quality as any other producer in the region, despite their size and scale. I never in a million years thought they would ultimately give us complete and utter access to the entire operation. I never thought that Maurice would actually get behind the wheel himself, drive us to the house he grew up in, and show us around Angelier, home to Billarderie distillery—one of many small production centers Hennessy owns in the Cognac region. Yet, that's exactly what happened. We laid down the gauntlet, and LVMH responded with one of the most incredible days of booze education I've ever received.

Located in the heart of the Borderies, Angelier is one of the most idyllic places I've ever been in my entire life. It took my breath away and made my heart stop. "This is where I would fish as a kid, and take my canoe down the creek," Maurice told us. "We would even catch a trout every now and again."

And inside a small, rustic ediface on the property sits the distillery itself—a classic Cognac pot still. This is one of the small operations that distills the Borderies fruit growing in vineyards nearby. I had always believed that Hennessy had no control over their own distillation, but in fact they do indeed handle some of their own production.

Maurice himself also owns his own Grand Champagne vineyards near his home in the region, and we were treated to a private look at his estate. He is actually one of the 1500 small farmers who sell their brandy to Hennessy, part of the gigantic network of small operations that make the company what it is. "I like selling my Cognac to Hennessy," he told us. "Of course, I guess I could start my own little label on the side, but I couldn't well put my name on it, could I?" That might be a conflict of interest.

There's still a lot to talk about, but I've gotta run. More soon.

-David Driscoll


France: Day 2 - Morning at Hine

Let me start this post by saying this: we did enough today to justify and entire week's worth of articles. I could write ten paragraphs just for every hour we spent with Maurice Hennessy. That being said, I don't have a week to string these stories out, so I'm going to split it up between the first and second parts of the day. We woke up early at Chateau de Bagnolet, grabbed a pastry and a cup of coffee, and jumped in the van for the twenty minute drive to Jarnac—the neighbor to Cognac just a short trip down the river Charente. We had a 10 AM meeting with the house of Hine, one of the more interesting and forward-thinking producers from the old world of French brandy.

In the new age of distiller/producers, where the name of the actual distillery is often the name of the brand itself, it's easy to forget that the idea of DIY marketing is quite new to the booze world. For hundreds of years, the people producing the great brandies of France had nothing to do with blending them, marketing them, or even delivering them into the hands of customers. The Cognac industry was (and mostly still is today) run by negociants who would purchase different distillates from small producers and handle the entire business side of the trade; often shipping their casks abroad by boat, down the Charente River, where they would make their way to various merchants all over the world. Surprisingly enough, it was an influx of British and Irish entrepreneurs that established some of the earliest Cognac houses we still know today. Richard Hennessy, of course, was from Ireland, and it was in a French prison during the Revolution that he met Thomas Hine—an Englishman from a family of Cognac merchants sent southward to learn the French language. Hine would eventually be released, fall in love with the daughter of a blending house, and change the company to his namesake when he and his wife eventually inherited the family business. More than 200 years later, there is still a strong link between Hine and the UK. Their head commercial director, Carolyn Meunier—who met us at the estate today—is from England originally herself. 

While there is a small warehouse at Hine facility in Jarnac, most of their Cognac is aging outside the city limits. In fact, due to those strong relationships in the UK, a number of what they call their "early landed" vintage casks are aged at Glenfarclas distillery in the Scottish Highlands. While releasing vintage-dated casks in France is a bureaucratic nightmare (due to an abundance of laws requiring a licensed official to be present for all aspects of anything eventually being labeled with a specific numerical age statement) there surprisingly is no law that states French Cognac must be aged in France. Therefore, Hine is able to send a number of "early-landed" casks (meaning casks that are leaving Jarnac for the UK and arriving "early" in their maturation period) back home, where they have an age-old agreement to use the Her Majesty's bonding customs. That means Hine can release a number of vintage-dated products without being restricted by French guidelines using their UK-based stocks. 

Sometimes it's easy to think the old demi-johns laying around Cognac warehouses are just cheesy props or marketing materials for tourists, simply because of the ridiculous maturity or provenance of these brandies. However, it's totally common to have Cognac from the mid-1800s just sitting there in glass, right on the shelf, waiting to be used in a special blend or rare bottling. What is uncommon to see, however, is a WWII vintage. The Nazis shutdown a lot of production in France during their reign. 1943 is not a year I've seen at a producer previously. 

It's also easy to associate big Cognac houses with the glitz and glamour of big marketing (Hine does have an amazingly hip and modern tasting room), but don't get confused by their attention to aesthetics. Many Cognac houses are often sticklers for the highest quality of spirits and pay extreme attention to detail. Just because they're technically a blending house also doesn't mean they don't handle production. While Hine does purchase brandies from producers around the region, they also own 110 hectares of their own fruit, which they distill under their own domaine name: Bonneuil. In fact, you can buy a single estate version of entirely domaine-bottled Hine Bonneuil Cognac in their gift shop (which I did).

But, of course, just because they're buying a lot of juice from other producers, don't think Hine doesn't understand the production of those other distillers down to the finest of details. Eric Forget, the cellar master and director at Hine, is an incredible wealth of knowledge when it comes to every inch of Cognac terroir. He worked for Hennessy for many years and was actually in charge of managing the relationships between the company and its 1500 contracted growers. That makes him the ideal person to speak to when it comes to understanding what makes each distillate unique, as he has a strong working knowledge concerning hundreds of different estates. Eric had also arranged a selection of available barrel samples for us, from which he explained the significance of their individual origins and what made each one unique. For someone looking for more specifics from his Cognac, the presentation was utterly fantastic. I was spellbound before we had even tasted anything!

Besides their willingness for total transparency and detail-based approach to marketing, one of the reasons I was so excited to work with Hine was the fact that they purposely use a very low char level in their barrels. That means more fruit and less oak in the ultimate spirit. That means more terroir and less wood. That means a better understanding of the region in every sip. That means a better connoisseurship of the spirit and what makes it unique. We found two casks that really jumped out at us, both very different in their personalities. One was a lighter nine year old Grand Champagne brandy, lithe and fruity in its profile. The other a richer 2002 vintage with more supple richness and spice on the finish. Based on today's experience, I'm pretty sure we'll be doing a lot more business with Hine in the near future. 

They made their case. We were impressed. We countered with ours. A deal was struck. That's how relationships should work; with both parties equally enthused and excited about the future.

-David Driscoll


France: Day 1 - Chateau de Bagnolet

North from the city of Cognac, along the bank of La Charente, sits Chateau de Bagnolet: the house of Hennessy. Originally built in 1810, the ancient estate today serves as a guesthouse and hosting area for guests of the Cognac giant. We left Edinburgh this morning, did a layover in Amsterdam, then landed in Bordeaux around 4 PM. We then quickly rented a car, drove the hour and a half north to Cognac, and pulled into Bagnolet just before dinner time. Hennessy VS and ginger beer cocktails were promptly served. I stood on the balcony and stared off towards the river. Maurice Hennessy was due to arrive at 8 PM for dinner. We had a lot to talk about.

We dined over Pouilly-Fuisse and fish, followed by dessert paired with Hennessy XO. After the meal, we ajourned in the parlor to discuss business and share stories from the current state of the industry. Now I'm here with Charles Neal, my old pal Lester, and we're getting ready to drink Cognac late into the evening. 

You might be thinking at this point: David, only three days in Scotland? Is that really enough? Yes, my friends, three days is sufficient for what we need to do. At this stage in the game, the belts have been tightened and the supplies slowly rationed. It's not easy right now. We've only got four solid mainstay partners for single cask imports at this point, and we can knock out those appointments in three focused, hard-fought days. France, on the other hand, is limitless. We still are just scratching the surface with our brandy department and I want to spend a serious amount of time expanding on the work we've already done. That's why I'll be in France for the next eleven days: to start getting very, very serious about Cognac and Armagnac.

Get ready for a serious set of French-inspired blog posts. But first, a bit of fun.

-David Driscoll