France 2013 - Day 2 - Cognac to Armagnac

Wow. So much has happened in the past twenty-four hours that I'm not sure I'll be able to go into the level of detail I would like, so I'll have to summarize as best I can. We pulled into the Dudognon house yesterday evening for a wonderful dinner appointment, complete with table setting and meal in front of their small alambic still. We've been here before, so there was no need to take a tour of the grounds, just enjoy the company of the wonderful couple and have some great food: mushroom soup, rabbit stew, and a few bottles of wine. Oh....and some Cognac.

If you read the blog last January when we visited Dudognon then you'll know they're one of the few producers in the region that does not color their brandy with caramel or add boisé – a substance made with water, sugar, oak chips, and sometimes Cognac to both darken and sweeten the flavor. The result is a light-colored, light-bodied, unadulterated style of spirit that is unlike any other we've tasted in Cognac. Because of its delicate nature the brandy from Dudognon takes at least twenty years in the barrel before wonderful things start happening. Like fine wine, there is no way to speed up the maturation process. You can add all the new oak, sugar, and artificial flavors you want, but it's not going to help. Ironically enough, a foreign client wanted to buy some ancient Dudognon spirit to create his own brand called "The Most Expensive Cognac in the World." You can see the bottle he used above. He charged a ton of cash for what is probably the least accessible Cognac in production because it absolutely isn't what people expect from most Cognac. Couldn't he have found some coffee-colored, oversweet cheap stuff for that gold and diamond-covered flask? Not that Claudine is complaining!

Unlike last year, this time we'll probably be purchasing some mature Cognac direct from the Chateau. The Reserve des Ancetres is a 20+ year old blend that showcases the purity of fruit found in both Grande Champagne and Dudognon expressions with enough richness to please most general palates. I think everyone will be quite pleased.

After a late night we woke up early for our appointment with Daniel Bouju – a producer in the region we heard was bottling cask strength brandy without caramel. We were very excited.

Francois Bouju is the man running the show these days. He's incredibly nice, knows a lot about distillation, taught me a great deal about the region and its wines, and impressed me beyond any expectation I had going in.

His vines are planted in the best soils – rich limestone which helps to preserve acidity in the fruit – and he is a stickler for detail. The reason the Grand Champagne region makes what is considered the best Cognac is because the soil creates grapes that are fully ripe with high acidity levels and low alcohol. This is important because distillation is about concentrating the flavor of a base substance. If you've got a wine sitting in a tank oxidizing, you're going to have an oxidized flavor in the Cognac. High acidity levels help prevent oxidation while distillation is taking place and prevent the need for stabilizing sulfur (none of us want to taste a distilled fart). At the same time, you need wine with a low alcohol level as to not overpower the flavor of the fruit. Full ripeness is also necessary to have any flavor at all. You can't simply pick early to preserve acidity because your wine will taste terrible. 

The first Cognac we tasted was a pure, clean, fruity, five year old brandy that showcased everything we had heard Francois talk about earlier. This spirit proved that he knew how to make brandy. It was the next ten Cognacs, however, that had us scratching our heads. Dark, black, sherry-colored ten year olds with little richness covered the table on a tray with clean glassware. "This color comes from the new oak, which our Cognac spends the first year and half in," he told us. Bouju doesn't use caramel coloring, but we know that most people are still doing so. It seems that the use of caramel coloring or boisé has become the PED of the Cognac world. Everyone uses it, but everyone denies that they do! You can't blame them, really. Their booze simply doesn't taste all that great in its youth unless you've either done something masterful or expensive, so it's harder to sell until older. However, why bat .250 with 10 HRs and 50 RBIs when you can win the Triple Crown in your rookie year? It was quite a disappointment to say the least. However, we were very impressed with the young, less-manipulated spirits so we'll likely be bringing those in to K&L. For the price, there's very little than can compete with this guy.

After Bouju we made the three hour drive through Bordeaux down to Armagnac – the Tenereze region in particular.

Driving up the road to Pellehaut you pass through the vineyards of Folle Blanche leading up towards the main facility. Today the air was clear and, although I couldn't capture it in the photo, you could see all the way to the Pyrenees with their snow-capped peaks.

Pellehaut is a large producer of Gascogne wine and has quite a modern tasting bar with lots of different spirits as well. Again, we had visited the site last January so we didn't need to bother with a detailed tour. We simply needed more Armagnac to supplement our outrageously good 1973 selection (currently sold out but on reorder).

One of the most surprising selections was a new blend of young Folle Blanche brandies called the L'Age de Glace or "the ice age."  I didn't realize that was the translation so I said stupily, "You know, this would taste really good on the rocks!" Duh, said Charles and David, hence the name. This might get down to the sub-$30 range if we can make a deal. It's quite fruity, fragrant, and clean, and would make a much better Sidecar or French 75 cocktail than an oversweet, boisé-laden brand selection would. Hopefully we can make this happen.

After Pellehaut, Charles told us he wanted to try meeting up with a very small farmer with a property called Pouchégu. The driveway led beyond a small hill towards a rustic country estate.

Pierre Laporte is about done distilling brandy at Pouchegu. He doesn't own a still, choosing to hire a traveling distiller who drives one up to his property, and feels he probably has enough stock to retire on at this point. What's left is absolutely magnificent. Rich, powerful, structured Armagnacs that bring the goods with every sip. The packaging is also fantastic.

The 1986 and 1973 vintages from Pouchegu were the most impressive of the lot and we told Pierre we wanted this beautiful white labels on the bottles. The 1986 was supple, dark fruited, brimming with cocoa and full of spice. It went on forever. The 1973 was like a Parker's Heritage Bourbon with huge spice and powerful alcohol. We were instantly hooked.

From there it was on to Montreal where my lost suitcase was waiting for me! We went into town and had a three hour dinner, but now I'm back at the hotel typing this up and answering emails. Since I don't speak French I'm letting Charles and David do the socializing. It's also midnight right now and my eyes are closing as I type this.

More tomorrow!

-David Driscoll


France 2013 - Day 2 - Another Day Upon Us

Staying at a picturesque country home in the middle of the French countryside is fantastic. I'm so used to shopping at stores like Anthropologie in the states, however, that I'm forgetting this is the real thing. It's not a store front or a display. This actually is the romantic setting American retailers are trying to recreate!

We're off to a few more Cognac houses today, then down to Armagnac this evening. More to report then!

-David Driscoll


France 2013 - Day 1 - Old Friends/New Friends

Despite losing our luggage and having no change of clothes, we left Bordeaux, drove for an hour or so, and pulled into the driveway of one of our most successful direct imports from Cognac: Jacques Esteve. The Coup de Coeur Cognac from Esteve has been a huge hit at K&L throughout 2012. It's put our brandy section on the map. It was time to meet up again with Mr. Esteve and see what else could be added to the selection.

Esteve's property is unassuming. It blends into the rest of the small village where both his home and distillery reside. Sitting on the border of Petit Champagne and Grand Champagne, divided by only a small river, his grapes grow in a very mineral, limestone-rich soil, making his base wine very similar to the GC profile: high-acid, low-alcohol, full-flavor.

The best distillates from Cognac take decades to fully mature. While wines evolve in the bottle, Cognac will change in the barrel. I know what you're thinking: David, all spirits mature in wood. However, Cognac gets tight in its youth and can shut down at certain ages, much like wine. You might buy a case of 2005 Bordeaux, only to find that the wines are tannic and closed in their flavor profile. You simply opened the bottle at the wrong time. Cognac can be the same way. 8-12 year old barrels can be quite unforgiving and neutral. However, another ten years can change things completely. The perfumy fruit comes out and the Cognac reaches its true potential.

Esteve Plentitude. Made of 100 year old Cognacs as well as pre-Phylloxora juice. That's some really, really, really, really, really old shit. And it tastes pretty good, too. We'll probably grab a few bottles of this guy, along with some more affordable Esteve expressions. However, it was time to move on towards a new producer we were interested in.

The vineyards of Ragnaud-Sabourin stretch far over the hills in Grand Champage. 33 hectares of Ugni Blanc with a bit of Folle Blanche as far as the eye can see. This estate is known throughout France as having the goods. Would there be anything on hand for the two Davids?

I know what you might be thinking. Ragnaud? That sounds familiar. True. Last year's trip resulted in some amazing products from Raymond Ragnaud. This Chateau is indeed related. The original owner of the estate, Gaston Briand, had a daughter who married a man named Marcel Ragnaud – brother of Raymond. Marcel passed away unfortunately in 1996 and left the estate to his daughter Annie. She married Mr. Sabourin and, voilée, the Ragnaud-Sabourin Cognac house was born.

Annie still runs the tasting bar and these Cognacs are seriously legit. They easily form one of the most polished GC collections I've ever tasted. Refined, rich, but elegant.

The local warehouses are dark, dingy, and full of booze

The still is a classic alambic.

The estate is picturesque and the juice is bangin'. There's a 35 year old expression we should be able to sell for about $150 that is among the best Cognacs I have ever tasted. However, there's no time to talk about that now. I'm exhaused. We had dinner with the Dudognons tonight and it's been a late one. Time to hit the hay.

More tomorrow!

-David Driscoll


From Scotland to France

I'm sitting at the airport in Bordeaux right now. Charles is getting the car. David is checking information on his phone. We have no suitcases because the connection from Paris was so cutthroat that Air France couldn't transfer them over in time. Charles had the bags sent to his mother-in-law's place in Armagnac. Meanwhile, however, we're on to Cognac. That means one night with a complementary Air France T-shirt along with personal toiletry kit. It's no worry, however. We're professionals.

We had a few more important appointments in Scotland back in the Edinburgh area, but I can't fill you in on too much at the moment. Because sourcing casks had become seriously difficult, we're not really keen on informing the rest of the industry about our newest connections. Needless to say when we can eliminate as much of the three-tier system as possible our customers benefit from great pricing. There should be some fantastic deals on the way if we can get everything worked out as planned.

It's interesting to listen to bottlers talk about other bottlers in the business. It's really no different than retailer talk. Such-and-such store down the street has a great deal on Lagavulin, that's bullshit, how did they get that price, etc. There's a certain jealousy factor going on as well as a sense of awe. When one bottler scores a barrel of something special it sends shockwaves throughout the industry

I just got the sign that we're leaving. More later!

-David Driscoll


Scotland 2013 - Day 7 - The Last King of the Lowlands

Of all the regions hit hardest by the recent snowstorms, the Isle of Arran, Kintyre Peninsula, and Lowlands where at the top of the list. Just a few days ago this area was buried in powder. Now when I say Lowlands, I'm not talking about Auchentoshan or Glenkinchie Lowlands. Those distilleries are no further South than Glasgow or Edinburgh. Even the newest Lowlander, Daftmill, is due North of these cities - on a longitude with Glen Goyne, which is considered a Highland whisky. Yet, the Lowlands still remains a geographical whisky-producing region, despite the fact that the true South of Scotland contains only one distillery currently releasing single malt expressions.

The town of Girvan has a distillery. A gigantic grain operation run by William Grant (some K&L customers might remember the Girvan grain cask we did a few years back). Ladyburn used to be inside of this facility. Grant has recently build a new Lowlander named Ailsa Bay, which sits next door, but that whisky has yet to mature into anything yet. Another small operation, Annandale, was recently founded deep in the Lowlands as well, but it too is still too young to release any whisky of merit.

The South of Scotland isn't a very populated region. About 25,000 people live in a 100 square mile radius. There's not much of an economy down there unless you're a farmer, a plumber, an electrician, or a butcher.

The coastline is completely barren in some places. Some parts look across to the Isle or Arran and at other places you can see Northern Ireland. It is deep within this part of Scotland, almost down near the border with England, that you can find one of the true Lowland distilleries in the Lowlands. It's not near anything you'd want to visit as a tourist and it's not on the way to anywhere else. You need to make the effort if you're going to visit this facility.

The river Bladnoch flows through the town bearing the same name. Immediately situated upon this waterway sits the eponymous distillery, a mysterious distillery that has been the subject of much rumor and drama over the past few years. Takeovers, familiy feuds, buyouts, reopenings, closures, and fist-fights have all made their way into this distillery's recent whisky lore. What was once a Diageo operation was purchased by the Armstrong brothers in 1994 and nothing has gone as planned ever since.

We didn't really have an appointment at Bladnoch. Getting the current operation manager on the phone isn't possible. He doesn't answer email either. However, after a series of successful independently-bottled Bladnoch bottlings that have had K&L customers singing their praises, we knew we needed to get into this distillery. We knew it was family-owned. We just didn't know the extent to which this family's internal fighting had affected operations. The story of Bladnoch over the past decade is absolutely insane. It's so over the top that I don't really feel comfortable reporting the details here on this blog.

Did we make it in to the distillery? You bet we did. Did we sample casks? Yes. Apparently, getting the chance to purchase booze from Bladnoch depends upon which brother is operating the site that day. Do we plan on getting some whisky directly from the distillery into the states? Yes we do. That's the important part.

What some may not know, however, is that Bladnoch is effectively a silent distillery. They haven't operated the stills in more than three years, actually. The inability for the two Armstrong brothers to agree on a direction has put a complete halt on operations, but the whisky they've distilled over the past ten years is outstanding. We've all (at least us in the industry) heard stories about the current situation. We've tasted some of the current distillery bottlings (not all that impressive). That's not what's happening in the barrel, however. The lukewarm reception to the current expressions is based upon weak blending skills, not distillation or maturation.

You'll see what we mean later this year. When we bring the first post-Diageo Bladnoch distillate to California, you'll all be believers, too.

More on this later.

-David Driscoll