Some Final Thoughts

I pulled out the stock market trader analogy at dinner again last night: the idea of buying when the market is low and selling when the market is high. Scottish single malt whisky is like Apple stock right now – you want in? You'll be paying a premium price per share. American whiskey is relatively inexpensive, but there's no stock available. French brandy, on the other hand, with backwoods Armagnac producers selling off 20+ year old barrels for American whisky prices, is where you want to buy in. If you don't like brandy and you only prefer to drink Scotch, well.....we don't have good news for you. Our first round of pricing came back for some of the casks we tasted and they're not cheap. With the Pound/Dollar ratio in the toilet and the scarcity of quality mature whisky where it is, don't expect many deals with this year's crop. We're looking into a few strategies, but the price is the price. These are the moments when I always tell drinkers to diversify their portfoio if they want value. Try developing some new tastes for different spirits. There are plenty of new adventures out there. Look at what we've been tasting over the last week, for God's sake! 

With whisky bottlers dipping into their younger stocks and realizing there are some tasty selections available to them, it's clear that necessity is the mother of invention. The world wants more booze and producers are looking to give it to them. But you don't have to settle for less. That's the whole point of us being here right now – to find out the truth behind what's being said. Is there really not much mature whisky available? It seems so – at least for us to purchase. But so much of what people "want" to drink is based on what they've been told is good. Old whisky is better than young whisky. Grand Champagne Cognac is better than Bon Bois. Grand Cru Montrachet is better than Premier Cru Chablis. These aren't so much truths as they are simplifications, as in most of the time these generalizations are correct (according to the experts). But who's going to question them? Who's going to actually taste through all the examples to see if the rule holds true? Who's going to do side-by-side comparisons to look for the exceptions? Because if Bon Bois Cognac isn't as good as Grand Champagne then it shouldn't cost as much (wink wink). 

One thing that's clear to me after the past two weeks is that the wine and spirits industry is still dominated by a classism that is hardly ever checked. It's that built-in reputation for quality, right or wrong, that allows shitty Grand Champagne producers to sell their shitty Cognac for $100, while the Borderies guy with great juice is forced to settle for less. The branded names of whisky's pantheon can skate by with mediocre booze that no one questions because, hey, they're supposed to be the best! Who are you to say otherwise? Who am I? I'm just a loud-mouthed guy who works in a liquor store. What do I know? I know that you can drink good booze for great prices if you're willing to look outside the box, so ultimately I'm fine with these classist beliefs. 

The longer people keep thinking they're drinking the best, the more we can keep flying under the radar, providing you – our customers – with great stuff at great prices.

That's it. We're off to the airport. See you later.

-David Driscoll


France – Day 7: The Way Forward

Today we had two final appointments in Cognac; the first was with a negociant (independent bottler) in the town of Saintes called Grosperrin. We were impressed from the moment we walked in to their downtown retail store and saw their carefully curated selection of fine spirits. In France, you can be a retailer, and a distributor, and an independent bottler -- there are no legal restrictions separating these parties. Therefore, Grosperrin has its finger in a number of pies. One of them is the new forward-thinking Cognac market -- a collection of producers and bottlers who are exploring new varietals, brut de fut (cask strength), less caramel coloring, and more modern marketing.

Walking down the stairs and underneath the main store, you'll find a number of casks and demijohns full of various Cognac expressions, purchased from various estates and warehouses across the region. Grosperrin puts the name of the appellation, producer, vintage, and varietal on each of their independent bottlings, making them one of the first of their kind in the business. We tasted a few very appealing selections and we think at least two or three of them will make it into K&L. The pricing was quite fair for such intriguing spirits.

Our last appointment was with a larger Bon Bois producer called Vallein, who has multiple stills and sells much of its liquid to Courvoisier. We had run the Grand Champagne and Petit Champagne gambit as far as possible. It was time to venture out further into the outer regions of Cognac, despite our disappointing experience yesterday. There had to be some quality hooch out in the countryside.

The estate at Vallein was rustic and beautiful, almost gothic. We almost got the feeling we were in a vampire movie while traversing the property. 

Stephane added to that feeling. He has piercing, sky-blue eyes, intensely-dark pupils, and some very-defined incisors. He could have been the next Christopher Lee, but he decided to marry into a large Cognac-distilling family and take up a quiet existence making fine spirits. We sampled a large number of brandies from various properties owned by Vallein, which had been distilled and matured separately into different expressions.

After two days of driving for hours on end, I realized one important fact about Cognac: it's very, very big! There are so many producers distilling brandy that we've barely scratched the surface of what's available. The orange and yellow-colored sections of the above map are Grand and Petit Champagne; the smaller off-white section above them is the Borderies. The rest of the outer blue region is all Fins Bois and Bon Bois, and I learned there are even islands off the coast of the Atlantic that also count as Cognac-producing regions.

We're seeing an increased awareness from a new generation of producers towards the expanding, boutique spirits market and a number of young distillers that are looking to reach those customers. I think the work we've done over the past few days will allow us to bring in some of those Cognacs for the K&L consumer base. We were very impressed with much of what we tasted and we think you'll be excited by what they have to offer -- especially for the prices we're looking at.

That's it! We're done. We've got two late flights tomorrow, which means we can sleep in for once! Then we can mosey our way over to CdG airport, catch the connector to Heathrow, and fly our behinds back to the west coast. I'll be back in the store this Saturday if anyone wants to talk shop.

We hope you've enjoyed following along with our journey. Now we hope you'll enjoy the fruits of this labor.

-David Driscoll


France – Day 6: Yackety Gnac

Cognac – the rich, successful, older brother to Armagnac who drives a Mercedes, wears a fancy suit, and travels the world in search of new export markets. I kid Cognac, but that doesn't mean that there isn't a hint of truth to the above statement. Over the past few decades, financial success has turned the brandies of the Charentes into mass-produced, overly-sweetened, highly-adulterated, and far less interesting spirits than those of the Gascogne. That doesn't mean we've given up on Cognac, however. It just means we have to look harder to find producers with integrity. We began our morning far outside the Grand Champagne region, in the outer zones of the Bon Bois. Andre Petit was first on a long list of new producers we wanted to visit.

"Are you talking about my Cognac? I don't see anyone else here."

If you've ever wondered where Robert DeNiro has been lately, the answer is: he's in the Cognac region distilling brandy. This isn't the best photo of Andre, but he looks so much like DeNiro circa The Deer Hunter that we couldn't really focus on his brandies. I thought his selections were fine, but you can really taste the difference in the fruit compared to Grand and Petit Champagne expressions. They were rich, but they didn't pop in the right places. We thought maybe the terror in Cognac was overrated, but we left strongly believing in everything we'd previously been told.

Next on the list was Michel Forgeron – a Grand Champagne producer who has been using single malt whisky as an inspiration for innovation. That was music to our ears. We've been telling producers for years that they should take a page from Scotland and try new concepts like single barrel, cask strength, vintage-dated releases, or single vineyard expressions. Michel has all four currently for sale in his gift shop. 

I can safely say right now that you'll be seeing the Cognacs of Forgeron on K&L shelves very soon. Most of his expressions were proofed from 45% to 50% and were clearly marked with dates and maturity levels. The brandies were spicy, rich, fruity, and completely balanced with the alcohol. We asked him why other producers weren't following his lead, looking to bring Cognac into the next generation.

"Most of these producers don't even drink Cognac," he answered. "They do it because they were born into it. They don't even like Cognac, most of them."

Wow. What an indictment!

Whereas Forgeron is going to excite the dedicated spirits geeks with raw power, Claude Thorin is going to wow you with nuance. His Grand Champagne expressions are incredibly pure and they're insanely inexpensive. Not only are they delicious and value-priced, they're also a bit outside the norm. Claude has also been toying around with single vintage, single varietal, and unsweetened expressions. We tasted a 2002 100% folle blanche expression that was so delicate it brought a tear to our eye.

I think the most exciting part for us was his standard line-up of VS, VSOP, and XO. We should be able to get these on the shelf for $30, $40, and $50 a bottle. And did I mention they're great?

We were dragging a bit by the afternoon, but we put our game faces on and powered ahead to the Borderies and Fin Bois regions where Francois Giboin creates rustic, old school brandies with earth, power, and panache. 

The soil in the Borderies region is much different than the chalky terrain of Grand Champagne. It's mostly gypsum – a calcium-based mineral that spawns a more rugged, yet fruity distillate. We were captivated by some of the single barrel selections we sampled and very interested in his standard Fin Bois vintage expressions.

Every producer we visited today was daring to branch out from the standard VS, VSOP, and XO handcuffs. Each of them was forward-thinking and open-minded, and all were scaling back on the boise. This made us very optimistic for the future of the spirit. There is room for the purity-minded spirits geek in Cognac, we believe.

Of course, we had to visit our old friend Jacques Esteve – the gentle giant behind our top-selling K&L exclusive releases. His Petit Champagne selections have been wonderful additions to our spirit shelves and customers have come back again and again to reload. He's one of the nicest guys in the business and we want to possibly expand on the business we've already done. Kyle was very impressed with the new expressions we sampled.

"That guy is so nice and his Cognacs are good!" he exclaimed on the way to the car.

"It's nice doing business with people you like, isn't it?" I asked rhetorically.

-David Driscoll


France – Day 5: Age Worthy

For the third year in a row we arrived at the home of Claudine and Gerald at Dudognon, located in the heart of Cognac's Grand Champagne region. This time, however, it was just a social call. While we carry their general line-up of expressions and believe deeply in the quality of their distillates, we've had a tough time committing to something exclusive due to the uniqueness of their brandy. 

What makes Dudognon Cognac so distinct?

The fact that it's the purest Cognac in existence – no added sweeteners, no caramel coloring, and no boise.

That might sound like a bonus to purists (and it most definitely is), but not everyone is ready for what Grand Champagne Cognac tastes like when you leave it unadulterated. Whereas great wine needs to mature in the bottle, Grand Champagne Cognac – made from wines with extremely high acid content – needs time to mature in the cask. 

While those who know good Cognac applaud Dudognon and continue to purchase their selections, first-timers looking for soft and sweet oak juice get whacked over the head with reality. It's like drinking chardonnay with no malolactic fermentation or oak maturation – you realize what the actual liquid tastes like before its been sexed up and manipulated. That's not to say I have a problem with sweetened spirits because I don't. However, I don't get why a Cognac house would want to market the brilliance of a specific terroir, with its potential for greatness and nuance, then obliterate the flavors they pretend to celebrate.

For everyday drinkers like a VS or VSOP expression, a little sugar goes a long way. But why pay $200 for Grand Cru Burgundy if someone's just going to slap some new oak on it and drink it tomorrow?

Claudine and Gerald feel the same way about their Cognac, which is why they respect it by leaving it untouched. However, there's no denying that we still live in a world where quality and "Wow, that's smooth!" go hand-in-hand. 70% of the global population still thinks "if it doesn't burn, it must be good."

The easiest way to take the bite out of your brandy is by adding sugar, just like the best way to balance the acidity in wine is with riper fruit. But there are still a few folks left out there who are willing to put their wine bottles in a cellar, forget about them for a decade or two, and let them come around naturally. Lucky enough for those people, there are still a few Grand Champagne Cognac producers willing to do the same thing in cask. But how many consumers understand and appreciate brandy on the level necessary to support them?

At the end of the evening Claudine pulled out the only selection in her portfolio we had never tasted before: the Paulin – a 60 year old marriage of their oldest stocks at Dudognon, just released for the first time early last year. It was sublime. Heavenly. Rich and delicate in ways I had never thought possible, yet without a drop of sweetness on the palate. When someone can achieve that level of oak integration over time (only by creating a spirit capable of maintaining its character over six decades) you almost can't believe what you're tasting. The Paulin is easily the best brandy I've ever tasted – by a long shot. In my mind, it's a masterpiece that no other producer can touch. 

"This has never been sold in the United States?" I asked, unable to believe it.

It looks like we'll have to remedy that.

-David Driscoll 


France – Day 5: Separating the Pack

If you've shopped at K&L for Armagnac then you've definitely seen our numerous Pellehaut selections over the years. Located in the Tenereze region (just outside of Montreal where Charles's family lives), they're one of the larger producers in the area and they actually sell far more wine than brandy. However, large for the Tenereze is still smaller than Kilchoman on Islay – everything is relative, isn't it? We always do quite well with the Pellehaut selections because: 1) they're tasty; 2) they're inexpensive; and 3) they often taste quite similar to Bourbon. The 1996 selection we brought in last year was a huge hit with our American whiskey customers (we tasted it again today and we're still blown away by how much it tastes like mature Bourbon). We're working with the owners to add age statements to the front label, as you can see in the photo above. I think one of the reasons people don't buy Armagnac more often is because they don't realize how old these brandies are despite the vintage statement. "How can it be that cheap if it's thirty-two freakin' years old?!" they're thinking.

Look for a few new offerings from this year's trip including more of the 1973, some stellar 1978, and some tasty folle blanche selections from the mid-80s.

Appointment number two was a new face for us this year: Ladeveze out of Chateau Boubee. This father and son duo is actually located in the town of Montreal, just outside the main center, so it was odd that in all our time spent right nearby we had never visited the chai. Jean and his son Alexander are doing some very interesting things at Ladeveze, including higher warehouse maturation (evaporating more water to increase the proof of the spirit) and the planting of ultra-rare grape varietals for distillation. For example, they have a 1998 vintage made entirely from Plant de Graisse (apparently allowed by ancient appellation doctrine). 

We were stunned by the quality of the Armagnac at Ladeveze, so much so that we tasted through just about everything they had available. They're much more interested in cask strength brandy than any other producer we visited, which is right up our alley. The spirits had character, a certain liveliness, and lots of gusto. Whereas the Pellehaut brandies are soft and graceful, the Ladeveze brandies have punch and power. The only thing I'm currently worried about is the price. Judging from the tags in their gift shop they may be asking a lot for their selections (which makes sense because they're fantastic). The question we have to ask ourselves is: do our customers care enough about artisinal Armagnac to pay a little extra?

After stopping for lunch with Bernard and Vero (Charles's brother-in-law and wife) we headed out to our last Armagnac stop before heading north for Cognac (I'll have to do an entirely separate post about Bernard's food this time around -- we ate raw pork like it was Gascogne sushi). Laballe is an old estate that stopped operating once the grandfather of the Laudet family retired and his son decided not to follow in his footsteps. Laudet's grandson, however, has decided to restart the family heritage and invited us to come taste through the older and newer vintages.

Because of the stoppage between generations everything they have at Laballe is either quite old or quite young. We needed more value, however, so we paid particular attention to some of the basic VS and VSOP selections. We were very, very impressed by their precocious drinkability. The entry level spirits from Laudet might be the $30 base brandies we've been searching for over the last three years. I was very excited when we left. The Armagnacs had spice and richness without too much oak-dominated tannin. 

We just finished the three hour drive north, through Bordeaux, to the Grand Champagne region of Cognac. We'll be tasting with Dudognon tonight over dinner and hoping we can finally nail down an exclusive with Claudette.

More later!

-David Driscoll