A Night with Courvoisier: An Essence of History & Soul
A good glass of Cognac has a life to it. There’s heft and zip that come from more than just the liquid you drink – a great Cognac has the weight of history and a vibrancy that you can taste and sense as you sip. My fellow K&L spirits liaison, Jackson Lee, and I experienced the many faces Cognac has to offer – all its nuances, shades, and depths – at a dinner in San Francisco for Courvoisier’s L’Essence.
Those qualities of depth and distinction, of subtlety and variety, were on display in every aspect of the evening from the conversation to the food to the beverages. There was so much going on and everything was balanced with expert fashion. The night’s events were hosted by Chef George Chen and his Eight Tables restaurant staff at their amazing location in the city. Guests were escorted up to the restaurant lounge where we mingled over cocktails.
The bartenders at Eight Tables mixed Courvoisier VS into a drink called Midnight in Paris and mixed the VSOP in a superb French 75. Sipping and looking out at the city skyline at dusk offered the chance of reflection; this was a moment to highlight Courvoisier’s range of styles presented in two very distinct cocktails. The lighter, floral qualities of the VS made the Midnight in Paris buoyant and refreshing, while the heft and darker spice notes of the VSOP really defined the French 75. Chef Chen and his wife were on hand (whenever George’s expertise was not required in the kitchen) and we got to learn a little about the restaurant’s attitude and aesthetic. The décor is quite deliberately a mix of classic, elegant Chinese art with fixtures and style reminiscent of Bladerunner. In a parallel way, Chef Chen’s food reflects a reverence for traditional Chinese cuisine elevated with a modern twist.
Similar notions of combination and recombination were at play in the special menu for the night. Each course was expertly paired with a different Courvoisier Cognac to elevate each flavor component of both dish and spirit. The peak of this was the Courvoisier XO braised pork belly served over wilted spinach with WuChang pop fried rice, paired with Courvoisier XO. Remarking on table settings and flower arrangements during dinner, someone asked the evening’s guest of honor, Courvoisier Master Blender Patrice Pinet, if we were at a wedding. Patrice replied enthusiastically: “Are we celebrating a wedding? Well, yes! We are having a marriage of Courvoisier and fine food.”
Patrice’s tenure as Courvoisier’s Master Blender has been a long journey steeped in tradition as well as progress. He has been Master Blender for the last nine years; before taking the helm, Patrice studied under the previous Master Blender for twenty-one years. It’s his responsibility and pleasure to keep track of the maturation of Courvoisier’s stock of aging Cognacs, making sure each barrel is kept for the proper amount of time to express its individual peak flavors and aromas. It takes an adept palate to combine the correct barrels in order to maintain the flavor consistency in Courvoisier’s signature lineup. To do this, Patrice’s work begins well before any spirit is distilled. He guides Courvoisier as they work with over 80 different wine growers to acquire the grapes needed for their Cognac, meaning that he must consider varietal, terroir, and the particularities of each growing season. After distillation, he carefully tracks every barrel’s age, taking into account its location and temperature in the rackhouse where the Cognac matures.
Through all these practical and creative considerations, Patrice is constantly thinking about the future direction of Courvoisier and defining his philosophy as a steward of this Cognac house. He told us that it was “a big emotion and big responsibility” to take over as Master Blender. Patrice feels that his task is to consider the “evolution of consumption” for Cognac in general and Courvoisier in particular. When viewing Cognac as a category, he has ambitions of further distinguishing Cognac from Whisky as an aged spirit while also expanding Cognac’s appeal to Whisky drinkers. He also wants people to more thoughtfully explore how Cognac is sipped and how it’s put to use in cocktails.
So it goes that it also takes tremendous skill to understand how to combine that existing stock of Cognacs to create something new that maintains both the vision of the cognac house as much as it excites, and this is what Patrice has attempted with Courvoisier L’Essence. Patrice began the creation of L’Essence with the previous Master Blender over nine years ago, so this expression of Cognac really represents the history and legacy that he has had in his time with Courvoisier. L’Essence contains only grapes from the acclaimed Grande Champagne and Borderies regions, and blends barrels of Cognac from a range of ages dating back to the early 1900s. The different Cognacs going into L’Essence comprise many styles and ages, so the Master Blender needs to let this mixture sit, meld, and mature in a long marriage.
For Patrice, L’Essence represents “the soul and the knowledge of Cognac.” In terms of its flavor profile, this expression contains all the qualities that one can find in the rest of the Courvoisier range and then some. As Jackson and I talked with the other diners at our table, we noted scents and tastes of crème brulee, candied dates, almond, lilies, violets, orange, dark wildflower honey, and savory qualities of toasted wood, earthy spices, and dried tobacco leaves. Sipping L’Essence while talking with Patrice and the other guests was a wonderful way to complete the meal and the evening. Whether he’s working at Courvoisier or out for fun, when Patrice drinks a Cognac he’s constantly thinking about the flavors, but also the experience he’s having and “the history of the spirit.” L’Essence properly captures the Master Blender’s philosophy of approaching Cognac, tradition, evolution, and a great experience.