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Spirits Articles

Cone-Yak
(That’s how it’s pronounced)

Posted: February 27, 2014

By Terry Sullivan, Very Special to BTI

Well, Cognac, from the town of the same name. It’s called brandy, or eau de vie, when it’s out of town, but the best grape spirit in the world, by popular consensus, is cooked up in the fields surrounding Cognac in more or less concentric circles, starting with Grande Champagne and the Borderies in the bulls-eye with Petite Champagne, Fins Bois, Bon Bois and Bois Ordinaire circling it. The middle has the chalkiest soils, giving way to alluvial sand on the outskirts, and it’s chalk—limestone--which makes for the best water (ask about this in Kentucky) and rocks in general that give the vines a hard way to go, and grow, which makes for the best grapes and wines. (Ask the folks in the Medoc.)

And when you put that soil together with pretty little copper-pot alembic stills--onion-shaped beauties sometimes not all that much bigger than those onions they grow in Georgia--and then give the distillate to the most patient spirit blenders on the planet, it almost doesn’t matter what the grapes were in the first place. Which is a good thing, since most of the wine is made from ugni blanc (it’s trebianno to your cousins in Piemonte, and it goes by a whole bunch of names in other places) and some others you never heard of, none of them particularly impressive when squeezed. The magic happens in the barrels, the French-oak barrels, by law, and in the noses of the people blending the product. And those noses are older than the French oak in the barrels: some of the families in this game have been sniffing brandy since the 17th century. Call it fourteen or fifteen generations. You go back that far in my family and you find people on caves painting themselves blue, but the French were already writing tasting notes.

And the notes were probably beautiful, too. One of the things that struck me most about Cognac warehouses was how stunning the chalk (again with the chalk) notes on the barrels were. In Kentucky and in Scotland, they stencil dates on the barrels, or more recently staple UPC stripes. In the warehouses I visited along the Charente, the dates and names were in graceful, elegant script. Like monks doing illuminated manuscripts, or my grandfather’s perfect copperplate hand, prettier than Palmer, and older. You could Google some pictures (not of my grandfather’s handwriting, but of those barrels full of brandy) and you should.

Where was I? Yes, French blenders. They’ve been in the business for over 300 years and they’re in it for the long haul. Some of those dates on those barrels I saw were written while I was in college and, without citing my actual age, I assure you that in Cognac terms I am, if not clearly Superior, certainly Very Old and Pale. They routinely shop among barrels that are 40 or 50 years old, and a mere 25-year-old spirit they sniff at the way some of us sniff at 25-year-olds in general.

They’re also very proprietary. Call them the Anti-Scots, who I think of as the most generous of all distillers. I once told a Islay whisky maker that I had visited most distilleries on the island, but had never been to Caol Isla. He left the room and came back in ten minutes to tell me he’d arranged a car and driver to take me there, where they would show me around and buy me lunch the next day. (And yes, he paid for the car.) Some years later, I was sitting in a tasting room in Jarnac, just down the Charente from Cognac, and was looking at a staggeringly lovely old warehouse across the river. “Is that one of yours?” I asked and was told no, and I when wondered aloud whose it was, he said “someone else’s.”. Which is not to say they don’t love one another, but my impression is that while your seasoned malt maker may have worked for any number of distilleries and with many hundreds of people, the Cognac game is a collection of family businesses, certainly in the smaller houses. I once asked another blender about Armagnac and he launched into a 40-minute history of Cognac and then said “and Armagnac is…well…Armagnac is just Armagnac.”

None of which matters, of course, compared to what’s in the bottles on your shelves. These are all just tales out of school, but people like that sort of inside baseball stuff, if you’ll pardon overmixed metaphors, and what’s a writer for, after all? And the stuff in the bottles from Cognac is, at least from the best producers, world-class. A gentleman scribe whose opinion I hold in high regard once said, right out loud in a room full of non-Scot and non-French spirits professionals, that there are two genuinely great spirits: malt whiskey and Cognac, and that everything else is chasing them. You’ll get serious arguments about Bourbon, and in some quarters Tequila and rums, but it remains true that an awful lot of what gets poured down throats is the result of cooking up what’s growing locally and hoping for the best. Not that I’m naming names.

And before you call to complain, remember that, as they say in Brooklyn, where my grandfather with the beautiful handwriting grew up, I don’t mean that in no bad way.

Below are links to Tastings.com’s latest Cognac reviews with patent penned tasting notes that put the yak in Cognac:

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