The cellars of wine and spirit merchant Berry Bros & Rudd in Mayfair hide many treasures. In the bowels of this gloriously askew and richly storied house on St James’s Street, bottles lie hibernating under fine layers of dust, ready to quench the thirst of the Berry family over a jolly good lunch or dinner (this particular liquid bounty is for their private consumption). As senior sales and spirits buyer Rob Whitehead points to the oldest cognac – one can just make out from the time-ravaged label that it is an 1830 Berry Bros Grande Champagne – he explains the allure of this sublimely elegant spirit. “Until the early 20th century, cognac was the spirit of royalty and high society. Whisky, its main rival today, was in comparison the drink of the working classes.”
Upstairs, Whitehead shows off the 70 or so cognacs that are for sale, including a Delamain Le Voyage (£5,250 for 70cl), considered by many to be the best on the market, and some by highly regarded smaller houses such as Peyrat and Tesseron. “In terms of taste, structure and character, cognac is the most graceful, poised and erudite of all spirits in the way it is produced,” says Whitehead. Customers tend to agree, seduced by its smooth, silky draw. “In the past two years there has been a global increase in interest in boutique cognacs,” says spirits consultant Edward Bates. “The market is still small, but people who were drinking only whisky or rum before are now saying, ‘Talk to me about cognac’, and they also want to try the smaller houses.”
“There are so many different styles of cognac,” says Salvatore Calabrese of Salvatore’s Bar at the Playboy Club and author of Cognac: A Liquid History (£14.55, Cassell). “Small houses have always fed the bigger ones, but today there’s such an awareness of refined cognac that even the smaller houses, which produce their own unique versions of the spirit, are trying to market themselves to a wider audience.”
Cognac is produced mainly from Ugni Blanc grapes and is made up of a blend of eaux de vie. It must be twice distilled in copper stills and aged for at least two years in French-oak barrels. It’s an AOC-controlled spirit from six cognac regions in southwest France, the most prestigious of which is Grande Champagne. Unlike armagnac, which is often sold as a vintage, cognac rarely carries an age statement and the art of the master taster is knowing which eaux de vie to blend. VSOP denotes one in which the youngest eau de vie was stored for at least four years. An XO is one in which the youngest was stored for at least six years but on average for upwards of 20 (in 2016, that minimum storage period will be 10 years). Cognacs are often divided into pre- and post-phylloxera varieties (the phylloxera insect blighted many vineyards in the mid-19th century). Pre-phylloxera cognacs, prior to 1873, came from grapes such as Colombard and Folle Blanche, which lent a sweeter tone, whereas those made after tend to be drier.
So, what to buy? To kick off, Château de Montifaud XO (£72.50 for 70cl from Gerry’s) from Petite Champagne is a blend of 30-to-35-year-oldeaux de vie and is fruity with a soft finish of toasted almonds, aromatic spice and maple syrup. Tiffon Vieux Supérieur (£110 for 70cl from The Whisky Exchange) is a fantastic all-rounder with layer upon layer of flavours, including plum, and an elongated caramel finish. François Voyer’s easy-on-the-palate XO (£96.50 for 70cl from Amathus), meanwhile, has a smooth, woody taste packed with ginger and walnuts. Tesseron Lot 90 (£65 for 70cl from Berry Bros & Rudd) is made by Alfred Tesseron, the Bordeaux producer of Château Pontet Canet, and benefits from a long ageing in oak, lending it a toasted richness with a satisfying treacly aroma.
One notch up takes you to bottles such as Hine Grande Champagne 1975 (£325 for 70cl from Berry Bros & Rudd), a punchy cognac full of robust spices and oak. Frapin Extra (£410 for 70cl from The Whisky Exchange) is a big and brooding classic postprandial tipple, as is Delamain Très Vénérable (£250 for 70cl from Berry Bros & Rudd), with its vanilla and honey notes. Ragnaud Sabourin Paradis (£775 for 70cl from The Whisky Exchange), in its own decanter, will stand out on the drinks cabinet and on the palate with its rich fruitiness. One of the rarer bottlings from Hennessy, which celebrates its 250th anniversary next year, is the wonderfully elegant Paradis (£1,361 for 150cl from Hedonism Wines) with peppery notes and hints of dried flowers. Or there’s the limited-edition Hennessy XO Exclusive Collection by Tom Dixon (£200 for 70cl from Fortnum & Mason), a fine cognac packed with pepper and fruitcake and in a stylish silver carafe created by the designer.
But for real showstoppers, look no further than the aforementioned Delamain Le Voyage, which, as well as being exceptionally smooth, packs a leathery, berry punch and comes in a Baccarat decanter inside a fan-shaped box. Hedonism Wines has a fine selection of upper-end cognacs, including the elegant Tesseron Extrème (£2,925 for 175cl), a rich, smoky but mellow cognac with an abundance of nuts and spices and a satisfying finish that endures. Meanwhile, Rémy Martin’s Louis XIII Rare Cask 42.6 (£17,500 for 70cl from The Whisky Exchange), in a bottling of 738, comes in a black crystal decanter and is made from 40-to-100-year-old eaux de vie. Supremely silky, it was Churchill’s choice to celebrate winning the 1951 election.
If it’s vintage you are after, Salvatore’s Bar has one of the most exceptional collections of aged cognac, from a 1948 Otard (£130 for 50ml) to a 1788 Clos de Griffier Vieux (£5,000 for 50ml). It also holds tastings and will source and curate a collection for clients. An amazing bottle to behold is the AE Dor 1818 (£2,999 for 70cl from The Whisky Exchange), distilled five decades before phylloxera struck.
As for how one drinks cognac, opinions differ. For some, it is best supped slowly at room temperature from a tulip glass; for others, only a balloon glass will do. The classic pairing is with a fine cigar. A noble gift for cognac virgins who love their Cubans is a bespoke cognac and cigar tasting at the Bulgari Hotel, where sommelier Mike Choi will tailor-make spirit and cigar tastings (from £65) with boutique cognac brands such as Croizet.
For those who wish to add a cube of ice, Calabrese suggests sampling a VSOP, and to savour it: “It is like a journey, on the lips is the first experience, then it goes into the middle palate and starts to grow. You start to pick up hints of individual flavours: spices, leather, vanilla. Then there’s the incredible aftertaste.” Whitehead believes, first and foremost, that drinking cognac should be a shared experience with loved ones. “Why does someone spend £5,000 on 70ml of cognac?” he says. “They do that because it’s delicious – but mainly they do it to share the pleasure.” Conviviality is the point.