This month we focus on 16 Cognacs, a substantial number of which come from distillers that are not exactly household names in the United States, as well as a savory quartet of European liqueurs.
France’s most prized and ubiquitous brandy, Cognac is a three-and-a-half-century-old industry that today is overwhelmingly dominated by four enormous companies: Hennessy, Remy Martin, Courvoisier and Martell. An astonishing 92 percent of all Cognac is exported, with the primary markets being Europe, North America and Asia.
Despite the commanding international influence of the so-called "Big Four," all of whom produce very good Cognacs, scores of little distillers are making their presence felt in the marketplace. Even though more than a few of the small-fry distillers sell brandy to the big guys, the Cognacs from this group of artisanal distillers that are held back and sold under their own labels are typically more idiosyncratic than offerings from the Big Four. The reason is simple: Smaller production usually means greater hands-on practice and attention to detail. As a result, the Cognacs of producers like Jean Fillioux, Lheraud, Raymond Dudognon, Delamain, and Frapin are sublimely intense and reflective of their places of origin, meaning the demarcated vineyard districts such as Grande Champagne, Petite Champagne, Borderies and Fins Bois, among others.
I admit flat out that I’ve never been an ardent admirer of liqueurs. Not having a sweet tooth may have something to do with it. Whatever the situation, when I do come across liqueurs that charge my light bulb, I feel compelled to pass that information along as quickly as possible. Here are four beauties from recent evaluations. Next month, we hit the Armagnac trail. Til then, bottoms up.
—F. Paul Pacult
CLASSIC (96-100) Highest Recommendation
Delamain Extra Grande Champagne Cognac (France; Kobrand Corporation, New York, NY); 40% abv, $140. The initial nosing is crisp, tart and apple-like, while in the second pass a tropical fruit rush is added. It’s only after 10 minutes of aeration that oak, spice and spirit get into the act, perfectly harmonizing with the fruit. In the mouth, the flavor starts dry and tart, then turns concentrated and sweet, even chocolatey. The aftertaste shows long, mildly sweet, mildly oaky flavors of caramel, wood and dried fruit. Worth twice the price.
Jean Fillioux Très Vieux Grande Champagne Cognac (France; A Frederick B. Seggerman Selection; Preiss Imports, Ramona, CA); 40% abv, $90. The brandies in this bottling are over two decades old. The opening bouquet is laden with tobacco leaf, vanilla extract and dried prunes. Rancio becomes apparent in the third nosing pass, in the husky perfume of hard cheese and old oak barrels. Toasty, smoky flavors of sugar biscuits, hard cheese and overripe grapes impress the taste buds on entry. By midpalate, flavors include vanilla bean, plums, black raisins, paraffin and rancio. Best Buy.
Otard XO Cognac (France; Bacardi-Martini, Miami, FL); 40% abv, $120. Aged for up to 30 years, this is a combination of Cognacs from Grande Champagne, Petite Champagne and the Borderies. The seductive nose has subtle, nuanced aromas of butter, bacon fat, and cheese. The second pass adds ripe red fruit plus the first faint evidence of rancio and then, after nine minutes of aeration, there’s full-throttle, blue-cheese-rancio richness. The taste at entry is actually richer than the aromas. Wave upon wave of toffee-like, cheesy, bacon fat and coffee flavors wash over the taste buds. This is sinewy, sleek, thoroughbred Cognac perfection.
SUPERB (90-95)/HIGHLY RECOMMENDED
Jean Fillioux Cep d’Or Grande Champagne Cognac (France; A Frederick B. Seggerman Selection; Preiss Imports, Ramona, CA); 40% abv, $75. Picture-perfect copper/bronze hue. The muscular, take-no-prisoners bouquet opens with scents of tobacco leaf, paraffin and buttery oak. By the third pass, traces of dried tropical fruit start to eclipse the wood. A last nosing displays aromas of opulent ripe fruit and old oak barrels. The entry is divinely sweet and not a bit cloying or heavy-handed. The vanilla oak plays the lead role midpalate, but allows dashes of dried pear and apricot to come through. The firm aftertaste is extended and rich in an almost-but-not-quite rancio manner.
Jean Fillioux Reserve Familiale Très Vieille Grande Champagne Cognac (France; A Frederick B. Seggerman Selection; Preiss Imports, Ramona, CA); 40% abv, $225. An oldy but a goody, at 45 years old. The first aromas are subtle hints of dried pear seated in an oaky base. With aeration, the second pass unearths fine, even delicate scents of rancio and hard cheese, while the third pass adds hints of citrus, moss, cedar and tobacco. The palate entry is softly sweet, as velvety flavors of raisins and citrus meld with the oak. The midpalate is sweet—in an oaky fashion—and very smooth. The finish is rather short and features old oak.
Lheraud Cuvée 20 Petite Champagne Cognac (France; Chrsitine Cooney, Lakeville, MA); 43% abv, $60. The opening aromas are biscuity, opulent and carameled. Faint traces of orange rind come into play in the second pass and the third nosing sees touches of rose petals and ripe red fruit. The palate entry is sweet, ripe, and concentrated in a fruity manner. By midpalate, the fruit element turns honeyed on the tongue and the spirit displays a bit of fire at the back of the throat. The aftertaste is long, luxurious and focused. Best Buy.
Marnier XO Grande Fine Champagne Cognac (France; Schieffelin & Somerset, New York, NY); 40% abv, $90. The opening aromas are of biscuits, bacon fat and baked fruit pie. With aeration, scents of banana, papaya, black pepper and roasted almonds appear. The entry is dry and full, then the flavor balloons into toasted, oaky roundness in the midpalate, as bacon fat, butter and sweet oak bulldoze the taste buds. The aftertaste is long, opulent, smoky, woody and sweet.
Raymond Dudognon Réserve des Ancetres Grande Fine Champagne Cognac (France; Charles Neal Selections, Oakland, CA); 40% abv, $120. The opening whiff reveals this distiller’s trademark biscuity/cake-like aromas. After a few minutes, this develops into a full-throttle bouquet, as notes of vanilla, paraffin, and ripe grapes fill the nose. The taste profile is sweet, fruity and intense.
Raymond Dudognon Vieille Réserve Grande Fine Champagne Cognac (France; Charles Neal Selections, Oakland, CA); 40% abv, $70. The bouquet begins with scents of cookie batter and resiny oak, which expand with aeration to reveal firm scents of oak, ripe grapes, tropical fruit and flowers. By the final nosing, the bouquet is laden with sumptuous notes of old oak, vanilla extract, dried flowers and ripe fruit. In the mouth, this beauty starts fast, with flavors of tart baked apples, oaky vanillin, and tropical fruit. The finish is clean and accented with a spicy note. Best Buy.
VERY GOOD (85-89)/RECOMMENDED
A. de Fussigny Ebony Blend Cognac (France: Jim Beam Brands, Deerfield, IL); 40% abv, $50. This is a VSOP-level Cognac that’s been aged in toasted Limousin oak barrels, thus it’s the color of cola. The opening aromas of cocoa and bittersweet chocolate turn dry and bitter in the second nosing. A third pass reveals unusual heavily toasted, almost sooty, aromatics. More pleasing in the mouth, where it starts out sweet, then goes unabashedly tar-like, smoky and bitter. The finish is long and intensely smoky—more pipe-like than cigar-like.
A. Hardy Red Corner Cognac (France; Hardy USA, Chicago, IL); 40% abv, $17. The brilliantly luminous new-copper-penny hue is dazzling. Assertive, winey aromas make you sit up and take notice at first sniff. A final nosing highlights an astringent, mature-wine note that adds an attractive spicy back note. On entry, astringent, bone-dry flavors of black pepper and spice greet the taste buds, while at midpalate a faint paraffin taste appears. The finish is austere, dry and medium-long. This would make a sophisticated before-dinner quaff on the rocks with a twist. Best Buy.
Frapin VS Cognac (France, Palm Bay Imports, Boca Raton, FL); 40% abv, $35. The bouquet immediately offers compelling hints of wafer, biscuit, dried fruits and nuts, later adding an appley scent and oak. The best VS bouquet this side of Martell and Giboin. The palate entry is graceful and understated, dry but firm, while the midpalate turns caramelly sweet, but not overly so. The finish is clean, fruity, semisweet, and very long. Puts to shame more than a few highly popular VSOPs and even the occasional XO. Best Buy.
Frapin VSOP Grande Champagne Cognac (France; Palm Bay Imports, Boca Raton, FL); 40% abv, $46. The opening whiffs whisper of fruit and oak. Then bits of ripe apple begin to emerge, with just a faint backdrop of spirit. The palate entry is substantial, firm and finely structured. When the flavors take shape midpalate, they are wonderfully fruity, spirity, oaky, resiny and sweet in a ripe-fruit manner. The aftertaste is long, fruity, and a touch cheesey, though this is not true rancio.
Otard VSOP Fine Champagne Cognac (France; Bacardi-Martini, Miami, FL); 40% abv, $37. The first sniff after the pour reveals an invitingly rich and biscuity bouquet. With aeration, a peppery snap enters the equation, and by the third nosing fresh violets dominate as the pepper quality recedes. At entry the biscuity quality gets translated perfectly to taste. The midpalate turns fruity, as sweet yellow fruit blankets the tongue in rich waves of flavor. The aftertaste is a bit short, acidic and lean, but warming nonetheless. Best Buy.
Remy Martin 1738 Accord Royal Fine Champagne Cognac (France; Remy Amerique, New York, NY); 40% abv, $70. The nose at opening is dry and resiny, but with aeration the spirit picks up steam and becomes almost prickly in a pleasing, zesty manner, finally revealing a charming hint of dried fruit. At entry, the fruit element rises up in a sweet, ripe fashion, then relinquishes its lead to the refined taste of old oak by midpalate. The finish is extended, intensely oaky/sweet and lush.
Marnier VS Cognac (France; Schieffelin & Somerset, New York, NY); 40% abv, $31. Begins with atypical but pleasent aromas of smoked oak, then adds in paraffin and spirit. A final nosing, after eight to ten minutes, reveals little deepening. At entry, the taste is dry and nutty, then a surge of sweet toffee and vanilla takes over. The midpalate sweetness that appears so abruptly and dominates so totally is problematic.