In my office cabinet rests a tiny bottle with a handwritten label. It holds about two sips of a brandy that retails for more than $15,000 per bottle. On the shelf above and below sit several dozen other vials with half ounces of Cognac or Armagnac—XOs, Hors d’Ages, 50-year-olds, Vieille Réserves—that typically sell for anywhere from $500 to $3,000 a bottle. In one vial remains a scant quarter-ounce of a pre-World War II Calvados that I have never seen for sale. It may actually be priceless.
To be clear, I am not a wealthy person.
I am a freelance food and drink writer who, even after two decades of experience, still lives a chaotic seat-of-the-pants existence. I have the great fortune to travel to Europe a half-dozen times a year to write about wine and spirits, but most of my life is a constant and creative juggling act to pay life’s expenses. The cost of sending my teenage son to college next year gives me night terrors.
The tiny bottles that arrive are uniform, standard. Absent is ostentatious label design.
And yet, here I am, with a library of miniatures of France’s finest and most expensive brandies, for no other reason than to write about them for people who have the resources to buy the full bottles. This is, of course, the reason that PR people and brand reps are happy to send along a small sample of a client’s product worth hundreds or thousands of dollars to a schlub like me.
The tiny bottles that arrive are uniform, standard. Absent is ostentatious label design or, in the case of Cognac, those flamboyant, limited-edition crystal decanters that big brands use for their highest-end bottlings.
Tasting a $16,000 brandy from an anonymous vial, followed by a much better one that costs “only” $200, is always an eye-opening exercise in perception and value. Once, a reader told me that he planned to drop about $5,000 on six bottles I’d recommended. On the other hand, I am not the regular customer for a $1,000 or a $600 or even a $100 brandy.
Sometimes, that gulf can be disquieting. But the pride I have in my own knowledge and our shared love of brandy will have to be the equalizer.