The Cognac Connection

The Cognac Connection

The hallmarks of French spirit are infiltrating the world of whisky

Whisky Learning | 02 Oct 2020 | By Christopher Coates

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It’s probably fair to say that, for a good chunk of the past century or so, two champions of the drinks world have been locking horns in what is surely the greatest booze title fight Europe has ever seen. When it comes to the heavyweight spirits of these two nations, you can forget the ‘auld alliance’ between Scotland and France: the gloves are off.

Back in the late 18th century, one might have called the result early and bet everything on Cognac.

It had an established market in Britain, Ireland, and mainland Europe, and, in spite of the little falling out that had to be settled at Waterloo, imports of French brandy to the UK continued to grow into the mid 1800s. High duties imposed at the time could have hamstrung the Cognaçais, but canny smugglers always found a way. Scotch whisky, meanwhile, was mostly the product of illicit distilling and much of it was enjoyed by locals as unaged new spirit. Often pretty rough and ready, it’s fair to say that championship material was rare. However, in a meteoric rise from zero to hero, the Scots peasants’ hooch became an A-list celebrity after the Hanovarian monarch King George IV imbibed copious volumes of a whisky called ‘Glenlivet’ during his famous visit to Edinburgh in 1822. Quality, at least in Speyside, was presumably on the up.

However, a few rounds later (around the 1860s) Cognac was looking strong when a new law allowed for the establishment of named brands as we know them today – previously, bottles had borne the name of the merchant who’d imported the spirit, rather than the producer. Soon after, British customs duties on brandies were lowered and sales of Cognac across the channel tripled in 15 years.

It wasn’t looking so good for the Scots, but the match wasn’t over by a long shot.

The Old World was left dumbfounded when the twist of fate that was phylloxera – that pesky root-killing aphid which piggybacked its way across the Atlantic and eviscerated most of Europe’s vineyards in the late 19th century – put the French (along with pretty much everyone else with grape vines) down for the count. In the course of a few short years, the scales tipped in favour of drinks made from grains, rather than grapes, and catapulted the underdog that was Scotland’s national drink into favour with merchants, paupers, professionals, Royals, and just about everyone else.

The Cognac industry's tight rules limit the grape varieties and growing regions that can legally be utilised, which makes expansion and innovation challenging. The Cognac industry's tight rules limit the grape varieties and growing regions that can legally be utilised, which makes expansion and innovation challenging.

Cognac was on the ropes. Scotch gloated in triumph during a period of exponential growth, only to trip over its own feet and face-plant to the ground in the calamity that was the ‘Pattison Crash’ of 1898. Amplifying a contraction of the market and awash with the fruits of overproduction, the industry was brought to its knees.

Two world wars and Prohibition in America did neither side any good and it wasn’t until the mid-20th century that both fighters were properly back up on their feet.

The battle for the hearts and minds of discerning, image-conscious liquor drinkers continued throughout the following decades, with numerous charges and retreats that led to victories and defeats for both sides. These ducks and jabs were delivered out on the mat of the open market – a clever marketing tactic here or expanded distribution there saw one or the other make gains.

It’s worth noting that both sides didn’t always play fair. In one notable episode during the 1990s, the Scotch whisky industry is said to have ‘flipped’ the Taiwanese market from favouring Cognac in just a few years, in part by promoting whiskies as a ‘healthier’ alternative to the French spirit, which it was claimed were full of sugary syrups – something the Scotch whisky industry would, of course, never even contemplate. Rather conspicuously, this all happened not long after the Scotch Whisky Order of 1990 outlawed all additives in Scotch (including the hitherto liberally used Paxarette syrup), except in the case of flavourless caramel colouring. Thus, the Cognaçais were being accused by their opponents of exactly the same practice the Scots had only recently outlawed.

Ancient (if eyebrow-raising) history aside, what one should take away from this whistle-stop tour of the parallel fortunes of Scotch whisky and Cognac is that historically these two products have been competitors in the market. Yet, these days, more and more whisky makers are drawing on the hallmarks of Cognac to promote their products – whether it be the utilisation of French oak, casks that literally once held Cognac, the language of terroir or simply overt visual cues that are reminiscent of the French ‘je ne sais quoi’. These days, rather than simply attempting to outdo one another, there are signs that distillers in both France and Scotland are instead peering over the fence to see what might be learned from their direct competitors in the brown spirits market.

First of all, the recent tendency to embrace increasingly extravagant packaging designs for the most highly valued, old Scotch whiskies is arguably evidence enough that the French are serving as something of an inspiration to Scots distillers. In the past, even the rarest and most highly prized expressions tended to come in quite simple bottles, though the flashier malts and blends might be honoured with a fancy label.

One would always expect the most extravagant decanters to emerge from across the Channel but, nowadays, it’s hard to decide which category takes the biscuit when it comes to the indulgence of opulent, high-end design and intricate, hand-blown crystal decanters.

More tangible and on-the-nose evidence of cross-category inspiration is the use of ex-Cognac casks for maturation. Glenfarclas, Glenmorangie, Arran, Douglas Laing, Hazelburn, Kilchoman, Balvenie – all of these and more have utilised these special French oak casks at one time or another. More recently, prominent Cognac cask-matured whiskies in the form of Chivas XV, the name of which is a none-too-subtle homage to Cognac’s ‘XO’ classification, and The Glenlivet Captain’s Reserve both traded heavily on their Cognac credentials. Under wraps for now, another Cognac-cask ‘hero product’ from an equally famous Speyside distiller is set to hit the shelves in 2021 (a year late, thanks to the pandemic) and will draw on both the flavours and the stories of France’s preeminent spirit.

Chivas Regal XV is finished in Grand Champagne Cognac Casks Chivas Regal XV is finished in Grande Champagne Cognac Casks.

Meanwhile, some innovative French producers have adopted the technique of cask finishing to develop very special releases. Oft-used in Scotland, the practice is almost entirely unheard of in the world of Cognac due to the category’s exceptionally tight regulations. For example, in 2016 a controversial release appeared on the scene from Martell that had been finished in Bourbon barrels and, in order to skirt the rules of the Bureau National Interprofessionnel du Cognac (BNIC), the category’s governing body, it had to be labelled only as ‘eau de vie de vin’ rather than Cognac. In late 2017, Courvoisier’s Master’s Cask Collection Sherry Cask Finish hit the shelves and, upping the stakes further, Camus, the largest independent Cognac company, presented what they say is the very first port cask-finished Cognac.

The Camus Port Cask Finish The Camus Port Cask Finish

Though unique to the modern era, Camus believes maturation in port casks did historically occur prior to the tightening of the Cognac production rules in the mid-20th century. Finished in wood that previously held tawny port, this expression was followed by another that enjoyed a secondary maturation in vessels which previously held Monbazillac dessert wine. These releases toed the line of the BNIC’s regulations at the time, as the rules technically stated that Cognac may be matured in a cask that previously held wine or wine-based spirit. However, it’s been reported that this loophole has now been closed, so it seems that for now this route of cross-category pollination is decidedly one way and we are unlikely to see Scotch barrel-aged Cognac any time soon. It’s a shame; who knows how peated Scotch-cask Cognac might have tasted?

However, beyond these more obvious links, one wonders if perhaps there’s room for a more high-minded sharing of ideas and values. Though there’s undoubtedly a thing or two many Scotch brands could learn about luxury marketing from the French, surely our friends across the water have something more to contribute to Scotch whisky than merely a penchant for glitzy packaging and a few used casks? The developing conversation about distillery terroir, wild yeast, and local barley certainly shows that some Scotch whisky companies have been listening to what our European neighbours have said all along. However, the aforementioned family-owned Camus company is one of the producers that should be watched particularly closely. With the cask-finishing route closed off and keen to respect the BNIC’s rules, Camus has looked for more outside-the-box opportunities for innovation that the Scotch whisky category would do well to sit up and pay attention to.

No longer able to use unusual casks and with the growing regions or ‘crus’ and grape varieties for Cognac production set in stone, Camus looked to the other factor that could still be freely altered: maturation environment. This began with an expression from the producer’s Île de Ré range, made entirely from grapes grown and distilled on the quaint island of the same name off the coast of La Rochelle. The Cliffside Cellar expression is blended using eau de vie matured entirely in – you guessed it – a cliffside cellar on the island. Quite precariously perched on a rocky outcrop hanging over a sharp drop to the open ocean, a small storage room in the sea wall of the historic Fort de la Pré has become home to a number of Camus casks. Wet, buffeted by gales and subject to large temperature fluctuations, the character of the Cognac matured in this environment stands apart from the rest of the range, which is matured in inland warehousing.

Inspired by this success, the company’s latest release, Camus Caribbean Expedition, saw casks of the company’s spirit loaded on board a tall ship to undertake a sea journey to Barbados, replicating the historic transatlantic trade route, where they were unloaded and placed in the warehouses of the Four Square rum distillery. After undergoing a year of maturation in this tropical climate under the watchful eye of Four Square’s master distiller Richard Seale, the casks were once again loaded on board a tall ship for the return journey to France. Exposed to high humidity and salt spray, heat and turbulence, the result of this expedition is a unique Cognac that has been altered by its journey in a way that simply couldn’t have been replicated at home.

The Camus Caribbean Expedition The Camus Caribbean Expedition

Though the regulations of the SWA would prevent a similar experiment from occurring in the world of single malt Scotch whisky, the cliffside cellar expression presents an interesting thought. With the renewed focus on concepts such as terroir, there must be a place for Scotch whisky expressions made up of whiskies matured solely in particular hyper-local or non-traditional environments. It’s well known that the majority of Scottish distillers mature their spirits in central-belt warehousing, which is more often than not palletised or racked, while simultaneously trading on their distilleries’ wild and remote locations, unique local climate and romantic traditional warehousing.

Rather than perpetuating this obfuscation across the board, some intrepid distillers would do well to experiment with ‘all matured on site’ expressions or perhaps even, for the more innovative brands, whiskies matured in parts of Scotland with climates very different to those found in the vicinity of their distillery.

Instead of covering it up, why not try making maturation location a feature to be celebrated that can offer a basis for comparison between different drams produced in varied conditions?

Indeed, whispers of a few up-and-coming distilleries looking into floating warehousing shows that some have evidently also identified the potential of turbulent maturation environments that mimic the time at sea a cask would have traditionally enjoyed during export. Whether these avenues will lead to the next great Scotch whisky, who can say?

What’s for certain is that there’s perhaps more to be learned from Scotland’s Cognac connection than a few more cask finishes.
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