MANILA, Philippines - Cognac is not for the faint-hearted, whether you are like Winston Churchill, who enjoyed his for breakfast; Victor Hugo, who christened it “the drink of the gods;” Kim Jong-il, who spent $1 million per year on it; or Kanye West, who declared, “It’s gonna be the death of me.”
Most of us Filipinos can only associate it with our elders, who would whip out a cobwebbed bottle on special occasions, serve miserly pours, and hide the rest for the next big balikbayan homecoming. But cognac — the once stuffy, snooty spirit of yesteryear — is gaining a new cool these days, and it’s only wise to raise our glasses (and our drinking standards) to match the times.
“The trend is for consumers to move to more authentic spirits, and the chance that we have for Martell is that we are very authentic, full of craftsmanship and passion,” says Pierre Boyer, Martell’s youthful brand ambassador for Southeast Asia. “We really are the perfect brand for those who value authenticity.”
Boyer, who is a Cognac native, is well-versed in the French region’s greatest export, and his brief visit to Manila enlightened us on this often misunderstood tipple.
While some would claim that cognac is nothing but posh brandy, there are enough reasons why the spirit can’t be replicated elsewhere, other than its stringent geographical indication. First, cognac is made from a special type of grape, the Ugni Blanc, a variety with high levels of acidity and low alcohol content, which only grows in the southwestern French sub-region.
Second, only the spirit-makers of Cognac have perfected the double distillation process that extracts the eau de vie, or water of life, which, at 70 percent ABV, is indeed the life force of any cognac bottle. And thirdly, to get the subtle, complex notes of cognac, all respectable houses should only employ French oak barrels in aging their liquor.
Place Martell, however, takes these rules a notch further to ensure that their cognacs are well above the rest. “Some cognac houses are more interested in the aging, to get the best aromas of the wood,” says Boyer. “We are everything about the grape and its fruity aromas.”
To ensure this, Martell owns half of the Borderie region’s vineyards, where the finest cognac grapes — ones with harmonious fruit and spice notes — are grown. To prevent bitterness in the resulting eau de vie, Martell also distills their wines sans lees, or only clear wines. And lastly, according to Boyer, “the very special rule in Martell is to age in fine-grained oak barrels,” to harness its more sophisticated notes of almonds, vanilla, coffee, and tobacco.
Given these exceptional steps in extracting the finest eau de vie, the house of Martell is left with plenty of possibilities to create their own cognac expressions. But while the Martell bottles vary in price, for Boyer, one’s choice cognac should be all about the personality.
“For Martell XO, I see more of a strong guy,” he says. “I don’t mean a beast, but someone who is very masculine.” The Martell XO, or Extra Old, carries an undeniable whiff of spice, peppers and coriander, finished with a sweet, earthy palate of figs and walnuts, perhaps more of the Churchill kick-starter.
“For Martell VSOP, someone who is very sophisticated but also somebody who likes to play. He likes to discover new things.” The VSOP, or Very Superior Old Pale, known for its golden amber hue, has a sweeter, smoother profile of raisins, licorice, and an afterglow of lime-flavored acidity, more like Kanye plus Kim in the club.
As for Martell’s pièce de résistance, so named after France’s highest honor of nobility, the Cordon Bleu, Boyer notes, “he would be an elegant person, not necessarily posh or snobbish; just very elegant, one of a kind, and original.” This might have been Hugo’s choice while waxing romantic about a revolution.
For the rest of us who have yet to make up our minds, however, Boyer reminds us to see, sample, and savor. “First, look at the color and texture. Then smell, oxidize the cognac to give the fruity notes a smokier fragrance. Then, drink. Make sure to let the cognac linger around your mouth to best enjoy the aromas, texture and taste.”
While it is largely a French spirit, only three percent of cognacs are consumed in France (excluding the eight percent lost to “the angel’s share,” or the amount evaporated during aging). Much of it is exported elsewhere, with China leading the thirst for the premium liquor.
“People look at cognac as a high-end, luxury product,” Boyer explains, “but there’s also a renewed interest for the younger people. They’re becoming more interested in younger cognacs and newer consumption modes. Ten years ago, it would have been impossible to serve cognac tonic or cognac with ginger ale, because everybody would love to enjoy it straight, neat, and very old. Now they are adapting a bit, discovering newer ways of consumption.”
And for the three-century-old house to keep up with a fast-shifting consumer base, Martell has started pushing the boundaries of the spirit. “Every year, we create limited-edition VSOP in colorful bottles. And currently, in Asia, we are testing a new cognac called NCF (Non Chill-Filtered). It’s in a very fun copper bottle, made to be consumed in celebratory occasions, and made to appeal to young drinkers,” Boyer reveals.
But, in any case, what is most notable about every bottle of cognac is its immortality. “A bottle of cognac lasts forever,” he says. “When you open a bottle of Martell, you don’t finish it in a day. Maybe you open it today, and let your grandchildren finish it in the future.”