Bottle #7: Martell Cognac

Feb 15, 2023

This tiny bottle of Martell Cognac comes from the 1970s, which I was able to figure out thanks to the extraordinarily comprehensive Cognac-ton website. Also, the fact that it’s labeled 70 proof, which is a quirk of pre-1980’s UK law that I explained in my post about Black Bottle Scotch.

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Martell Cognac is an old company, founded in 1715. They’re not the oldest Cognac maker; something resembling today’s Cognac was being made through the 1600s. But they are the oldest of the modern “Big Four” Cognac houses that together produce about 90% of all Cognac sold today. (The others are Hennessy, Rémy Martin, Courvoisier.) While a quintessentially French product today, two of the Big Four houses were founded by foreigners: Martell by Englishman Jean Martell, and Hennessey by Irishman Richard Hennessey.

As you’d expect from a 300-year-old company, Martel has a very storied history. Their Cognac was served at King George V’s coronation in 1911. French explorer Paul-Emile Victor took eight cases with him on a polar expedition to Greenland in 1951. You could even drink it while flying on the Concorde from Paris to New York.

But what is this stuff? In my time teaching cocktail classes, I’ve discovered that a lot of people are confused by cognac. So here’s a brief explainer. Cognac is a brandy. The word comes from the Dutch word brandewijn, or burnt wine, with the “burning” in this case referring to distillation. Today we use the word as an overarching term for anything distilled from fruit, and if we don’t specify a specific fruit then it is made from grapes. But if your brandy wants to be Cognac, it has to follow a bunch of additional rules.

First off, it has to be made in France, and specifically in the designated Cognac region surrounding the city of the same name. That region contains several different growing areas, with different soils that create different qualities in the wine and brandy. Martell gets most of its wine from the Borderies subregion, which is the smallest region and thought to produce especially smooth Cognac.

And yes, I said that’s where they get their wine. Because before you can make cognac you have to make wine. Most of the wine used for Cognac is made from Ugni Blanc grapes, and it’s not a very tasty wine. Luckily, no one has to drink it.

Instead, it gets distilled in a very specific style of copper pot still called a Charentais. Some cognac is distilled “on the lees” meaning with the dead yeast leftover from fermentation, but Martell is quite proud of its choice to use only clear, filtered wines, which they say produces a lighter, more elegant spirit.

And after all that, it’s still not Cognac yet. First, it has to be aged for at least two years in French Oak barrels. Which means that even though used bourbon barrels are the staple of aged spirits around the world, you can’t use one and still call it Cognac. Martell recently came out with Blue Swift, which is Cognac finished in bourbon barrels, but they have to call it a “spirit drink” – which makes it sound much less appealing than it is.

When it comes to labeling, there are a host of terms that are used on the labels to refer to both the age of the Cognac and where its grown. The most important to know about are the age statements. VS stands for very special or superior and designates a blend in which the youngest brandy has been stored for at least two years in cask. For VSOP Cognacs, the youngest brandy has been stored for at least four years in a cask, but the average wood age is much greater. And in XO (“extra old”) Cognacs, the youngest brandy in the blend is 10 years – that used to be 6 years, but it changed a few years ago.

This tiny bottle doesn’t have any of those letters on it: just 3 stars, which is a carryover from older methods of indicating age, and these days means the same thing as VS. And if you’re wondering why all those names on a French product are abbreviations of English words, it’s because historically and still today, Cognac is primarily an export product, with 95% of it sent out of the country. The UK used to be the main market, but these days it’s mostly the US and China. The French? They drink about as much Scotch as they export Cognac.

Watch me taste this bottle with Eric Williams (onesixfive).

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Bottle #7: Martell Cognac

Feb 15, 2023 |

This tiny bottle of Martell Cognac comes from the 1970s, which I was able to figure out thanks to the extraordinarily comprehensive Cognac-ton website. Also, the fact that it’s labeled 70 proof, which is a quirk of pre-1980’s UK law that I explained in my post about Black Bottle Scotch.

Martell Cognac is an old company, founded in 1715. They’re not the oldest Cognac maker; something resembling today’s Cognac was being made through the 1600s. But they are the oldest of the modern “Big Four” Cognac houses that together produce about 90% of all Cognac sold today. (The others are Hennessy, Rémy Martin, Courvoisier.) While a quintessentially French product today, two of the Big Four houses were founded by foreigners: Martell by Englishman Jean Martell, and Hennessey by Irishman Richard Hennessey.

As you’d expect from a 300-year-old company, Martel has a very storied history. Their Cognac was served at King George V’s coronation in 1911. French explorer Paul-Emile Victor took eight cases with him on a polar expedition to Greenland in 1951. You could even drink it while flying on the Concorde from Paris to New York.

But what is this stuff? In my time teaching cocktail classes, I’ve discovered that a lot of people are confused by cognac. So here’s a brief explainer. Cognac is a brandy. The word comes from the Dutch word brandewijn, or burnt wine, with the “burning” in this case referring to distillation. Today we use the word as an overarching term for anything distilled from fruit, and if we don’t specify a specific fruit then it is made from grapes. But if your brandy wants to be Cognac, it has to follow a bunch of additional rules.

First off, it has to be made in France, and specifically in the designated Cognac region surrounding the city of the same name. That region contains several different growing areas, with different soils that create different qualities in the wine and brandy. Martell gets most of its wine from the Borderies subregion, which is the smallest region and thought to produce especially smooth Cognac.

And yes, I said that’s where they get their wine. Because before you can make cognac you have to make wine. Most of the wine used for Cognac is made from Ugni Blanc grapes, and it’s not a very tasty wine. Luckily, no one has to drink it.

Instead, it gets distilled in a very specific style of copper pot still called a Charentais. Some cognac is distilled “on the lees” meaning with the dead yeast leftover from fermentation, but Martell is quite proud of its choice to use only clear, filtered wines, which they say produces a lighter, more elegant spirit.

And after all that, it’s still not Cognac yet. First, it has to be aged for at least two years in French Oak barrels. Which means that even though used bourbon barrels are the staple of aged spirits around the world, you can’t use one and still call it Cognac. Martell recently came out with Blue Swift, which is Cognac finished in bourbon barrels, but they have to call it a “spirit drink” – which makes it sound much less appealing than it is.

When it comes to labeling, there are a host of terms that are used on the labels to refer to both the age of the Cognac and where its grown. The most important to know about are the age statements. VS stands for very special or superior and designates a blend in which the youngest brandy has been stored for at least two years in cask. For VSOP Cognacs, the youngest brandy has been stored for at least four years in a cask, but the average wood age is much greater. And in XO (“extra old”) Cognacs, the youngest brandy in the blend is 10 years – that used to be 6 years, but it changed a few years ago.

This tiny bottle doesn’t have any of those letters on it: just 3 stars, which is a carryover from older methods of indicating age, and these days means the same thing as VS. And if you’re wondering why all those names on a French product are abbreviations of English words, it’s because historically and still today, Cognac is primarily an export product, with 95% of it sent out of the country. The UK used to be the main market, but these days it’s mostly the US and China. The French? They drink about as much Scotch as they export Cognac.

Watch me taste this bottle with Eric Williams (onesixfive).

 

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