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The Liquid Gold From Cognac

A 300-year old legacy, an unparalleled taste, & a favourite among royals, Martell Cognac is a ‘noble’ spirit

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Whisky warms the belly but cognac warms the soul,” says Jeremy Oakes as we drive towards Château de Chanteloup, the Martell family home in Cognac. That says a lot coming from an English gentleman who has adopted France, and more importantly Cognac as his home. But maybe it’s not surprising, considering, cognac is more popular in the UK than in France. In fact, most of the cognac houses were set up by Englishmen, including Martell, the oldest of the big four cognac houses in the world, now a Pernod Ricard company.

“Cognac is, technically speaking, a type of brandy. That means it’s made by distilling wine, and then aging the resulting spirit or the eau-de-vie, in wood barrels,” explains Oakes, the brand ambassador for Martell. But just like all sparkling wine is not champagne, all brandy is not cognac. “There are very specific distinctions. First, cognac can only be made from specific grapes grown in the Cognac region of France. Second, the white wine from the grape is distilled twice (unlike brandy that’s distilled once) in copper pot stills to produce the eau-de-vie that must be aged for at least two years in French oak (not any wood) barrels,” explains Oakes. Different eaux-de-vie are then blended together (sometimes as many as 700 are blended together as in the L’Or De Jean Martell cognac). The minimum alcohol content in cognac should be at least 40 per cent and there should be no other additives except distilled or demineralised water, sugar, caramel and oak infusion.

While that’s how most cognacs are made, Martell has its own distilling process, making Martell cognacs different from the others. “We distil only the ‘clear wines’, without the lees (the grape and yeast sediment at the bottom of the wine), to achieve elegant eaux-de-vie. During the second distillation, we only keep its ‘heart’, adding the ‘heads’ and the ‘seconds’ back into wine so they undergo the double distillation process again,” explains Oakes. During the distillation process, the first of the distilled wine is called the ‘heads’ which tastes unpleasant and is therefore removed and re-distilled together with the new wine. The second part is called the ‘heart’. The ‘heart’ normally has alcohol content between 25 and 30 per cent. The last part is called the ‘tails’ and is full of impurities.

Another distinguishing feature of the Martell process is that it only uses fine-grain oak barrels, while all the other houses use wide-grain barrels, which have more tannins.

Almost 240 million bottles of cognac are produced annually, of which only around 3 per cent are consumed in France, and the rest is exported; the US and China being the biggest markets for the spirit. For Martell, China is the largest market, with the UK, Mexico, Malaysia and Singapore following suite.

What about India? Martell sells about 2,500 9 litre cases in India annually. That’s pretty insignificant when, as per industry sources, it sold 2.1 million, 9 litre cases globally in 2016. “India as a market has a vast opportunity for cognac,” says Oakes. “Our largest market is in South India, particularly Chennai and Coimbatore. However now, there is an undercurrent seen in metros such as Delhi and Mumbai, and even Hyderabad, where cognac drinking is becoming popular amongst young 30 year olds,” he adds.

That’s a welcome change since cognac, especially in India, is seen as an older man’s drink. “It’s a perception that all cognac houses including Martell are trying to change,” says Oakes. Thanks to their efforts, cognac is now popular as a cocktail and is fast becoming a party drink. “While older cognacs, such as XO, are very sophisticated and mature and hence should be enjoyed neat, or on the rocks, younger cognacs are less balanced and can be enjoyed in cocktails or even as chilled shots,” says Oakes as we are offered glasses of Sidecar, a popular cognac-based cocktail created in 1920 at The Ritz in Paris.

Angel’s Share

“Hold your breath. Take five steps and then take a deep breath,” says Oakes as I step into the Chai de Chanteloup warehouse where nearly 1,500 barrels of Martell cognac are stored.

A long deep breath and I feel heady. “That, my dear, is the Angel’s Share,” says Oakes. As the eau-de-vie matures in oak casks, some of it evaporates. Every year, 3-4 per cent of the maturing eaux-de-vie is lost into the atmosphere, that’s almost 20 million bottles a year, stolen by the angles.

Chance Discovery

Legend has it that at the end of the 16th century, a farmer discovered double distillation. Amazed at the result of his second ‘heating’, he delivered two barrels of his eau-de-vie to the monks in a nearby convent. The monks tasted the first, but the second was apparently forgotten at the back of their cellar. A few years later when a bishop came to visit, they found the forgotten barrel and all those who tasted its contents, discovered the smooth, golden-coloured alcohol that cognac lovers appreciate so much today.

History In A Bottle

Having a 300 year old history also means that Martell has some very old eau-de-vie. “Our oldest is from 1802,” says Oakes proudly. In 2015, to celebrate 300 years, Martell launched the Premier Voyage named after the eaux-de-vie buying trip undertaken by Jean Martell (the founder) in 1734. “On checking the names of those he bought from, we found old stocks from his 18 suppliers ageing gently in our warehouses. The Cellar Master blended together to make 300 bottles.” says Oakes. The limited edition was sold for €10,000 a bottle.

Martell established itself as a luxury product in the 20th century after its launch at the Hotel de Paris in Monaco. The cognac was King George V’s favourite, it was served on board the Concorde and was ordered for the wedding of Prince Rainier and Grace Kelly.

Once a favourite among kings and queens, Martell cognac remains a royal indulgence that needs no occassion. Cheers!  

[email protected]; @smitabw