Tag Archives: eau de vie

Martell Blue Swift

Martell Blue Swift Arrives in Atlanta

Cognac meets Kentucky in the latest release from Martell, the oldest and one of the best known Cognac houses. Introducing Martell Blue Swift, a VSOP Cognac finished in Kentucky bourbon casks.

Martell Blue Swift

Martell Blue Swift was unveiled at an exclusive launch party in downtown Atlanta earlier this month. After guests sipped on Martell VSOP cocktails, brand ambassador Karim Lateef pushed back a wall revealing a room dedicated to Martell Blue Swift. The celebration then kicked into high gear with a DJ, live artist painting and tastings of Blue Swift on its own and in cocktails.

Martell Blue Swift launch party

Blue Swift is a spirit that represents the partnership between France and America. Martell was the first to ship its Cognac to the United States more than 230 years ago. The name is a tribute to Martell’s swift emblem, a bird that can fly for extremely long distances, including across the Atlantic Ocean.

Martell Blue Swift

Blue Swift is an Eau de Vie de Vin. It starts with a base of high quality Cognac, the VSOP, and then spends additional time aging in Kentucky Bourbon casks. The VSOP has flavors of candied fruit and plum, while the bourbon casks impart notes of vanilla and smoky oak. Round and smooth, Martell Blue Swift can be enjoyed on its own or in cocktails. My favorite way to sip it is mixed with ginger ale.

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Martell Blue Swift is now available in Atlanta and select U.S. cities. It retails for $49.99.

For more information visit Martell’s website at martell.com/en-us/.

Vicard barrels

From the Archives: How Barrels are Made

Originally posted on August 29, 2011

A Tour Inside Vicard Cooperage

Oak barrels play an important role in the production of wine and eau de vie. Go inside Vicard Cooperage in Cognac, France for a look at how barrels are made.

The process of making a barrel starts with the oak tree. Seventy five percent of Vicard’s barrels are made with French oak; 20 percent are made with American oak and 5 percent are Hungarian or Romanian oak. Only thirty percent of the trunk is used for barrels.

The logs are sprayed with water to maintain the level of humidity and to keep bugs away.

To make the staves, the log is split into quarters. Following the natural lines of the wood, the oak is carefully cut into planks. The wood is laid in a pattern for aging and placed outdoors for two to three years. The exposure to sun, wind and rain seasons the wood and eliminates the undesirable tannins.

To assemble the barrel, the staves are placed inside a metal hoop. Using steam and force the wood is pulled into the recognizable shape of a barrel. More hoops are then placed on the wood to maintain the shape.

Toasting the barrel is very important as the amount of toast affects the flavor of the wine inside. Vicard uses computerized technology to monitor each barrel and to ensure the ideal toast profile.

As the finishing touches are put on the barrel, the metal hoops are adjusted or removed. The round ends are inserted and carefully fit into place. The wood is sanded and new metal hoops are placed on the barrel.

The final step is to add the logo. Using a computerized system and lasers the image is burned into the wood.

Vicard produces 55,000 barrels each year.


A Visit to Hennessy

You can’t talk about Cognac without mentioning Hennessy. It is the big daddy of Cognac, making up 43% of Cognac production. As a comparison, the next largest producer is Remy Martin at 17 percent.

Hennessy dominates the market, but also makes it possible for the smaller producers to exist.  Hennessy buys a large portion of its grapes and eau de vie from other growers and producers in the region, who are then able to sustain their own Cognac production.

Hennessy is located within the town of Cognac, along both sides of the Charente River. A visit begins with a boat ride.

Our guide was Marc Boissonnet, Ambassadeur de la Maison. He did what would seem to be impossible – make Hennessy, the giant of Cognac, feel intimate and special.

Marc was particularly knowledgeable and engaging, and had some of the best analogies for Cognac production.

“Keep the spirit, dispose of the body,” is how he described the process of making Cognac. It’s a pretty good simplification of the distillation process, which reduces the liquid to approximately one tenth of its volume while retaining the essence of the grapes and wine.

Kids, adults and relationships played roles in other parts of the Cognac story.

As Marc explained, just like with children, the character of eau de vie must be shaped when it is young. Early on the potential of the eau de vie is assessed, and then the proper oak barrel is selected for aging.

After aging in oak the eau de vie is blended, a process that Marc described as similar to a marriage. You need to be mature when you get married, and eau de vie needs to mature before it is blended. It is up to the cellar master and blender to determine when an eau de vie has spent the ideal amount of time in barrels. With seven generations of blenders, Hennessy uses the memories of experience to determine the potential of and future course for the eau de vie.

Marc continued with a statement that sounds good whether you’re talking about Cognac or people. “Aging is good,” he said. “Because aging means living.”

The highlight of the tour was stepping into “Le Paradis.”  Meaning paradise in English, this is the cellar where the rare and precious eau de vie and Cognac are stored.

Barrels in Le Paradis contained eau de vie that had been aging for 50 plus years. I found eau de vie from the birth year of my parents, then just steps away found eau de vie from the birth years of my grandparents and great-grandparents. Beyond the barrels were shelves of demijohn bottles that contained Cognac from the 1800s.

Enjoying a wine from your birth year (if even possible) is a rare and special treat. But enjoying a Cognac from your birth year, well, that might not yet be ready to drink.

Hennessy’s goal is to produce Cognac that is perfectly balanced, rich and complex. It also strives for consistency; fifty year-old Cognacs from Hennessy should be identical, no matter the year they were bottled or where they were purchased.

At a tasting following our tour we had a chance to sample a variety of Cognac from Hennessy.

The first glass had perfectly clear eau de vie that hadn’t been aged in oak barrels. With 70% alcohol, this was not something you would want to drink. However after a sniff and placing a drop on the tongue, it was possible to make out the fruit and floral essence necessary for producing a high quality Cognac.

With the next two glasses we were able to compare the use of barrels. Both were Cognacs that were approximately five years old. The first, lighter in color, was Cognac that had been aged in previously used barrels. The second Cognac was darker in color because it was aged in new barrels.  Newer barrels impart more color and flavor to the eau de vie.

Our fourth glass took us back in time to 1983. This Cognac was darker than the previous two because of the longer time in oak. It had flavors of dry fruit, spice and “rancio,” a French term that means a desirable earthy, nutty or musty characteristic.

Going back to 1956 with our next glass, we had a chance to see how Cognac softens and becomes more complex as it ages. This Cognac had lovely floral aromas with flavors of vanilla, nougat, almond and honeysuckle.

Our final Cognac was the Hennessy XO, a blend of Cognacs. Darkest of the group, this Cognac was refined, polished and elegant, with flavors of hazelnut, black pepper and dark chocolate.

Even with the focus on age, history and tradition, Hennessy keeps Cognac modern and fresh. One look at the limited edition Hennessy VS (pictured at left) and you can see this isn’t your grandfather’s Cognac. At a party later that evening inside the Cognac Blues Passions music festival, Hennessy cocktails were all the rage. Mixed with apple juice, muddled fresh berries or (my favorite) ginger ale, Hennessy Cognac is ever evolving, long after it leaves the barrel.

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cognac stills

Grape to Glass: How Cognac is Made

It begins each spring with bud break, and goes well beyond the fall harvest. So much goes into producing Cognac that within each glass you can taste the essence of the grape, the history of aged eaux de vie and the talents of a master blender.

Here is an overview of how Cognac is made:

The Region

Cognac, named after the city of Cognac, is produced in the Charente and Charente-Maritime departments in southwest France.  The region is just north of Bordeaux and has the Atlantic Ocean to its west.

The region is divided into six zones: Grande Champagne (thought to produce the best Cognac, with a soil similar to the Champagne region in northeast France), Petite Champagne, Borderies (which is where the city of Cognac is located), Fins Bois (meaning fine wood), Bon Bois and Bois Ordinaire.

Click here to see a map of the region.

The Grape

Ugni Blanc (known as Trebbiano in Italy) is the main grape used to produce Cognac, though a number of grapes like Folle Blanche and Colombard may be used.  Ugni Blanc is a hearty and high-yielding variety that produces wines of high acidity, qualities that make it ideal for Cognac.

The grapes are harvested by machine, typically at the end of September or beginning of October.

The Wine

Once the grapes are harvested and pressed, the juice undergoes fermentation.  The resulting wine is dry, high in acidity and 9% to 10% alcohol.  This helps to preserve the desirable fruit and floral tastes of the grapes in the final Cognac.

The Distillation

The wine goes through two distillations, a process that runs from November to March.  By French law, distillation must stop at midnight on March 31st.

Using large copper stills, the wine is heated to the temperature at which alcohol vaporizes.  The alcohol in gas form travels through the neck, turning back into liquid when it reaches the cooling tank.  The resulting liquid is called “le brouillis,” and is between 25% and 30% alcohol.

The second distillation is called “la bonne chauffe,” which translates to the good heating.  The distillation process is repeated with the brouillis.  The resulting liquid is separated into three parts: the head, the heart and the tails.  The head is the first liquid that collects in the cooling tank and it is set aside.  The heart comes next, and is the eau de vie that will be blended and aged for Cognac.  The tails come last, and are often mixed with the head and distilled again.

The heart is clear in color and approximately 70% alcohol.  At this point in the process the liquid is called eau de vie, meaning water of life.  Though the liquid is not drinkable, it is possible to determine that the eau de vie retains the fruit and floral essence of the grapes.

The Blending and Aging

Before an eau de vie becomes a Cognac, it is blended and aged.  French oak barrels are used to impart color and flavor.  Over time the eau de vie goes from clear, to golden yellow, to amber, to brown.  Varying levels of toast on the barrels influence the flavors.

Large barrels called “foudresare used for blending the eau de vie.  These barrels can last for 100 years.  Smaller barrels are used for aging the eau de vie.  The maître de chai or cellar master oversees all steps of the blending and aging process, ensuring quality and consistency.

A portion of the liquid (called “the Angels’ share”) is lost due to evaporation; more eau de vie or water is added to maintain the volume within the barrel.

Over time the alcohol level of the aging eau de vie must be brought down from 70% to 40%, the lowest legal limit for Cognac.  This occurs naturally over the span of 40 to 50 years, or it may be sped up with the gradual addition of water to the barrels.

Eau de vie may be aged in dry cellars or humid cellars, which affect the rate of alcohol and water evaporation as well as the resulting Cognac’s taste.  Dry cellars are said impart finesse to the Cognac, while humid cellars impart sweetness.

Barrel aging cellars are dark and covered in cobwebs – and no, it’s not just for visual effect.  The walls and ceilings are covered by a black fungus that thrives on the evaporating alcohol.  Spiders are encouraged in the cellars because they eat the bugs that could damage the oak barrels.

After the cellar master determines that the eau de vie has reached its ideal amount of aging, the spirit may be blended again and then bottled.  At this point it may be called Cognac.

When the eau de vie is removed from the barrels for bottling, the aging process has ended.  Cognac does not age in the bottle, so a 10 year-old Cognac does not become a 12 year-old Cognac after sitting in your liquor cabinet for two years.

An important task for the cellar master is to ensure consistency of the Cognac.  For example, a 50 year-old Cognac from Hennessy that you bought today at a liquor store in New York should taste exactly like a 50 year-old Cognac from Hennessy that you buy in ten years in Hong Kong.

The Classifications of Cognac

Cognacs are classified based on the age of the blend.  The age indicated on the label is the youngest vintage in the blend, so a 10 year-old Cognac may be a blend of much older eau de vie.

The classifications are:

VS – A Cognac that has aged for at least two years.
VSOP – A Cognac that has aged for at least four years.
XO – A Cognac that has aged for at least six years; some Cognac houses use this classification for Cognac that has been aged 20 or more years.

If the Cognac comes from a specific region (Grande Champagne, Petite Champagne, etc), it may be indicated on the label.

Serving and Enjoying

Cognac should be served room temperature in a tulip-shaped glass, to better concentrate the aromas.

Like wine, Cognac develops as it is exposed to the air, so you may want to let your glass sit for up to 15 minutes before you take your first sip.

Younger Cognacs may be enjoyed in cocktails. Click here for cocktail recipes.

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