Casting our mind back some time ago, Jason reviewed Cadenhead’s Cognac Distillerie Charpentier 35 Year Old. A 2-second Google search brings up a report by Mark Watt, formerly the resident cask-botherer, into that very same distillery. Or distillerie, depending on how fancy we’re feeling. Suffice to say, this is Cadenhead’s Cognac operator of choice.
Jason, bar-fly at the Edinburgh shop, popped me a WhatsApp to see if there was anything I fancied there and I was looking further afield than whisky, so he discovered something mightily interesting indeed. It was a 5-decade-old Cognac – or rather, a sample of it.
Needless to say, bottles of this age are rather hard to get hold of in the whisky world, in terms of scarcity and price, but not so in Cognac, and certainly not in the independent Cognac bottlings of Cadenhead’s. We snapped it up, it arrived in the post, and I wondered what to make of it.
In fact, it got me thinking, pondering, about the appeal of Cognac to whisky drinkers and Cadenhead’s stands at the interface between whisky drinkers and these bottles of Cognac. So we dropped them a line and Jenna at Cadenhead’s very kindly wrangled their team together to provide some answers. Hopefully it makes for a more interesting introduction to this venerable old Cognac than my usual waffling.
Malt: As a company that has bottled a number of spirits going back decades, whisky has clearly boomed beyond recognition – to the point where it’s believed many whisky drinkers seek out what they consider more price friendly ‘malternatives’. Do you see much crossover with whisky and Cognac drinkers – and has that relationship changed much in recent years? Or do the audiences remain divided?
Jenna at Cadenhead’s: We believe that there is a crossover between whisky & Cognac drinkers. Cadenhead’s has bottled very little Cognac compared to the amount of whisky that we bottle therefore most of our customers are whisky drinkers, we do not bottle enough to have a customer base purely for our Cognac offerings.
Our customers seem to be interested in experimenting, they are willing to try things outside of their comfort zones as they trust our judgement from bottling whisky.
Malt: Without revealing any sales figures as such, what has been the change in cognac consumption – from your own retail experiences – in recent years?
Cadenhead’s has bottled Cognac historically and we do see it selling slightly more each year which is very promising and encouraging for us. As such, we will look into offering more in the future.
Malt: Do you find that those who drink Cognac are more likely to, well – to drink rather than collect? Or is the collecting bug striking other spirits too?
Like anything there will be customers who are buying to collect but from our own experience we would say that our main customer base is buying to drink. We market and price our bottles in a manner that makes this possible. We believe it is what is inside the bottle that counts – this is our company ethos throughout. By not bottling our cognac in extravagant packaging, we believe that customers are then more inclined to open the bottle and enjoy!
Malt: If you were to encourage a whisky drinker to crossover to Cognac – how would the folk at Cadenhead’s look to start them off?
Taste! We are not scared to open a bottle and let our customers try our offerings. We have offered Cognac tastings at our festival and have been known to add a Cognac into tastings that are generally whisky based too.
When purchasing Cognac we will request a sample beforehand and then we will purchase based on taste. Our thought process is probably more suited to a whisky drinkers profile when selecting the casks. We ensure that there are no additives and that the flavour is completely natural – something that is very important to us and many whisky drinkers. Our customers gain trust in what we bottle and we encourage them to judge for themselves whether this is something they would like to try, in part because it is Cadenhead’s who has bottled it.
Malt: Let’s talk about Distillerie Charpentier – I’ve noticed a large number of bottlings specifically from this distillery. What is it about Charpentier that keeps bringing Cadenhead’s back for further bottlings?
Distillerie Charpentier is a traditional distillery, the way they work is very similar to our sister company Springbank. We are able to purchase cognac from them with no additives or colouring therefore we can bottle a product that we believe in while staying loyal to our ethos.
We also have a good relationship with the guys at Distillerie Charpentier, so that helps too.
Malt: How do you find sourcing Cognac casks is different to that of sourcing whisky barrels, given the demand for buying – or rather investing – in whisky these days? Or is your process pretty much the same?
Sourcing Cognac is pretty much the same as sourcing whisky. We can buy directly from distilleries or from brokers – we mainly buy directly from distilleries if we can, this helps us build good relationships.
The Cognac market is opening up more and the whisky market is as busy as ever. Pricing for Cognac is more reasonable, it is rising but not at the same rate as whisky.
We will request samples from buyers whereas we will mainly buy whisky blind. We will generally buy cognac to bottle immediately.
Malt: Cognac barrels are, of course, in the EU. The UK is now not. Does Brexit present a challenge going forwards in sourcing casks from France?
Yes! There will be a challenge sourcing anything from the EU. We are still working this out but as you can imagine there is likely going to be more red tape and price increases for transportation, duties etc.
Malt: Charpentier is from the Petite Champagne terroir – one of six legally protected terroirs for this particular distilled, matured spirit. When sourcing your casks have you explored these other terroirs much and if so, what differences have you found when exploring these regions?
This is not something we have explored in depth as it is not as big an issue for us. It is nice to have offerings from different regions to build a profile and knowledge of this but again, we bottle a small quantity of Cognac. We like to keep it simple – if we like it, we will buy it. It may be something we explore more in the future.
Malt: Given Cognac’s legally-protected regionality of raw material – that grapes are grown on certain soils in certain microclimates, and this influences the flavours in the Cognac eau-de-vie, and it’s protected by law – do you think there are opportunities, responsibilities even, for whisky makers to source their grain from more local sources, instead of national – even international – sources?
Gaining knowledge from our sister company, Springbank, from producing their Local Barley – there could be a possibility that they have trouble sourcing local grain. We understand that local grain can be difficult to work with, more expensive and produce different yields and is therefore less reliable.
Each distillery has their own way of producing the spirit and character that they are looking for, whether that be fruity or smokey, waxy of oily. The way they work will be an influence on this character and flavour.
There are probably enough regulations/restrictions that whisky makers must abide by when it comes to producing and bottling whisky, do we need anymore?
Thanks for the answers, Jenna! We all know it’s a mad time in the drinks industry (well, the world) so taking the time to answer is really appreciated.
Time to taste. This 50 year old Coganc was purchased as one of the Manager’s Samples that cost £60 for 200ml.
Cadenhead’s Cognac Distillerie Charpentier – 50 Years Old
Colour: henna, certainly not as aggressively dark as one might think of a spirit of this age (bearing in mind Cognac goes into virgin oak barrels, clearly the active maturation doesn’t look too overbearing).
On the nose: peppermint, aniseed, morello cherries, blackberries and damsons. Cigar boxes, tobacco, salted caramel dark chocolate, with hints of dried apricots, chicory (Brits: remember that Camp Coffee product?) Water and time brings some astonishing perfumed notes, sweet jasmine, tangerines – Cointreau, almost.
In the mouth: impressively balanced for something so old; the mintiness rides in on a silky, light texture, heaped in with those cherries, perhaps more glace cherries than morello, and damson chutney. Maple syrup, but doesn’t have the density. Very warming, cloves and peppery spices, hints of Chinese Five Spice seasoning. I’m reminded of the odd well-aged bourbon in this too – hints of it, now and then. In the distance, a little lingering earthiness, yet not too woody.
A truly excellent spirit. Absolutely worth seeking out if you can find a bottle – especially good value considering the age and flavour profile.
Indeed, based on this I’d be very curious to try more of the Cadenhead’s Distillerie Charpentier range. Either way, when things and independent stores like Cadenhead’s are back in full swing and everyone is comfortable visiting retail environments again, I’d just encourage anyone to go and have a good conversation about malternatives like this.