It’s no secret that as whisky continues to become more popular, more and more consumers get enticed to start getting into the hobby.
As much as I’ve expressed lamentation at how matching the demand has made the quality of most brands suffer, there are still some bright spots… it means that at least more people are drinking. The more and the longer a person explores a category, the more they’re likely to branch out to other spirits. This will translate to the growth of rum, brandy, Mezcal, etc.
From the surface and at the start, exploring a new category can seem intimidating. Questions such as “where does one start, who do I go to and how much is a good bottle?” will come to mind. But take it from a former exclusive whisky drinker: there’s something invigorating and rewarding about exploring a new category of spirits.
There are also plenty of ways to start exploring these days. It’s much easier now, thanks to a lot of information being made available online. Most of the time, it’s the effort and willingness that matters more. Podcasts, search engines, online stores, and articles are your friends. If you’re into more traditional ways, scour your local brick and mortar stores and ask around. Maybe they have someone knowledgeable on their team?
I say exploring new spirits can be invigorating because it’s a new experience. You get to taste a whole new spectrum of flavors. Whisk(e)y – whether it be single malt or bourbon – can get monotonous. Sure, single malt is barley-based, so it’ll be different from bourbon which is mostly corn-based. But, the majority of single malts have spent time in ex-bourbon casks made from American White Oak. So, if you drink both, you’re going to get very familiar with flavors such as vanilla, cinnamon, and honey. You’re also bound to get some of the bourbon’s distillate flavor from the cask as well, albeit each expression will be different in terms of intensity.
By exploring other spirits such as Cognac, you’re going to get different flavors. Grapes – the base ingredient for Cognac – are obviously different from grains, so you’re bound to get way more fruity flavors. One of the aspects of Cognac I prefer over whisky is that they’re specific with the type of grapes used. The six types are Ugni Blanc, Colombard, Folle Blanche, Montils, Semillion and Folignan, with Ugni Blanc being the most used.
While this can seem monotonous, at least you know what type/s of grape were used to make the Cognac you’re drinking. Similar to whisky, the smaller producers tend to give out more information – such as what grapes they use – which is unlike most whisky producers who usually don’t tell you what variety of corn or barley or rye or wheat they’re using. I think this is due to them using grain from different sources, and they all just end up being blended together.
Another difference between Cognac and whisky (such as single malt and bourbon) is that Cognac uses French Oak. From what I hear, most Cognac casks are toasted, while whisky casks are charred. So, you’re also going to get different flavors imparted by the barrels. I recall Jim Rutledge saying that the bourbon industry would be using French Oak, instead of American Oak, if it weren’t so expensive.
Exploring other spirits such as Cognac can be rewarding because it’s a chance to learn more. Not only will you learn more about the production standards, you’ll also learn more about culture. For example: historically, alcohol production has always been affected by governments and world events. American grapevines brought to Europe in the 1800s caused a phylloxera infestation that killed off most of the grapevines of Europe. Another example is that parts of France’s wine and brandy producing regions became war zones during World War II. French wine and spirits fell off during these times and allowed other spirits such as gin and rum to become more popular.
Getting into a people’s culture won’t be complete without food. So, you’re bound to learn different food pairings. Pairing spirits with steaks has become too common a trope. Since we’re talking about Cognac, aren’t you curious how Cognac would pair with escargot, beef bourguignon, or Pâté en Croûte? In my experience, aged French spirits also do great with cigars.
Another reward is simply saving yourself (and maybe your circle of friends) money. Whisky has become too expensive. The prices don’t match the quality. These days, it’s more like paying for a brand’s name, marketing, and avoiding FOMO, rather than paying for quality.
Take this Paul Giraud Tres Rare sample from Cognac Expert, for example. This is a 40-year-old Cognac and only costs €172 (around USD $200). I don’t even want to know how much a 40-year-old whisky would cost today; we’re already getting whisky in their teens priced this high!
Paul Giraud is owned by the Giraud family, who have been making brandy since the 1600s. Because their family has been distilling and aging their own brandy for generations, they’re sitting on some really old stock. They own 42 hectares of vineyards located in the heart of Cognac’s Grand Champagne region. Ugni Blanc grapes are grown on the clay-limestone soils of the region.
Since I’m not too familiar with a lot of Cognac houses and brands yet, the following information stands out to me: according to Cognac Expert, the Girauds don’t use any chemicals or pesticides in their cultivation. With this, they manually harvest the grapes. They also only use pure vintage Cognacs, which means they don’t blend distillates of different age statements. Their website also boasts of them using two different still sizes. I’m guessing they mean they can produce two types of distillates.
Paul Giraud Tres Rare Cognac – Review
(Because of how old this is, I let this sit in the glass for 30 minutes before I started nosing and tasting).
On the nose: A lovely greeting of medium intensity dried apricots, baked apples and tobacco. There are very light and brief aromas of baked pears and cinnamon also. These aromas are consistent for a long while.
A bit later, I get light aromas of sultanas. It’s quickly followed by round, more lasting, and a bit bolder aromas of dried apricots, leather, dried shiitake mushrooms, dates, French oak, and a very not sweet crème brûlée.
In the mouth: A mix of tannins and fruit. I initially get a sharp bite of orange peel and oak. Thankfully, a light reprieve of honey, caramel, roasted chestnut, and comice pears come up… but bitter notes appear again. They make me think of apple pie that’s had too much cinnamon, cloves, tobacco, leather, and a hint of sultanas. At the end is the bread part of a Pâté en Croûte, but dipped in some Thompson grape juice. The notes above just repeat and alternate.
Amazing price for a 40-year-old spirit, but this isn’t something my senses completely agree with. It lacks fruitiness, punch, and complexity. I’m going to be bold with this statement, with my lack of experience with Cognac and this brand: I’ll say that I find this over-oaked. I get too many bitter flavors here, which make me think “tannins.” I’ve even had a few older, yet less oaky, Cognacs than this, but those had more rancio flavors.
The flavors here may seem disappointing. But the bright spot is that the flavors I like really last a long time. What this Cognac lacks in complexity, it makes up for with depth.
This is something to enjoy over a long night, maybe with a cigar to help drown out the tannins.
Image courtesy of Cognac Expert, who also provided the sample. Per Malt editorial policy, this does not affect our notes or scores.