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Interview with Max von Olfers of Cognac Expert

I used to think rum – or sugarcane spirits in general – was the toughest Western spirit to learn about. Now that a lot of information about rum has become much more accessible, I think it’s brandy and eau-de-vie that are difficult to learn about, largely because the producers tend to keep to themselves. Yes, we know about a few big French brandy brands, but – aside from their marketing – how intimately do we know the category(ies)?

It’s a good thing that folks from these regions, such as Cognac, have started to be more visible online. One great example is Cognac Expert. I’ve mentioned them in previous reviews, since I bought from them and they’ve also sent me samples of Cognac before. In fact, they’ve become my go-to online Cognac store ever since. Thankfully, they agreed to grace us with their time, to help us navigate and understand Cognac better.

Malt: Hi Max, thanks for sharing your time. Can you introduce yourself and tell us about Cognac Expert?

Cognac Expert: My name is Max von Olfers and, together with my sister Sophie, we created Cognac Expert back in 2009, purely as a blog to shine a spotlight on the great work being done by the region’s smaller, more artisanal style Cognac producers. Our headquarters is located at our family domaine, the Logis de Beaulieu, located in Poullignac in the Southern end of the Charente; Bons Bois & Fins Bois territory.

Cognac Expert later developed into a small e-commerce business to support the summer vacation rentals at Beaulieu, and all other maintenance and work on site. Now in 2022, Cognac Expert has blossomed into a full-fledged e-commerce business, still with the core DNA of telling the story, promoting, and selling small production Cognac all around the world. We also develop our own Originals, such as L’ESSENTIEL, Sophie & Max Sélection, and the annual Cognac Calendar. We are creating more and more content around Cognac, notably the print magazine and the podcast. For several years now we have expanded our B2B activity, which works on custom projects for clients around the world.

Our passion runs deep for Cognac: the spirit, the region, and its people

Malt: The Cognac Expert website mentions you’re from a family of farmers. Aside from this and selling Cognac, what else do you do? Does Cognac Expert offer distillery tours by any chance? I feel like one of the reasons whisky has so many fans is its accessibility. As long as one can travel, it’s easy to visit distilleries in places like Scotland and Kentucky.

Cognac Expert: From the time when our grandparents ran the estate, there have always been vines and the apple orchard. Two years ago we replanted 1.5 hectares of vines, all organic, which requires a crazy amount of time, and we’ve recently reestablished the apple orchard, from which we make apple juice with each year’s harvest.

Since the 1960s, at Logis de Beaulieu, we have a number of vacation rentals that we manage during the summer months. This actually requires a lot of work and attention… and love. Any Cognac lovers in the region should stop by the domaine.

For guests at Beaulieu, we can indeed arrange intensive Cognac tastings on site, and we can help arrange visits with Cognac producers.

Malt: More and more drinkers are getting into spirits as we speak. Whisk(e)y is currently on top. But factors like palate fatigue, rising prices, and the scarcity of desired expressions are making a lot of whisk(e)y drinkers look into malternatives. Being an online retailer of Cognac, how fast has the growth of Cognac been from your perspective?

Cognac Expert: When we began in 2009, the internet was not a desirable place to be present for Cognac producers. The Cognac region can be considered a conservative region, so new things take time to stick. Today, producers realize the internet is an important and valuable direct-to-consumer channel. Smaller Cognac producers in particular have greater opportunities than ever to sell their products and tell the story about their product.

Cognac Expert’s growth has very much followed the dynamics of the market. We are now the largest website dedicated to Cognac, and we have served the wave of Cognac interest over the past decade in places like the USA and Germany, to name just a few.

Malt: After going beyond The Big Four (Rèmy Martin, Hennessy, Martell, and Courvoisier), one of the first things I learned of are the sub-regions of Cognac (Grand Champagne, Petite Champagne, Borderies, Fin Bois, Bon Bois and Bois Ordinaires). Which of these are the most popular?

Cognac Expert: We can actually consider it to be the Big Five today, now with the arrival of Bacardi’s D’Usse, endorsed by Jay-Z.

But about the sub-regions, or crus: without a doubt, the most popular is the Grande Champagne. But, keep in mind I do not mean to say that the best Cognacs only come from this cru. But, yes, there is no doubt that Cognacs from the Grande Champagne are highly sought after and popular amongst Cognac Expert clients

In talking with lots of producers about this subject, many will agree that the Grande Champagne does not necessarily make the best Cognacs, but it does produce Cognacs that have the best aging capability. That is: even after 50, 60, 70 years in barrel, Cognacs from the Grande Champagne can still keep the beautiful fruit notes and freshness intact; then, of course, there’s a wonderful rancio.

But, of course, there are beauties in all sorts of different styles from all crus. To only seek out Grande Champagne Cognacs would be a mistake

Malt: This leads me to wonder also: does Cognac have any distinguishable styles? Single malt can mostly differentiated by styles such as sherry bomb, heavily peated, lightly peated, and meaty/dirty. Are there stylistic differences between Cognac from each region? How do the long-time Cognac enthusiasts distinguish the different brands?

Cognac Expert: There are distinguishable styles, but the differences are perhaps more subtle than with whisky. For example: if you pour a sherried Speyside and an Islay whisky alongside each other, they will be night and day different. In fact, that is one of appealing things about
Whisky; the styles can be so distinguishable that it is relatively “easy” to find a
suitable style for each palate. One can taste an Islay and a sherried Speyside and easily
understand what the general style of each is like (just talking about general styles, I’m not at all suggesting whisky is not a subtle and complex spirit).

For Cognac, the style differences are present but trickier to decipher. Put a Grande Champagne alongside and Petite Champagne and things become very hard. Some really honest producers out there will say the same thing. However, a Bois Ordinaires alongside a Fins Bois alongside a Grande Champagne will be quite interesting and easy to spot the differences.

There are many production factors that determine the resulting Cognac’s so-called style:

  • Grape variety (most use ugni blanc)
  • Alambic size
  • Duration of distillation
  • Distillation with lees or without
  • Cuts for the bonne chauffe
  • Length of time in new oak
  • Provenance of the new oak: Limousin or Tronçais (wide grain vs fine grain, respectively)
  • Toast
  • Cellar conditions: dry or humid, or perhaps both
  • Length of time spent in old oak
  • Time allowed for the reduction
  • Obscuration (additives, etc)

All of the above production questions lead to Cognacs of differing aroma and flavor profiles, different styles. I’m sure I’m missing some, but you get the idea. In whisky, there is a lot of talk about the cask: first fill, second fill, active, tired, hogshead, octave, PX, and on and on. In Cognac, the cask is vital, of course, but less talked about. Everyone is using French oak, so the palette of options is less than with whisky. For the oldest Cognacs, they are spending the majority of their life in very old oak with no tannins left to give, just a slow microoxygenation.

But then there is the actual intended style of Cognac from the producer. Some examples:

  • VS, VSOP, mixable Cognacs, easily drinkable (facile a boire)
  • Old school, dark boisé style; I recently visited a small producer close to Blanzac and tasted this very old but crazy dark heavily boiséd Cognac. It’s definitely a style that’s not in fashion any more: dark, heavy, sweet.
  • Andre Petit “gourmande” style, round but robust, complex, fruity, intense taste, value for money, 40% ABV.
  • Single cask, vintages, purist Grosperrin style. This style of Cognac has really picked up pace. Lots of interesting stuff here.
  • Crazy old: 50, 60, 80+ years, ultra premium, luxury. Think Louis XIII and other similar very mature but luxurious Cognacs. Often in decanters that can themselves be considered art.

There’s a Cognac for everyone, that’s for sure

Malt: I became more interested in French brandy through the American market because they’re more vocal about it on certain Facebook groups. Aside from certain popular Armagnac brands being wood-forward, I think they also like that there are clear age statements with vintages, bottled at high ABV and more available single casks. Would you know why Cognac has been slow to adapt to these preferences? I think sticking to using VSOPs, XOs, and bottling at 40% is making whisky drinkers hesitant to explore the category

Cognac Expert: It’s true that the vast majority of Cognac is bottled at 40% ABV and follows the standard age classification for blends: VS, VSOP, XO, etc. This won’t change soon. Remember that conservative mindset in the region I mentioned earlier

Vintages and age statement Cognacs are indeed allowed, but the rules as stated in the cahier des charges (like an official Cognac rulebook) concerning the compte age system require razor sharp monthly and annual documentation. Many producers do not want to go through the trouble of that, so they adhere to the rules in place regarding VS, VSOP, XO, etc.

If a producer wants to indicate age on a label, but not officially declare an age statement or a vintage, there are plenty of options available. We actually wrote a blog article on this exact topic.

I do not know what the respective rules are in Armagnac, Scotch whisky, or Rum concerning how they prove their age statements. Sure, we can all agree that on a Scotch whisky label the age must be a minimum age, but what is required of the producer to justify that? No one ever talks about that. In Cognac, anything that goes on a label must be justified and documented. This ensures perfect traceability. It’s a bit extreme, but it’s the way it is and, again, I do not see it changing anytime soon.

Malt: Almost all of the brandy and rum drinkers I know used to drink whisky exclusively. Do you know of Cognac fans who were previously into other beverages before they really took a liking to Cognac? I think a lot of whisky drinkers show some interest because they’re both brown spirits. I’m trying to find if Cognac has another angle or connection to other categories that might make them interested.

Cognac Expert: First, I would say wine enthusiasts. The connection between wine and Cognac is very close, so it’s only natural for wine lovers to take an interest in Cognac. Even when you visit producers in the Cognac region, it’s impossible to forget that the region is a wine region not unlike any of France’s other famous wine regions. There’s just the added step of distillation and long barrel aging.

As for spirits: I know a handful of people who were into other spirits – mainly rum and single malt whisky – before seriously taking the dive into Cognac, but they never truly abandon any one spirit, thankfully. There’s something to be said for diversity. I even think tasting other spirits can help one’s understanding and appreciation of their “main” spirit.

One other thing that we have noticed is that many folks are starting to take notice of Cognac because of the incredible value for age Cognac offers. For example, a fifty year old Scotch whisky will be hard to find, and if you find one, it will cost you dearly. But, a fifty year old Cognac (even if it is not officially stated 50 years old on the label) is relatively easy to find. It’s not cheap, but relatively speaking it presents tremendous value compared to the same aged whisky. So many folks’ eyebrows raise when they see this type of pricing situation.

Prices are never static, so who knows where things will be with Cognac in five, ten, twenty years.

Malt: Aside from the Big Four, what are Cognac brands you’d recommend to those looking to explore Cognac?

Cognac Expert: Our mission at Cognac Expert has been and always will be to promote the diversity of Cognac. Only in Cognac will you find a landscape of 3000+ grower-distillers, each with their own family tradition and heritage growing and distilling.

It’s hard to pick one brand, so I won’t name brands, but what I suggest is that a newcomer to Cognac starts with a VSOP and an XO from a small artisanal style producer. This will already give the taster a good indication of how aroma and flavor profiles evolve for Cognac after time in the barrel. Note that many smaller producer’s XO are already aged 20+ years, even if it only says XO on the label. Even our Sophie & Max Selection bottlings would be a good fit for the XO quality bottle. This series is very people-centric, focusing on the people that make it, and typically contains mature blended Cognac that is bottled just above the standard 40% and contains no additives.

Then, the next bottle would definitely be a single cask Cognac bottling. These are becoming more and more popular and there is some truly fantastic stuff out there. One such example is our L’ESSENTIEL bottlings.

For these first bottles, ideally they are from the same cru. Then, if the person’s interest has peaked enough, then they should explore the other crus and older and younger expressions. The possibilities really are endless.

On our website we have a Cognac Recommendation Assistant that can give really good ideas for where to start one’s Cognac journey based on a number of factors: flavor, aromas, price, design etc. And of course, one can simply write us an email with any specific questions they may have. We’d love to help out.

Malt: Can you talk about the L’ESSENTIEL range? I’ve been lucky to have tried a couple and I think they’re worth knowing about.

Cognac Expert: In the spirits community there is a lot of talk about independent bottlers. L’ESSENTIEL is basically Cognac Expert’s own Cognac independent bottling series. That being said, the word “independent” is imperfect. I consider that we depend entirely on the producer for these bottlings, so dependent bottler is definitely the more appropriate term.

The L’ESSENTIEL series was created during the peak of the COVID-19 crisis, as communities around the world were confined to their homes and Cognac producers were cut off from their typical contact with visitors and other customers. It was a time of uncertainty and fear for many, so we saw it as an opportunity to slow down, reflect, and reunite – ralentir, reflechir, reunir – and enjoy a high quality Cognac that directly supported the small producers throughout the region.

We are currently in our second “season” of L’ESSENTIEL. The underlying ethos has been and will always be to support the small producers in the Cognac region, and to slow things down and live the present moment. But, this year we have made an effort to make the Cognacs more precise, more transparent… more geeky, basically. Here is a table we published that highlights the different emphases of the L’ESSENTIEL “seasons”:

Season I (2020-2021)Season II (2022+)
Support small producersSupport small producers
Limited editionsLimited editions
Unique blends that differ from the producer’s standard rangeSingle barrels, demijohns, or duo barrels that differ from the producer’s standard range
Single cruSingle cru
No additives, no chill-filtration if possibleNo additives, no chill-filtration if possible
42% ABV or above if possibleNo ABV restriction
Cognac age varies, age not emphasizedCognac age varies, age emphasized (A29, A45, A12, etc.)
Transparency about Cognac details encouraged but not emphasizedCognac age varies, age emphasized (A29, A45, A12, etc.)
No back labelBack label (high transparency)
Simple 70cl cognaçaise bottleSimple 70cl cognaçaise bottle
Craft/artisan lookModern, clean, sharp look
Retro and nostalgic design elementsNo retro and nostalgic design elements
Varying label design from one edition to anotherConstant label design from one edition to another
Waxed corksBlack capsule
Fixed priceVarying price
Fixed quantityFlexible quantity, depending on barrel or demijohn

These types of so-called “dependent bottler” bottlings are showing up more and more these days, and we view that as a very positive thing for Cognac. It brings attention to Cognac from other spirit categories, a stronger sense of community (online) has resulted from these bottlings, and – let’s face it – the Cognacs can be really really good.

Still, Cognac as a whole is the big brands, the young and old blends (VS, VSOP, XO, Hors d’Age), the vintages, and these single cask dependent bottler bottlings. Cognac as a spirit is richer because of this.

Right now, the L’ESSENTIEL A29 from Grosperrin (pig hut Cognac, Fins Bois), the L’ESSENTIEL A45 from Marancheville (three 60L mini casks blend, Grande Champagne), and the L’ESSENTIEL A12 from our neighbors Conte & Filles (distillation without lees, Tronçais oak, Petite Champagne) are released and available. Another will come before year’s end.

With this interview, I conclude my string of Cognac-related contributions. Thanks again to Max of Cognac Expert for enlightening us about Cognac. Hopefully the readers will find this useful and be encouraged to explore Cognac more.

My goal has always been to raise awareness and educate on other spirits. Hopefully those who look forward to the Sunday malternatives enjoyed this. I’ll be taking a break from contributing, so this will be my last piece for Malt for a while.

Images courtesy of Cognac Expert.

John

John is a cocktail and spirits enthusiast born and raised in Manila. His interest started with single malts in 2012, before he moved into rum and mezcal in search of malterntaitves – and a passion for travel then helped build his drinks collection.

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