Chasing the Unicorn Barrel
Cognac's big-brand bling is old and tired. The real energy, and value, lies in the region's smaller artisan producers.
Cognac is complicated. It’s a region of thousands of growers and producers, but in reality it’s controlled by four brands— Hennessy, Martell, Rémy Martin, and Courvoisier. In the U.S., the so-called Big Four sell about 90 percent of the Cognac consumed, with Hennessy alone accounting for 60 percent. The majority of those sales are of one product: Hennessy VS. Prices, aging, and pretty much any other rule about what’s allowed and what’s not is effectively set by these Big Four. They wield their power. “The big guys have always set the rules,” says Alexandre Gabriel, president of Pierre Ferrand.
My own relationship with Cognac is complicated. I love Cognac and I’ve covered the spirit for almost 15 years, spending significant time in the region. But I’m still very much an outsider. One reason is that I advocate for smaller brands, which naturally puts me in opposition to the Big Four.
The video in this newsletter is from this past winter, when I spent a day barrel hunting with Guilhem Grosperrin, a Cognac merchant based in the city of Saintes.
In Cognac, 85 percent of stocks are owned by merchants, or negociants, who buy from smaller producers. That includes the Big Four, but also artisan negociants such as Grosperrin or Vallein-Tercinier. Even acclaimed small producers like Jean-Luc Pasquet will do special bottlings (via its “Trésors de Famille” line) of barrels they select from other cellars. “Historically, Cognac is a merchant business,” Grosperrin says. “I like the job of a merchant. I like this way of working. It gives me the liberty to pick out the best casks. When you have a vineyard, you have to tie up all your money in the vineyard.”
The video above shows clips of Guilhem and I visiting the tiny cellar of a 71-year-old distiller named Marcel. Cognac is a secretive place (which is why I’m not sharing Marcel’s full name). When we arrived in the late afternoon, Marcel had just arrived home from boar hunting. He eyed me suspiciously, then asked Grosperrin: “Does he like to drink?” Grosperrin chuckled and said, yes, very much. With the ice broken, we stepped into his dark, dusty cellar to taste exquisite brandy from barrels that had been aging from the 1980s through the early 2000s.
In fact, Marcel had not actually distilled anything since he retired in 2012. During his career, he’d sold most of his stock to one Big Four producer or another, just like thousands of small producers all over the region. Most of these producers always keep at least a few special barrels for themselves.
“What they keep is for pleasure, or patrimony, or as souvenirs, or for reasons that are not necessarily logical,” Grosperrin says. Finding the best of these barrels in dusty cellars is how Grosperrin makes his living. He has a network of 150 producers like Marcel. “I need to be ready to buy a barrel the moment a family is ready to sell.”
Thursday’s edition will have my top bottle picks from smaller producers at several price points, as well as a selection of Cognac cocktail recipes.
Every year—as they region falls further and further under the sway of the Big Four—it gets harder and harder to source barrels. Forty years ago, there were 30,000 producers in Cognac. Through consolidation, there are now only around 4,000. “Very old Cognac is very difficult to find,” Guilhem says.
On previous trips, I’ve spent time tasting with Guilhem at his cellar in Saintes—including old Borderies dating to the late 1920s, Grand Champagne from the 1930s, mid-1950s Fin Bois, and 1970s Petite Champagne. “I think I’ve always tasted quite well,” Guilhem says. “I’ve always been able to find things that others couldn’t find.”
Guilhem’s father Jean—who the company is named for—had been a distiller in the north of France. “I spent all my childhood in a small distillery,” Guilhem says. But in 1989, his father sold his stills and moved to the south of France where he spent a couple of years learning wine. Eventually, the family ended up in Cognac. The 1990s were a bad time for Cognac, coinciding with the Japanese financial crisis. “By 1992, the value of Cognac was nothing,” Guilhem says. Over the next decade, his father worked as an independent broker and in 1999 he bought five casks of his own to sell.
By 2004, when Guilhem took over the business, they were doing about 200,000 euros a year in sales. “I wanted to build a Cognac house, and I needed stock. And a house,” he says. To acquire stock—buying barrels for $10,000 or more—one obviously needs a large amount of capital. Guilhem worked with Camus for several years. That experience with the bigger house was invaluable.
“In 2004, it was not like it is now,” he says. “Fifteen years ago, there were no young people in Cognac. I was 23, 24 years old, and the older merchants were happy to find a young guy like me.” He adds: “You have to have relationships with older producers, older merchants. They’re the ones who have the old Cognac.”
Guilhem insists that a merchant must be sensitive and respectful to the liquid history that’s entrusted to him, and to the people who’ve made it. As an example, Guilhem pointed to a sample that had been brought to him by a 75-year-old man. This Cognac came from casks of the man’s brother, recently deceased, which had been distilled after the brother’s first harvest, in 1961.
“This was a guy who sold everything, every cask, during his whole life. But he kept two casks from his very first harvest. He kept these casks for 60 years,” he says. “It’s not a question of money. That’s not why he’s selling this. It’s very emotional. So, how can I take this and then just blend into an XO? These barrels have to be respected.” That’s why every Grosperrin bottle has a short essay on the label, giving a brief history of the family, the place, and an explanation of why this batch is unique.
“The big brands, they have no consideration for this kind of thing,” he says. “This is our strength. I can afford to have long talks with a producer over 20 liters.”
Once Grosperrin acquires a cask, it will still age a number of years in his cellar in Saintes. About 25 to 30 percent of the age is generally in the Grosperrin cellar. A 40-year-old Cognac has likely spent a decade under Guilhem’s watchful eye.
Beyond a romantic story, a cask has to pass muster. Guilhem’s taste, of course, but a cask acquired by Grosperrin also undergoes lab analysis. “None of our Cognacs have boisé, zero percent,” he says, refering to the mixture of sugar, oak chips and lower-proof brand, that’s a permitted additive to Cognac, to intensify its taste and texture and make it appear older than it is. “With analysis we can detect boisé immediately. You will be surprised by the number of people who say, ‘Oh, we are natural,’ but they are not.” All of the Big Four, unsurprisingly, use boisé. (Even Grosperrin uses some additives in its other brands, Le Roch and Mestreau)
I’m hopeful that Guilhem’s new partnership with Maison Villevert means that Cognac Grosperrin will soon have a new U.S. importer, and we will soon begin to see more of these special, unicorn bottlings.
“It’s not a question of money. It’s very emotional.”
I’m a huge advocate of small, family producers and negociants. For me, labels like Jean-Luc Pasquet, Fanny Fougerat, Jean Fillioux, Remi Landier, Navarre, Vallein Tercinier, Bertrand, Marancheville, and numerous others are where the dynamic energy in Cognac comes from. These people are making the exciting bottles that enthusiasts should be seeking out. (On Thursday, I will publish my top bottle picks from among my favorite artisan producers.)
Still, in this sort of ecosystem ruled by the Big Four, how do family producers survive?
One sad example: When a producer named Michel Laurichesse died last year, it left the future of Cognac Paul Beau, one of the classic producers in Cognac, very unclear. For years, Michel had run the 100-hectare estate in Segonzac with his brother and then his nephew, but by the time of his passing, the family was in conflict about how (and by whom) the company would be run. In all likelihood, we will never again see a new bottle produced and labeled as Paul Beau. Though it dates to 1895, the brand will cease to exist. Olivier, Michel’s nephew, has started his own label and is selling single cask selections. As a company, Paul Beau had already been selling most of its young eaux de vie to Rémy Martin, saving select barrels for its own label. What will happen to the rest of the family’s older stocks?
This kind of struggle is not uncommon.
“It’s always complicated to be seen, because we’re pretty tiny,” says Amy Pasquet, who runs the 15-hectare Jean-Luc Pasquet with her husband, Jean. Located in Eraville in Grand Champagne, the Pasquets are among a handful of producers who don’t sell to the bigger houses. They’re also one of the few organic growers in Cognac. “We have to do all of it ourselves,” says Jean. “You have to know how to drive a tractor, how to be a cellar master and distiller, how to do marketing, how to speak to clients.”
Then there are the strict regulations from Bureau National Interprofessionnel du Cognac (BNIC). “You have to account for every centiliter,” says Amy. “Seriously, they’ve called us about one centiliter.”
Regulations can be especially burdensome to smaller family producers. “Some guidelines have a noble goal. For example, to be environmentally friendly,” says Nicolas Palazzi, of PM Spirits, who has imported Paul Beau. “Others are created with purposes that could be seen as helping the largest businesses assert even more control over the smaller guys, while putting the weight and cost of conforming to said new requirements on the small guys’ shoulders. On the ground, adapting is often costly — new machines, construction or certifications. And this is an extra burden for small makers who already don’t know what a ‘weekend’ feels like.”
Whatever the case may be, sometimes there’s a breaking point. “There’s a moment when one feels one hasn’t signed up for this,” Palazzi says. “Because the nature of the thing has been changed. It leads to small guys asking themselves questions: Why am I doing this? For what? Is there any sort of legacy? Is the daily pain worth it?”
This recently happened with another legendary producer in Grand Champagne, Guillon-Painturaud. Though the estate dates to 1610, Line Guillon-Painturaud recently decided to change careers and sold her family’s 19-hectare property and its stocks to an investor who owns several other estates. Just as with Paul Beau, it remains to be seen what happens next.
Still, despite the challenges and difficulties, there is still a lot of deep satisfaction in operating an independent family-run Cognac house.
“When the market is mature enough, people look for smaller brands,” says Amy Pasquet. While the Pasquets don’t sell to the larger houses, plenty of family producers do. For instance, Bertrand, with 85 hectares in Petite Champagne, sells 85 to 90 percent of its production to Hennessy, keeping select barrels for their own label. “It’s accurate to describe Hennessy as an 800-pound gorilla,” says Seph Hall, who runs Bertrand with his wife Thérèse and brother-in-law Samuel. “But they’re not nasty. They’re not a distempered 800-pound gorilla.”
When I was in Cognac last fall, I stopped by Paul Beau’s modest tasting room in downtown Segonzac to inquire about Lignee de Samuel, their legendary top bottling. I was told they only had three bottles left in house. But I couldn’t buy any because I didn’t have enough cash on me, and they didn’t have a working credit card machine on site.
As I drove away, it made me think about how fragile this all is, the life and work of the independent family Cognac maker. That’s what we’re celebrating this week.