The Art of Chasing the Unicorn Barrel
“It’s not a question of money. It’s very emotional." Serious brandy geeks take note.
The brandy world (small as it is) has been buzzing about Cognac Grosperrin after the surprising news that French spirits house Maison Villevert acquired a stake in the merchant known for its rare, small-batch Cognacs. Maison Villevert director Jean-Sébastien Robicquet says he will take a hands-off approach and allow Guilhem Grosperrin to run the company as he has for years—acquiring unicorn barrels and releasing bottles coveted by collectors. For some insights, check out this in-depth interview with Guilhem Grosperrin on Cognac Expert’s podcast.
We will be curious to see how it all goes. My hope is that we will see more Grosperrin in the US. Because what may be more surprising than its acquisition is the scarcity of Cognac Grosperrin available here. In fact, there is currently no US importer for the brand. Yes, you’ll still find some bottles floating around, but I was only able to locate three retailers (all in NY or NJ) with any real selection of Grosperrin: Best Buy Liquors in Brooklyn; All-Star Wine in Latham, NY; and Wine Library in Springfield, NJ.
Wine Library is about an hour and a half from my home (and wouldn’t deliver and hides the Grosperrin on its website) and so I made the drive to check out their collection in person—yes, look at the reporting legwork I do! About a dozen Grosperrin offerings were locked away with other pricey spirits, and I had to ask a clerk unlock it for me. But I did pick up two vintages (1989 and 1991) of Bois Ordinaires from Ile de Oléron—coastal-inflected Cognac, with beautiful notes of sea spray, pine, apricot, salt water taffy, and spice—that is exceedingly rare.
“It is 40 times more difficult to find an old Bois Ordinaires than an old Grand Champagne,” Guilhem Grosperrin told me recently.
As it happens, I was in Cognac when news of the Grosperrin acquisition first made the rounds. I spent a day 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. (One historic tidbit I learned from Guilhem: 1958 was the smallest Cognac harvest of the 20th century; 1959 was the largest).
“I think I’ve always tasted quite well,” Guilhem says. “I’ve always been able to find things that others couldn’t find.” He is also a master of understatement.
In Cognac, 85 percent of stocks are owned by merchants, or negociants. That includes all of the Big Four, but also smaller, artisan negociants such as Vallein-Tercinier or even Jean-Luc Pasquet’s Trésors de Famille selections. But it gets harder and harder every year to source barrels. Forty years ago, there were 30,000 producers in Cognac. Now, there are only around 4,000. “Very old Cognac is very difficult to find,” Guilhem says.
“Historically, Cognac is a merchant business,” he 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.”
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 as a buyer for over seven 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.”
Giulhem 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 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 25-30% 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.”
Guilhem showed me thick binders of lab analysis he’s done on many bottles of well-known Cognac brands. Based on his analysis, it’s shocking how many highly regarded producers rely on boisé or other additives. “You will be surprised by the number of people who say, ‘Oh, we are natural,’ but they are not.” (NOTE: I am mulling how to approach this topic, including Guilhem’s basis of analysis for an upcoming issue of Brandy Advocate).
I’m hopeful that Guilhem’s new partnership with Maison Villevert means that Cognac Grosperrin will soon have a new US importer, and we will soon begin to see more of these special, unicorn bottlings.