Published in Private Edition 33
SOUTHWEST OF FRANCE, between Paris and Bordeaux, is Cognac country. The region known as La Charente takes its name from the river that runs through it, a waterway some say was dubbed ‘the river of patience’ by 18th-century spirit traders. Patience is a quality referenced regularly here, whether you’re discussing the history of the region or the lengthier distillation process at the award-winning House of Bisquit, which sets it apart from other Cognac producers.
The House was founded in 1819 by Alexandre Bisquit, a 20-year-old entrepreneur whose family lived and worked in the Charente area. Drawing on their experience and craft, he created a range he believed to be superior and began to introduce it to markets around the world. On his travels, he developed an understanding around the importance of taking time outside the business and appreciating special moments, and decided to apply that life philosophy to his distillation process.
The Bisquit maître de chai (cellar master) has a very special relationship with time, explains Bisquit president Vincent Chappe (pictured opposite). At age 54, Denis Lahouratate draws on a combined 80 years’ experience with his predecessor, and patiently preparing to step into his shoes is a female oenologist, currently in year seven of her 12-year apprenticeship. ‘It’s a challenge for our cellar master,’ says Chappe, who hails from Cognac. ‘In wine you accept that from one year to another the yield can be different. In crafting Cognac, there is only one solution.’
The grapes used in Bisquit Cognac are picked from the surrounding Grande Champagne, Petite Champagne and Fins Bois regions in late September or October, and lightly pressed immediately after harvesting to release a juice that becomes a highly aromatic wine in a few days. Bisquit follows a double distillation process over five months from November to March to produce the clear, colourless fruit brandy known as eau de vie. ‘Double distillation in a specific Charente copper pot is still mandatory,’ says Chappe. ‘We distil for longer to achieve a smoother, more generous bouquet. And then there’s the maturation… a continuous exchange between eau de vie, air and wood, while the Cognacs age in handmade French oak casks. All this makes it a very sophisticated product and probably the most expensive spirit to produce in the world because of its label of origin.’
He’s talking about the level of excellence that industry professionals strive for to bear the name of the Cognac AOC – Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée (controlled appellation of origin Cognac). Chappe serves on its committee, which works to ‘preserve the authenticity and uniqueness of Cognac, from vineyard to market’. ‘We have a responsibility to this product. Like the motto used by the luxury watchmaker – “you never actually own a Patek Philippe, you merely look after it for the next generation”. It’s exactly the same for Cognac.’
Ironically, the French favour whisky above Cognac, with 97 percent of the latter being exported. The US and China are the top markets for Cognac, with South Africa now at number eight. ‘We see that everywhere brandy is strong, Cognac is strong as well,’ says Chappe. ‘And it’s doubling every year. It’s remarkable.’
Eighty percent of Cognac in the world is consumed mixed. Loved by mixologists, it’s delicious as an aperitif and goes well with food. ‘With fish we love the VS (served chilled, because the temperature increases by three degrees per minute); with beef and blue cheese we like the VSOP – it’s very easy drinking and my favourite in the range. The marriage between the more complex XO and chocolate is amazing,’ says Chappe.
There are two don’ts when it comes to enjoying Cognac. The spirit is seldom offered as an after-dinner drink, as a nod to the worldwide campaigns against drinking and driving, and you should never warm it by cupping the glass.
Chappe recommends a tulip-shaped, thin glass, explaining that the thickness and shape of the glass is as important as the temperature of the spirit, which should range between 16 and 18 degrees. How to savour it then? Hold the stem as you slowly turn the glass to admire the colour and texture of the Cognac, then lower your nose to the rim of the glass even slower. Sniff gently, then taste. ‘It should be a quiet, respectful, stylish ritual. Pure and simple. Not show-off. That’s what Cognac must be. It’s about sharing time… sharing good things.