Cognac: Imperial spirit

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Cognac was Napoleon’s desert island luxury, says Matthew Wilcox. But after years in decline, it has taken rap stars to revive the spirit

Asked to imagine himself castaway on a desert island, David Cameron declared he would seek comfort in a bottle of single malt. Earlier, and facing a similar predicament, Napoleon Bonaparte thought five barrels of cognac would see him through exile. The comparison reveals more than a fondness for the consolations of hard liquor, or indeed the comforts of home. In the intervening 200 years, whisky has taken brandy’s at the top table.

Two centuries ago, if you wanted hard liquor, brandy was the only serious choice. Gin was for the poor, and rum fit only for sailors and slaves, while whisky was barely known outside of America and the Celtic backwaters. Brandy, and particularly cognac, had pedigree: it was proclaimed by Dr Johnson a “drink for heroes” – quite literally for Horatio Nelson, whose body was pickled in a barrel of the stuff.

Only after phylloxera had devastated the vineyards of France in the late 19th century did cognac begin its own long imperial retreat. France now drinks 20 times more scotch whisky than it does cognac. For decades, cognac struggled to escape its tradition-bound image. Recently, however, there have been signs of a revival. Allied to an unlikely new allure brought by admiring American rap stars who respect the drink’s history and mystique, cognac is once again on everyone’s lips. Busta Rhymes and P. Diddy had a top ten hit with Pass the Courvoisier. Sales have risen 30 per cent in the past year alone.

Commenting on the recent cognac revival, Richard Harvey, Bonhams European Head of Wine said, “There are a number of bottles from 1802 to 1812 vintages coming up for sale at the moment which were bottled in Edwardian times when there was a fashion for Napoleonic cognac –probably because of Napoleon’s 100-year anniversary.

Made in a limited area around the town of Cognac in south west France, the product is controlled by rigorous rules. These ensure it is aged no less than two years and also dictate exactly which months of the year it can be distilled.

Like its namesake Napoleon, cognac comes from humble origins. Thin, weak and tasteless, the wine from the ugni blanc grape offers precious little hint of greatness – until distilled. After years in cask, the eau-de-vie begins to exhibit a number of changes. Spirit from the same still begins to develop distinct characters and eventually acquire the warm, woody, maderised flavours that mark good cognac. The Master Blenders monitor the ageing process by tasting regularly and decide when it is time to switch from one cask or chai – ageing warehouse – to another, so the spirit gradually becomes rounder or dryer according to the blend.

It is the years of tradition, maintained by meticulous attention, that should ensure cognac’s budding revival lasts longer than Napoleon’s own brief effort.