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Blithe Spirit

Nobody knows for sure why the practice started. Maybe it was an early example of the bulk buy. A plausible but unprovable explanation is that English merchants were getting tired of seeing their supplies of French brandy interrupted by the incessant Anglo-French wars of the 18th century and decided they needed a strategic stockpile from which to supply their customers. But whatever the reason, sometime around the 1750s a few enterprising English merchants, operating mainly out of the ancient port of Bristol, started buying their Cognac from France in barrels rather than bottles, which tend to get smashed in stormy seas. They bought it young—presumably because it was cheaper that way—then matured it in their own cellars. Because it arrived in England much sooner than would otherwise have been the case (and before it could be sold legally), it was dubbed “early-landed” Cognac.

What happened next is not the subject of any historical record or account but clearly involved a good deal of that wonderful ingredient, serendipity. Just as somebody in Bourbon County, Kentucky, discovered that charred barrels make a better whisky, the good merchants of Bristol observed that the young, early-landed Cognac they had placed in their deep, dank cellars not only got better with age—a phenomenon already recognized by the Cognac cognoscenti—but also matured in a way that was decidedly different from the brandy laid down for aging in France. It was paler, mellower and somehow softer and more fragrant—particularly if the barrels were left undisturbed like sleeping beauties for ten or twenty years. The merchants liked it and so did others. Customers for the early-landed, Bristol-aged Cognac soon included the great colleges of Oxford and Cambridge, whose fellows liked to indulge in good brandy when they weren’t knocking back the vintage port. Members of the aristocracy and even the royal family itself were not far behind.

The flavor factor

A market was born, and word of this early-landed brandy soon got out. The French Cognac houses could have scuppered the Bristol merchants by denying them their raw material, but the market was too porous, and if an embargo was ever considered it was certainly not implemented. Instead many Cognac houses—notably Hine and Delamain, founded respectively by Englishman Thomas Hine and Irishman James Delamain—decided to get in on the act and started shipping their own brandy to England to be landed early.

What the Cognac houses realized was that they could not replicate the early-landed taste back home in France. This was due entirely to the conditions in which early-landed Cognac is matured. Bristol’s deep cellars, carved out of the chalk that lies underneath the port city, are cooler and much damper than the chais of Cognac and Jarnac, the twin towns of Cognac production. Relative humidity in the latter fluctuates between 40% and 60% while in Bristol’s cellars the humidity rarely falls below 95%. And whereas the temperature of the French chais can reach as high as 72º F in the summer months, Bristol’s cellars maintain a steady, chilly 46–53º F. The main result is that the two brandies mature in ways that make them very different. France’s drier, warmer cellars make for higher evaporation of water and alcohol from the spirit, with the water disappearing faster than the alcohol (which evaporates at a rate of around 2% a year—the so-called part des anges, the angels’ share). As a result the ratio of alcohol to water (the so-called cask strength) remains higher. So when it’s time to bottle the golden liquid, the France-matured spirit is watered down to reduce the alcohol content to the customary 40%, whereas early-landed Cognac loses less water, thanks to its humid surroundings, and hits the 40% alcohol mark naturally.

But the most important flavor factor is the difference in the ways the maturing spirits with their particular alcohol and water levels react with the barrel and the surrounding atmosphere (remember, wooden barrels are not 100% airtight and watertight). Cognac matured under French conditions extracts and assimilates more compounds such as tannins from the wood of the barrel and becomes more oxidized, giving it a much darker hue than early-landed Cognac, with hints of so-called rancio—the term given by Cognac aficionados to that complex blend of aromas and tastes from the wood that intensifies with age. Early-landed Cognac, on the other hand, is characterized by its finesse and fragrance, its lighter color, its delicate floral notes and long finish—characteristics that make it a favorite with connoisseurs.

Legendary years

The vintage mystique has also drawn these connoisseurs to early-landed Cognac. Until relatively recently it has been very difficult to bottle or buy vintage Cognac in France—that is to say, Cognac bearing the date of the year in which it was distilled and the date it was bottled (thus allowing the buyer to calculate how long it spent maturing in the barrel). The law changed in 1989, but before that there was no mechanism in the French regulatory system that allowed Cognac of a particular vintage to be easily segregated from other years until the time came for bottling, and vintage statements were effectively banned.

Cognacs were—and still largely are—blends of spirit from different years, different distillations and different barrels, the aim being a consistency of taste to maintain a house style rather than showcasing a particular year with its idiosyncrasies. So Cognac connoisseurs who wanted to taste a special vintage—the legendary 1928 or 1948 for example—were forced to go to certain retailers, like Averys of Bristol or London-based Berry Bros. & Rudd, to buy from their early-landed supplies. Through the years, however, some of the Cognac houses, including Hine and Delamain, have built up early-landed stocks in Britain—which is why they can now offer vintage Cognacs.

These days very little early-landed Cognac is matured in Bristol, where the famous old cellars have been forced out by redevelopment in the city center. Hine also has stocks maturing on the Scottish island of Islay, justly famous for its great malt whiskies. But most early-landed stocks are now in the tender care of John Barrett, whose Bristol wine background led him to found the Bristol Spirits company back in the 1970s. Since then Barrett has become the virtual custodian of early-landed Cognac, first in an underground quarry near the village of Wickwar in rural Gloucestershire and now in the northern port of Liverpool, where he also matures early-landed rum. Barrett won’t confirm how many hogsheads of Cognac are slumbering in his cellars but there’s enough, he says, to keep the connoisseurs happy for the foreseeable future. Let’s drink to that.

Originally published in the January 2012 issue of France Today

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