Cognac: The saga of the world's most coveted spirit, by Kyle Jarrard

A detailed and interesting book about the contradictions underlying a luxury product.

Kyle Jarrard's book is actually more of an encyclopedia of cognac. It has everything in it for the cognac enthusiast.

Jarrard, whose wife comes from the Cognac region, provides thousands of interesting facts, but he treads warily about a major contradiction underlying the luxury drinks business.

For the last couple of decades, the cognac industry has moved from being bottled and named by family-owned farms to huge brands such as Henessy, Remy Martin, Martell and Courvoisier, often owned by international conglomerates. For these giants, the bottom line is the bottom line and they basically churn out cognac like Coke churns out Coke.

With 20 companies controlling 98% of the market, every drop is manufactured to ensure predictability in colour, taste and packaging.

Clearly this approach is suitable for a commodity, but is it really suitable for a spirit marketing itself is as a special luxury? The number of bottles which are held back from the market, (one billion, equally to more than five years of production), also indicates that these spirits are not as rarified as the advertising would have us believe.

Perhaps out of politeness to the big business drinks barons he interviews, Jarrard never directly tackles the marketing swindle at the heart of these luxury brands. Despite their claims to product excellence, multi-million marketing campaigns are a better guarantor of increased sales than production quality.

For example, cognac has become the fashionable choice amongst young Black Americans, often doused with soft drinks. In China, cognac manufacturers have resorted to packaging Cognac like perfume bottles, labeled 'for men'.

That, after all is where the new money is, rather than amongst old-style connoisseurs who would only ever add water (if at all) to their cognac, and drink it after dinner rather than as a cocktail.

That leaves the drinks companies in the enviable position of charging premium prices for what is a mass-produced commodity - somewhat like Starbucks, in fact.

The real story would surely be to see to what extent the drinks companies are abandoning production values in favour of marketing.

Jarrard, slightly indirectly, provides some interesting clues. In the second half of the book he focuses on idealistic cognac growers.

Cognac, which is made from white grapes and aged in wooden barrels to provide flavour, is almost never produced in the 'single malt' style of the most interesting whiskeys. Cognac is almost always blended, even the oldest and most expensive bottles.


After tasting a superlative 1893 Grande Champagne, made un-blended from the grapes of the top Cognac wine producing area, and selected from the most precious of Henessey's cognac reserves, Jerrard can't help but ask the obvious question: Why not sell these wonderful drinks as they are, unblended, and by their year of production, like wine?

"If Henessy simply...sold of its stocks by the year, we couldn't bring you the consistent product we make via blending," says the Henessy representative with brutal directness.

So there you have it. Don't expect the excitement of discovering something unexpected when cracking open your bottle. It will all taste exactly the same.

From a business point of view, an identical taste is not necessarily a conscious goal, of course. The identical taste is the by-product of the uniform processes which enable financial and managerial control over the manufacture of such huge volumes.

Yet not everybody has followed the mass production routes of the big drinks conglomerates.

If you want an exceptional cognac, in which almost every step of the production process is done by hand, stay away from the big name cognacs and go for a Paul-Jean Girard, or perhaps one of the other 250 independent wine growers who sell straight to clients. These are cognac makers known to connoisseurs, but not to the broader public fixated on the most advertised brands.

Of the six categories of cognac Girard offers, he blends only one. The other five are single-year and single-growth (that this, they came from one batch of grapes from one particular area).

Girard is a quality fanatic who describes himself as the 'Last of the Mohicans'. It's to Jarrard's credit that growers like Girard are featured to remind readers of what the true spirit of cognac is. If growers like Girard do not become extinct it will surely be at least partly thanks to this excellent book.

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