Cognac has been rather overshadowed by Scotch whisky in recent years, with whisky stealing the headlines with limited-edition releases of extreme-aged spirits displayed in presentation cases more objet d’art than packaging.
While Scotch distilleries have been outdoing themselves with increasingly high single-malt age statements, the Cognac maisons have quietly been releasing liquid blended with elements aged over 100 years, presented in beautifully designed decanters and held in stunning coffres.
On a bottle of Cognac, the designation VS (“very special”) represents the bare minimum grade. The following Cognacs take the superlatives to whole new heights.
The best cognacs of the year
LOUIS XIII Cognac Rare Cask 42.1
In 2004, Pierrette Trichet, LOUIS XIII’s cellar master, broke with hundreds of years of tradition. While nosing eaux de vie from thousands of casks for the Louis XIII blend she encountered a cask that stopped her in her tracks.
Trichet made the decision to leave the cask as it was for five years before bottling it in 2009 without blending.
Her successor, Baptiste Loiseau, said: ‘Generations of cellar masters before her would have said, “I will leverage the singularity of this cask by blending”. She said, “no, this one is pure Louis XIII style with some unusually beautiful aromatic peaks and I want to highlight those”. That was her audacity.’
The contents of the cask became the first Louis XIII Rare Cask 43.8 (the numbers refer to the alcohol strength of the single cask).
Loiseau was at Trichet’s side in 2013 when she released the second Rare Cask 42.6 in 2013, just before she retired.
‘It took me almost a decade to experience that moment of emotion that comes when you find perfect balance in a tierçon.
‘In 2021, I discovered the cask that I hoped could become the third Rare Cask, but I was only sure a year later,’ said Loiseau.
The aroma of the cask gave Loiseau a rush of memory: ‘My late grandfather was a horticulturalist – it reminded me of when he cut flowers to take to market in Cognac or to give a bouquet to my grandmother. This cask made me feel like he was standing beside me.’
There are only 775 bottles of the Cask 42.1 available to buy and is the first edition of the collection to be presented as a set. The black crystal decanter, inspired by a flask unearthed on the battlefield of Jarnac in 1569, was handcrafted at the House of Baccarat in France in the familiar Louis XIII design. The set is completed with crystal glasses decorated with black quatrefoils and a serving pipette featuring a black medallion.
Price on application, but rumoured to be in the region of £47,000.
Hennessy Paradis Chinese New Year 2024
To mark the Year of the Dragon, Hennessy has released a Lunar New Year edition of its Paradis blend in a limited-edition handmade porcelain decanter ahead of February’s celebrations.
Created by French porcelain masters Bernardaud, the 485 decanters are decorated with luminous gold dragons by Yang Yongliang, an artist known for mixing traditional Chinese art with contemporary, innovative digital technology.
‘Paradis was created by my great-uncle, Maurice, in 1979. It couldn’t have been done before that because we needed 130 years of preparation – of cellar masters being generous and saying, “I won’t use that eau de vie, as good as it is now, because it will get better”, Renaud Fillioux de Gironde, Hennessy master blender says.
‘People talk about a balanced spirit. This is more than that – my great-uncle was a classical music fan; he wanted to create harmony. I believe it is the most easily approachable cognac there is.’
The Cognac itself is a strikingly bright polished brass colour that shouts of honey and tropical fruits. And for a spirit with this much ageing in it, the freshness of the fruits – especially mango – is remarkable.
With the summer garden aromas of honeysuckle and jasmine playing over the top of a silky mouthfeel, it is very moreish.
Lucky then that LVMH’s Hennessy Rare Editions division regularly releases new designs and collaborations.
Courvoisier Mizunara 2023 Edition
Japanese mizunara oak tree has become a buzzword in whisky thanks to its ability to add an interesting spice profile, with incense-like aromas, and sweet tropical notes such as coconut.
It is also extremely rare – it grows very slowly and is hard for coopers to work with. Scotch distilleries get round this by using a mizunara cask that has already been used to age Japanese whisky. But Cognac cannot be aged in a barrel that has previously held anything not made with grapes.
Courvoisier Mizunara 2023 Edition, is, like its predecessor, aged in casks made from mizunara that are filled with Grand Champagne, Petite Champagne and Borderies. It is the first collaboration between chief blender, Thibaut Hontanx and House of Suntory’s chief blender, Shinji Fukuyo.
Hontanx decided against a pure Grande Champagne, opting for a blend of Fine Champagne and Borderies eaux de vie.
He said: ‘Borderies is known for violet and other floral notes, but as it gets older, it also develops a complex spiciness, which I felt would be complemented by the mizunara.
‘With mizunara oak, you have to take your time, but if you are patient, the eaux de vie develops aromas you rarely have in a cognac… the coconut and sandalwood everyone talks of with mizunara, but tropical fruits too – pineapple and passion fruit.’
500 bottles of Courvoisier Mizunara 2023 Edition are available worldwide. In the UK, they are available at Harvey Nichols, Harrods, and Selfridges, at £2,500 a bottle. courvoisier.com
Camus Les Ateliers
Founded in 1863, Camus is a relatively new maison.
The tenure of the fifth-generation CEO, Cyril Camus, has been marked by a shift towards luxury, first with the Camus Elegance range, and since 2018, Les Ateliers Camus.
The brainchild of Cyril and his wife Alexa, this division fuses art with the rarest eaux de vie to create pieces that are as striking visually as they are in flavour.
Private clients can commission bespoke bottles (and unique surrounding artwork) or choose from two limited-edition ranges: Cuvées, which run to 1,000 bottles with designs by Serge Manseau, and Masterpieces.
Masterpieces has a limited edition of 50 and includes two collections, Ode à la Nature and Poets & Birds.
The Poets & Birds collection is presented in a majestic display of plumage designed by Janaïna Milheiro. Each blend is created individually to ally with the artwork and narrative; the Cognac in the Phoenix piece is a golden hue, while the Scarlet Ibis has a more ruby depth.
If you can wait till early 2024, a collection based on the Voyages Extraordinaires of Jules Verne promises to be even more eye-catching, with (again individually blended) Cognacs presented in, for example, the clutches of a giant octopus.
Prices on application. For enquiries, contact Christophe Regi, Camus luxury business development director by telephone, +33 6 27 81 91 27, or email email@example.com
Frapin Cuvée Rabelais
Pierre Frapin is a rarity in Cognac: a château producer. While most maisons have partner growers who supply them with a greater or smaller percentage of their eaux de vie, Frapin grows all its grapes on its estate in Grande Champagne, and produces the wine it then distils.
As a result, the terminology is that of a winemaker, hence why its special releases are called Cuvées (vattings without an age statement).
The château’s most recent is 2021’s Cuvée Rabelais, named after the 16th century writer, an ancestor of Frapin who was known for his bawdy humour.
Presented in a handmade decanter from Cristallerie Saint-Louis, the Cognac is a classic balance of candied citrus and stone fruit on the nose, quite oak-forward but elegant. Towards the finish, the palate experiences dried fruit and liquorice, with tobacco and cigar box notes.
Grand Marnier Grande Cuvée Quintessence
Grand Marnier Grande Cuvée Quintessence might not be a Cognac (it’s a liqueur), but it so close to being one that it deserves its place in the line-up especially as it’s an approachable way of appreciating the spirit.
Quintessence is the top of the maison’s collection and, while the exact formula is kept secret, we do know it includes liquid that has been preserved in a dame jeanne (demijon) since 1947.
Even the orange essence has been created by redistilling an infusion of Bigaradia orange peel in Cognac.
As well as that integrated orange note, Quintessence offers surprising red fruit, especially cherry, as well as floral notes and fragrant spices such as fennel. It gives a maple-syrup unctuousness without being cloying.
Quintessence comes in a teardrop-shaped, hand blown Baccarat (who designed the iconic original brown Grand Marnier bottle) crystal decanter, which sits in a glass cradle. There is an airtight stopper and a glass one for use when serving – to which purpose, there is also a pair of white gloves!