In search of the quinta essentia

(Spectator Scoff, November, 2010)

Courvoisier, the Cognac brandy, has long been synonymous with opulence and majesty. Napoleon himself was known to be fond of a snifter, giving the English owners of Courvoisier in 1908 the idea to market it as the drink of the diminutive Emperor. An early case of ‘celebrity’ endorsement, albeit achieved without the consent of the participant who had died nearly a century before.

This glamorous aura lingers as Courvoisier, and other Cognacs, have become for some African-Americans a status symbol to compliment the ‘ghetto styles’ of Nike Air Force trainers. When Busta Rhymes rapped that ‘Everyone is singing now “Pass the Courvoisier”’, his management company maintained that the beverage had been chosen for ‘artistic reasons’. Needless to say, Courvoisier was not complaining about a double-digit upsurge in US sales.

Surprisingly, today more Courvoisier is drunk in Britain than France and here the company has cultivated an image as a drink for those with cash to burn: the Courvoisier 500 is a marketing campaign in which emerging business people are approached and co-opted by the brand, in exchange for a few perks one assumes.

Last week I was invited to Jarnac, the town where Courvoisier is based in the Cognac region. The offer of a private jet was too good to pass up, so early one Monday morning I found myself being driven to the rarefied surroundings of Cambridge Airport for lift off. In line with Peter Sarstedt’s old song, I would sip my Napoleon Brandy ‘with the others from the jet set’.

On arrival in France I kept secret the fact that my acquaintance with Cognac was mainly restricted to underage forays into the forbidden fruit of my parent’s drinks cabinet. Nonetheless, over the course of three days I confess to developing a taste for the beverage that could have alarming financial repercussions considering L’Essence de Courvoisier has a price tag, in Harrods, of £1,800 pounds. Fortunately their VS is available for the more reasonable sum of £20 or so.

The story of Courvoisier begins with the main grape variety Ugni Blanc – actually the Italian Trebbiano – low in sugar, and suited to the mainly chalky soil of the Cognac Appellation. After harvesting it is fermented to an alcoholic level of about 10% in stainless-steel vats.

That is the easy part. Wine and even lower alcohol beer have been around for millennia, but advanced technology is required to distil it into the hard stuff. This knowledge arrived via the Arabs who used distillation to produce concentrated aromas and called it al-khulul – ‘the finest’. European medieval scholars who encountered the writings of the scientist known as Abulcasis mistook al-khulul for the misleadingly similar al-ghawl, the ‘spirit’ or ‘spiritual being’. As a result of this confusion, it was believed that alcohol would bring them closer to the secret of human existence, the pursuit of alchemy. Consequently the effect of high alcohol was initially considered medicinal rather than simply pleasurable, and its production was the preserve of apothecaries, the medieval pharmacists. It was not long before its more light-hearted effects were recognised and the distillers became a guild in their own right.

The distillation chambers of Courvoisier retain hints of those original apothecaries: great stoves heat copper tanks out of which bewildering tubes emerge to draw the magical vapours. Distillation (deriving from the Latin destillare = to drip) occurs when the lower boiling temperature of alcohol separates it from water, condensing into what was referred to as the quinta essentia (from which we derive quintessence), the mysterious fifth element.

What emerges from the process is a clear liquid so alcoholic that it burns the mouth. But a distiller versed in the alchemic arts can blend the proceeds to produce the correct notes for maturation.

Next the alcohol is consigned to barrels where it will rest for at least two years and decades in the case of the superior grades which fetch the high prices. It is from these years of interaction with oak that the beverage draws the tannins that impart its distinctive character and hue. The alcohol level now declines as molecules slowly seep through the wood to concentrate the essence. In a throwback to more mythical times, this loss is said to be sacrificed to ‘the angels’. A mixture of old and new barrels are used in the process and stored in giant warehouses where, such is the fire-hazard, it is advised that phones should be powered off.

Courvoisier attach great importance to the quality of the wood that goes into their barrels which is all from French oak forests. The staves are split from the trunk and then seasoned outdoors for some three years.

A visit to a cooperage offers another insight into a bygone age when all work was manual. As the insides of barrels are treated with flame, huge men, resembling terrifying prop forwards, execute skills that have changed little over centuries. Such is the intricacy of the work that a team of about sixteen workers will produce a mere two barrels per person per day.

Cognac, though it does not age in the bottle, will preserve indefinitely because of its high alcohol content so long as it is kept away from bright light. It should be stored upright. Even uncorked, once kept air-tight, it will retain its alcoholic content for years. Efforts are now being made to market it as an aperitif, perhaps accompanied by ginger ale. But since my initiation, its appeal is as the traditional digestif, those aromatic qualities suited to after-dinner-reflection and calm discourse.

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