He unlocks the door and I follow him into a cool, faintly lit room with ancient beams and red tiles. Rows and rows of dusty bottles of cognac, armagnac, port, chartreuse and other liquors stand proudly together on the many shelves like an army of old friends, their heads dripping wax as if they’ve just emerged from a snowstorm. I can sense we’re in a special place.
“This is the world’s largest private collection of old liquors, among which the world’s oldest cognac from 1760”, the collector says proudly
Elixir of the gods
“The most famous one? That’s the one from 1789 – the year the French Revolution started”, he beams. Cognac is a medieval town which bears the name of the famous wine-growing region where this ‘elixir of the gods’ of the same name has been created since the 17th century. All cognac may be brandy, but not all brandy is cognac.
It has to come from a designated area of France by law – the Charente region near Bordeaux – which is divided up into six ‘crus’ – and has to be made according to strict, legal guidelines, ensuring that the 300-year old production process remains unchanged. That means that it must be distilled twice in copper pot stills, the design, and dimensions of which are also legally controlled. The resulting eau-de-vie, a French phrase which literally means ‘water of life’, is a colorless spirit containing about 70 percent or more alcohol. Next, it must age for at least two years in French barrels made from oak trees from the forests of Limousin or Tronçais before it can be called cognac. The final product is usually diluted to a 40 percent alcohol content with pure and distilled water.
The age of the cognac is calculated as that of the youngest eau-de-vie used in the blend, which is usually of different ages. This blending, or ‘marriage’, of different eaux-de-vie, is important to obtain the complexity of flavors absent from an eau-de-vie from a single distillery or vineyard. Each cognac house has a master taster, a ‘maître de chai’ who is responsible for creating this delicate blend of spirits.
The collector points to an enormous bottle, covered in dust. “That one is from 1795. Napoleon’s army took up to 20 or 30 of these bottles with them on a campaign for their officers. It’s worth something between 100 and 150 thousand Euros.” I try, but fail to estimate the value of what I see on these shelves, but am too embarrassed to ask how much money’s worth there is in this room. I sense that – for the collector – this has nothing to do with money. “It’s about passion”, he says, reading my thoughts, “and greed, maybe, but passion sounds so much better, doesn’t it?”
“It’s from 1789, which means it started gathering dust in the year the French Revolution started, the year of the storming of the Bastille!”
When I ask him what his collection means to him, he smiles dreamily. “Look at that one.” He points out a – to me – inconspicuous bottle. “It’s from 1789, which means it started gathering dust in the year the French Revolution started, the year of the storming of the Bastille! It’s amazing that you can drink something that looks so dirty and old, coming from such a turbulent year; something that is more than 200 years old but still tastes so great. I love that contradiction. You know that you will never eat anything that old, do you? This bottle has stood in twenty or thirty cellars. Who was the previous owner? The people who picked the grapes were born 270 years ago. Who were they? Taste changes. Not only during a lifetime, also throughout the ages. The taste of cognac, however, and its appreciation, have never changed and even after 220 years it is still a delicacy. There’s nothing else man-made in the world that’s this old that you can eat or drink. That’s what makes it so unique.” Fact is: cognac would never have become so famous if everyone wasn’t in complete agreement about its consistent superb quality.
“Did you know that cognac is a Dutch invention?” he asks me.
“Did you know that cognac is a Dutch invention?” he asks me. “The French may not like it, but it is.” In the 17th century, Dutch ships bought white wine in the French region of Charente but found it didn’t keep well. They burned the wine to reduce its volume, producing ‘brandewijn’ or, literally ‘burnt wine’. It was also noticed that this brandy, traditionally kept in casks, improved with age and could be drank dry. At the end of the 17th century, the inhabitants of Charente developed the second distillation. Cognac was born.
I know quite a lot of collectors, but I fail to see how you start collecting bottles of liquor. “My father and grandfather, everyone in the family drank cognac”, he muses. “If you smoked cigars, you drank cognac. My grandfather had hundreds of bottles in his cellar which he had been given by his father. He gave them to my father and my father gave them to me, so this is something I have grown up with.
Collecting eventually became a real passion 30 or 40 years ago. It starts with family and friends knowing you’re interested, telling you they have some bottles or know someone who does. Well, 9 out of 10 times it may not be anything interesting, but once in a while, they gave me something special. Then I started going to auctions all over the world.” How is it possible there are still so many old bottles around? “People die, their children come in and clean out the house but the cellar gets forgotten. Eventually, after a hundred years, it does get cleaned out, but no one knows what to do with the bottles. Sometimes they take them to an uncle who puts them in his cellar, or they get taken to an auction house. That’s how Sotheby’s and Christie’s became involved in old liquors in the forties and fifties. That’s where they were bought by lovers of old liquors, but also by restaurateurs. I used to buy bottles for my collection, but my competitors did so for business purposes. So whenever I bought 100 bottles, I could sell 95 and was perfectly happy with the 5 I could keep for myself.”
“You don’t drink cognac”, he says. “You sip it. From one bottle you can pour 20 to 25 glasses. One glass is 20 small sips and it takes an hour or more to drink one glass. You drink it purely for its taste when you’re already relaxed, not to become relaxed or drunk.” Even now, when he tells the story of the unsuspecting cleaning lady who dusted two of his bottles years ago, he can still get angry; especially when I joke that it still tasted the same, didn’t it? “You shouldn’t say that!
“Cleaning a bottle is a horror to a collector!”
When you remove the dust you remove part of the emotion.” It’s probably best not to repeat the punishment he thinks the perpetrator should have received… “It’s out of the question that I would ever open a rare bottle”, he exclaims when I ask him how he decides which bottle to open and which one to leave closed. “A friend of mine had a restaurant that sold more than a hundred cognacs and Armagnacs by the glass. One glass could cost as much as a thousand Euros.
When he sold his restaurant, which was well known to cognac lovers from all over the world, he sold these 100 to 150 bottles that were already open for a very reasonable price. I still drink from those.” This means he even has an opened bottle from 1789. “Isn’t it wonderful that I can taste cognac from 1811 as well as 1789? And I have chartreuse, port, Armagnac and other liquors as well. I can taste them all. That’s what makes this collection so unique for a potential buyer.” Why, is he selling then? “I’ve been considering it for about five years now.”
The history of port, a fortified wine which takes its name from the city of Oporto, begins in the 17th century. It is typically a sweet red wine, often served as a dessert wine, and comes in dry, semi-dry, and white varieties. True Port wine only comes from the Douro Valley in Portugal. “My grandfather gave me 12 bottles of port from 1840, still in their original boxes, which makes them extra special. I also have 2 boxes of white Russian port from 1936. They belonged to an old Russian family that had been making the best quality port for decades. In ‘36 they were arrested by Stalin’s troops and their belongings were confiscated. Their children were able to flee, but the parents were taken to a camp and were never heard of again. If these bottles didn’t have such a terrible history the port would taste even better.”
Like cognac, armagnac is a brandy, but the difference – apart from the fact that it is produced in the Armagnac region of France – is that it is distilled only once. “It is not a cheap cognac, as is sometimes thought”, the collector says. “The average consumer values Armagnac lower than cognac, but that is a false belief and certainly not fact. Cognac has become more of an export product in the last 75 years and is, therefore, better known. You can’t get a good bottle of Armagnac however below 150 euro. It has to be at least 15 years old to get that special taste. This is what makes it so expensive. You could say Armagnac suffers from an image problem and that’s a shame; it deserves far more respects than it gets.”
The collector points out an A.E. Dor of 1805. “My favorite brand”, he beams. In the cognac houses’ cellars, the spirit in the casks slowly turns into cognac by evaporation. The part that disappears into thin air is called ‘the angels’ share’. “I was in A.E. Dor’s ‘Paradis’ in 1980,” he reminisces. ‘Le Paradis’, or paradise, is what the cognac houses call the part of their cellars where they store their oldest and rarest cognacs. Here they rest, bottled in large wax-sealed glass containers called ‘Dame Jeanne’. In A.E. Dor’s paradise, nothing has changed since the 19th century. “They had a wicker basket with a Dame Jeanne of 3.5 liters of cognac down there. At one point one of us asked the owner why he didn’t bottle it. So he did. I bought one bottle, the other 2 relations bought one, the owner kept one and the rest went to the French president. There are now only 3 bottles of Soleil d’Austerlitz 1805 left, one of which is mine. That is so unique – something that is never coming back!”
“I bought one bottle, the other 2 relations bought one, the owner kept one and the rest went to the French president.”
I wonder if you can taste from what year cognac is, like wine. “No, you can’t. Cognac is made from a blend of cognacs from different years”, he explains. “The age of the youngest liquid in the blend – which has to be at least 2 years old – determines the age of the cognac. Once cognac is bottled the aging stops, so you buy a particular bottle because of its curiosity or rarity. What you can taste, however, is that cognac from before the late 19th century, when the phylloxera epidemic destroyed most of the vineyards for wine grapes in France, tastes fundamentally different from the ones after that.“
The Phylloxera is a root louse that attacks the roots of grapevines and eventually kills the plant. Phylloxera appears to have been accidentally imported from North America. To get rid of the pest completely all vine stocks were destroyed, but the cognac houses could survive thanks to their enormous stocks of already distilled cognac. The pre-phylloxera cognac has a unique quality, not found in modern cognacs. The original cognac vineyards were chiefly planted with Folle Blanche. After phylloxera, the cognac growers replanted with grafted Ugni Blanche. The unique character and depth of the 50 to 60-year-old Folle Blanche vines was lost forever. Today, less than 5 percent of the total cognac vineyard is Folle Blanche, the rest is all Ugni Blanche.
The Comet Vintage
The Great Comet of 1811 was one of the largest comets in history and visible to the naked eye for around 260 days. It was thought to be responsible for the long, hot summer and dry autumn and the following abundant harvest that year. Winemakers have always attributed successful vintages and ideal weather conditions like those of 1811 to comets, hence the name ‘comet vintages’. The year on the label, or a picture of the comet on the bottle, became synonymous for outstanding quality. That is why by the end of the nineteenth century there were a lot of 1811 cognacs that were – granted – very fine, but not really from 1811 at all. Producers simply used the year on the bottle to signify this was their best blend, regardless of the actual years used.
In the 20th century in America, ordinary brandies were rebottled under fake 1811 labels, but these are apparently easy to recognize by the connoisseur. “I have about 30 bottles from 1811”, the collector says, so how can he tell they are the real thing? “You can conclude that a bottle has to originate from that period by the age of the bottle, the glass, the cork, the seal, the house and its origin”, he explains. “But you can’t see if a bottle is from 1811 or 1870. You have to assume, use your expertise. I know where I bought each and every bottle, but Christie’s and Sotheby’s are known to sell forgeries now and then as well. You can’t know that, but it’s not so important. I don’t say it doesn’t happen, or I don’t have a few forgeries, but…”
I remember what he said earlier; how this collection would certainly appeal to a buyer. So, is he selling? “I have a tendency to keep everything. My father always said that you had to keep what you found beautiful because you would never be able to get it back. But I can’t keep it all. I’m not getting any younger, but now I still have the energy to sell it; I probably can’t do that anymore in 5 to 10 years’ time. Also, my wife and I don’t have any children or potential heirs who would be able to take care of the collection.”
“My father always said that you had to keep what you found beautiful because you would never be able to get it back.”
The editor looks at all the shelves and wonders if he won’t mind the empty spaces when it’s all gone. “It won’t be gone tomorrow; there’s still a lot to do first. It can take another 10 to 15 years before everything is sold. Let’s say I’m contemplating the moment of selling. I went from love to passion and now I have reached a point where there is nothing left to collect. There are no more unique objects to buy. No one will be able to collect what I have in one lifetime; it would take another 2 to 3 generations. But yes, I’m going to sell my collection – although I’ve been saying that for the last 5 years. It’s easy to split it up into several parts without taking anything away from its exclusiveness, although the advantage of having duplicates is, of course, being able to trade them for others.”
All this talk about liquors has made me long for a drink when I get home and I ask him what cognac he can recommend. “Don’t bother”, he says. “Any cognac under 200 or 300 Euros is just not worth drinking.” Pity; apparently he knows how much I’m willing to spend.