In the world of fine spirits, in the world of wine, and now also in the world of night clubs and jet-set parties, many know the joys of Cognac.
Its pungent flavors of honey, caramel, dried fruits and sweet spices combine the concentration and character of a grape spirit aged for several years in barrel —sometimes decades—, with the finesse of a French brandy grown on rare chalky soils, similar to those found in Champagne.
All generations seem to appreciate the drink too. From the Baby Boomers and Xers who prefer it after diner, on dessert or with a cigar, to Milllenials convinced by Jay-Z, Nas and other US rappers that the best cocktails are made with it, Cognac is a popular drink.
It is impossible indeed to argue that Cognac isn’t a unique product in the world of spirits.
Its production process, from vine to Cognac, is the result of a long tradition of growing grapes specifically for crafting the finest possible brandy, combined with the unparalleled ageing of old eaux-de-vies in the houses’ cellars.
Distilling wine in old-fashioned copper stills, ageing the white spirits in barrels made from oak trees grown close-by in France, and blending rare decade-old brandies with younger more explosive ones, are some of the many traits that make Cognac distinct from any other fine drinks.
Yet, despite the worldwide fame of Cognac, the fascinating stories behind it, the rare savoir-faire of the locals, and the rich History of the area, not so many actually make the effort to go and visit the region, and explore its distilleries.
Well, it’s a shame…
Cognac is changing. Distilleries are opening their doors to deliver world-class touring and tasting experiences.
Although, visitors are welcomed, better than ever in Cognac it seems!
For my first-ever visit in the area, I was able to sample some of the first-class experiences and memorable discoveries Cognac has on offer.
Visiting the Grandes Maisons of Cognac
If you know Cognac, you certainly also know the names of some Grandes Maisons. The top 5 producers of Cognac, indeed, control over 90% of the region’s spirits output in volume: Hennessy, Martell, Remy Martin, Courvoisier, and Camus.
I heard locally that many visitors come to Cognac to visit in fact their favorite brand’s headquarters and production facilities. It is no surprise then, that these Maisons offer some of the most exciting experiences in the area. But there are also many other wonders and activities to enjoy here, from visiting and getting to know smaller producers, to restaurants, cocktail bars, a brand new luxury hotel, or visiting the stunning medieval Castle, Château Royal de Cognac.
I was lucky enough to experience tours at three of these prestigious houses, all absolutely worth a detour…
If only for those, stopping by for a few days in Cognac is a must-do during a trip through France.
Let’s remind everyone that Cognac is only an hour and half North of the self-proclaimed ‘world capital of wine’: Bordeaux.
Visiting Hennessy in Cognac
Hennessy is without a doubt the most famous of all Cognac brands.
It is responsible for more than half of all Cognac’s brandy output in volume and is helped immensely by the marketing power of the LVMH group it belongs to (Louis Vuitton Moët Hennessy).
With the region’s largest stocks of old Cognacs, the house is able to craft some of the finest and most consistent spirits as well.
With four different tours available, Hennessy welcome visitors, and welcomes them very well from what I saw.
Starting at €18, the tours give you an immersion into the brand’s universe, including of course tastings of the Cognacs. Tour prices increase with the age of the spirits you get to sample (V.S., V.S.O.P., X.O., or Paradis) and the level of detail and the duration of the tour.
Tours begin with a pleasant river crossing on board a boat taking you to the cellars on the right bank of the Charente river, opposite’s Hennessy’s imposing headquarter buildings (see video ‘Inside Hennessy’ further down below). Follow a visit of their museum with dynamic activities to discover the 250 years of Hennessy’s history since its 1765 foundation by Richard Hennessy, an Irish officer serving in the French army under King Louis XV.
For the deepest immersion into Cognac, Hennessy offers a thorough half-day tour with your own private friendly guide, the ‘From Grape to Vines’ tour.
From Grape to Vines – VIP Tour of Hennessy
The ‘From Grape To Vines’ tour changes with the season, and gives you access to a VIP visit of the house’s production facilities.
If you’re looking at visiting a distillery in operation while the eaux-de-vie are being distilled, know that Cognac brandies are only distilled from mid-fall and through wineter, but all winter long at that!
More precisely, most distilleries steam their stills constantly, sometimes day and night between mid-autumn (mid-fall, starting after complete fermentation of the wine, some time in November), all the way to early March.
While vineyards won’t be as welcoming or pleasing to the eyes without leaves in a cold weather, perhaps even damped and muddy, you will be treated with the warming smells and the generous temperature of a distillery with still burners turned on.
Few dare to visit Cognac in winter. White it is the best and only time to witness the distillation process, and the Grapes to Vines Hennessy tour gives you the rare opportunity to enter their stunning Peu distillery.
An extensive tasting workshop of varied eaux-de-vie, from a white one before any barrel ageing, to old Cognacs like Paradis, will finalize your immersion and comprehension of how deep the world of Cognac can be.
Staff is friendly and seems prepared for accommodating the desires of demanding visitors.
Watch the Distillery Tour of Hennessy in Video
Tasting Hennessy Cognacs with a Hennessy Expert Guide
More information about Hennessy tours with Les visites Hennessy: The 360° cognac experience or at lesvisites.hennessy.com
Top Facts about Hennessy Cognac House
1600 growers produce grapes destined to the production of the various Hennessy products. Grapes are sourced almost exclusively from the 4 best vineyard areas in the Cognac appellation area: Petite Champagne, Grande Champagne, Borderies, and Fins Bois. Virtually all grapes are machine harvested in Cognac, with the occasional exception of very young vines.
Hennessy buys about 20,000 new oak barrels per year and uses a total of 380K wine barrels in total to age its spirits! The house has its own coopers, for repairing barrels that may start to leak or be damaged. Most oak barrel in Cognac are made from French oak in the traditional Cognac-size format containing 350 liters.
At Hennessy, 7 tasters form the comité de dégustation . They are trained for 10 years before they can join this coveted closed circle which tastes about 10,000 differents lots of Cognac to define the blends (assemblages) and the potential for each lot to be aged further or not.
Main Hennessy Cognacs products: Hennessy VS, Hennessy VSOP Privilège, XO, Paradis, Paradis Imperial, Richard Hennessy, Hennessy Privé, James Hennessy, Limited Edition by Marc Newson.
Visiting Remy Martin in Cognac
The Maison Rémy Martin offers what is probably the widest range of tours and experiences in the area, with 15 different options at 3 different locations.
The house’s historic headquarters in the center of Cognac allow to discover with a guide the history of Rémy Martin (founded 1724) and the different processes involved in the crafting of cognac through ageing in the cellars.
The impressive Merpins Estate’s production facility, which you visit aboard a miniature train, offers an opportunity to see a large-scale making of fine Cognac, the attention to detail involved in the process, and a stunning Louis XIII ‘Paradis’ barrel room.
Read more about visiting Rémy Martin with the article Cognac Tasting in the Heart of Cognac or check the Tours page on visitesremymartin.com.
Among the varied experiences available at Rémy Martin, like the creation of a cocktail, an introduction to Louis XIII, pairings with chocolate, the ‘Gourmet Tasting Experience’ may well be the most attractive and fascinating.
It was the one I was given to attend…
A Gourmet Tasting Experience at Rémy Martin
The ‘Gourmet Tasting Experience’ is a rare, and frankly, a fantastic opportunity to taste Rémy Martin XO Cognac with a huge variety of different ingredients and produce.
You are taken to one of the salons of the cozy Rémy Martin Club, to discover a table like you’ve never seen before, covered in superb and tempting ingredients and products.
From fresh and confit fruits like apple, mandarin or pear, a variety of nuts, spices such as cinnamon and Safran, to cocoa beans, cheese, honey, or pudding, the whole world of flavors and scents seems to be gathered in one single place for you to enjoy. And, of course, there is some Rémy Martin Cognac for tasting too!
The idea is to sniff, smell and taste everything, at your own pace and convenience.
The massive ‘platter’ offers a combination of ingredients that represents the aromas commonly found in Cognac, like vanilla, honey or dried apricots, with produce that pair amazingly well with the spirit, such as Parmigiano cheese and dark chocolate.
For an hour or two, you can sample, smell, try out to match what you smell with what’s in your glass.
Surely this is the best way in the world to understand the aromatic profile of a Cognac AND to get to know your favorite food pairings with it.
I personally had a revelation pairing Cognac and chocolate, a classic combination I’m told, but one I had never so successfully experienced before.
Rémy Martin X.O. association with nuts, such as almond and cashew, also works remarkably well too, creating fireworks of toasted flavors on your palate.
The special and rare way of approaching Cognac absolutely provides a rare tasting experience I can only recommend you attend if you go to Cognac.
One you should actually go to Cognac for!
Witness the Cognac & Food Experience and Tour at Rémy Martin, In Video
Learn more about the ‘Gourmet Tasting Experience’ at visitesremymartin.com
Read more about Rémy Martin and their Cognac with the Rémy Martin X.O. Cognac Review
Visiting Martell in Cognac
Founded in 1715 under the reign of Louis XIV by Jean Martell on the banks of the Charente river, Martell is the oldest of the great cognac Houses.
Located in the heart of Cognac, the town, Martell’s iconic art-deco tower sits atop the cellars on the house’s historic site by the founder’s house, the starting point for visits.
The site also counts with a modern art foundation, a modernly-designed boutique, and a bar with panoramic views of Cognac and its surroundings from 24 meters up.
The gardens surrounding the site are open to the public and are an attraction local like to enjoy in summer.
Martell offers a variety of tours and workshops, cocktail-making sessions, tasting workshops and courses, often including a visit of the historic founder’s house that shelters an interesting museum full of genuine historic objects that marked the history of the house and the region.
While I visited unfortunately, Martell was entirely revamping its experiences and options. Tours are now closed until spring 2019, but chances are the new offering will be even closer to the expectations of demanding visitors.
Martell Cognacs – Tasting, Review, & Distillery Information
Learn more about Martell, its distilleries, vineyards, elaboration process and new range of products (VS Single Distillery, Blue Swift, WSOP aged in red barrels, Cordon Blue, and XO) with Martell Cognacs – Tasting, Review, & Distillery Information
Read more about Martell Cognac house and its experiences with Discover the House of Martell in Cognac and “Martell Craftsmanship” Tour: The Art of Cognac According to Maison Martell, or check out the Visit Us page on Martell.com.
Visiting Other Maisons in Cognac
Many other Cognac houses I haven’t had time to cover here are also open to the public for tasting and varied experiences so you will get a chance to discover your favorite brand from the inside.
Those include famous producers such as: Bache-Gabrielsen, Baron Otard, Maison Boinaud, Camus, A. de Fussigny, Maison Frappin, Thomas Hine & Co, Meukow, Roullet-Fransac, Louis Roillet, Tiffon Braastad.
More information on Cognac tourism office’s website tourism-cognac.com
Visiting Independent Small Cognac Producers
If you’re after smaller producers of Cognac, and meeting the welcoming people who cultivate the land and vineyards here, as well as those making fine eaux-de-vie themselves ‘at home’, many independent producers and small houses are also open to the public, offering tours of their facilities and cellars. There is always of course, in some fashion or another, a Cognac tasting included in the experience!
Check all the amazing variety of possible tours at: Cognac Houses & Winegrowers.
For a sample of what you can experience visiting an independent Cognac producer, have a look at the distillery profile and tour video of Château Montifaud, such a passionate and fascinating 6th-generation Cognac maker, via the link below:
Prestige Accommodation in Cognac, A New 5-Star Hotel
Many believe Cognac is about to take another dimension in the world of luxury travel in France, as a new 5-Star Hotel just opened a few weeks ago.
In the heart of Cognac, the town, just next to Martell complex and at a short walking distance from many Cognac house attractions, like Rémy Martin and Hennessy cellar doors, the Chais Monnet hotel has converted a former Cognac warehouse on the banks of the Charente River into a modern luxury facility.
Everything at Chai Monnet combines the pre-existing historic building features with warming and elegant modern materials.
The Hotel complex hosts a spa and swimming pool, a brasserie called La Distillerie with tasty and interesting food assembled with talent by chef Sébastien Broda.
A restaurant aiming at being granted Michelin star(s) will open on the site soon too, Les Foudres.
“Here in this historic building, among these ancient barrels, we would like to invite you not just to enjoy your meal, but to meet the region’s producers, the men and women who have made our terroir what it is today. My aim is to bring to your table the memory of their traditions and craftsmanship handed down through the ages, to form a bond between past and present.” area the inviting and promising words of Chef Sébastien Broda about his opening-soon restaurant.
Chais Monnet will also attract Cognac enthusiasts from all around the town with its ‘1838’ bar Located in the Maison Monnet’s former cooperage and offering around 400 different cognacs from more than 40 producers in comfy leather armchairs and a jazzy vibe!
More information and booking at chaismonnethotel.com
Cognac & Food Pairing: The World Needs to Know…
Perhaps the most important revelation I had while visiting Cognac, is how well Cognac pairs with food and a variety of dishes.
For me, and for most, Cognac is more of a digestif as we say in French, and after diner drink, or perhaps one to pair with dessert, on a chocolate fondant for example.
But after a Cognac & Food pairing diner at the sumptuous Château Royal de Cognac, property of Cognac house Baron Otard, I experienced and learnt the secret of Cognac pairing with cuisine.
Watch Successful Cognac & Food Pairings in Video
Cognac is Seasoning to Food
Unlike wine that you can drink with food to quench your thirst, you can’t really drink a lot of Cognac with your food because of the high alcohol content.
As David Boileau of the BNIC (the Cognac Bureau) pointed out to me, when eating with Cognac, make sure to have a glass of water and “drink water when you’re thirsty, not Cognac!”.
Once you know that, you will actually find that Cognac pairs successfully with a wide variety of dishes.
Meats and stews perhaps sound like more natural accompaniments for Cognac, but trying scallops and fish with it worked out amazingly well too, suggesting there is virtually no limit to what you can match with a fine brandy.
When tasting Cognac with food, take a bite of your dish and enjoy its flavors thoroughly. Once you’re done enjoying the food, just after, take a small sip of Cognac.
Remarkably then, something very special happens on your palate. The delicate fading flavors of the dish you’ve just tasted, are brought up to a new life and an explosion of new sensations in your mouth. Delicately combining with the warmth of the spirits, and its intense aromas, the food take another dimension.
Cognac acts as a seasoning with food, enhancing its flavors with a contrasting sensation, like a vinaigrette does in a salad, or pepper on meat. It’s not that vinegar and salad have common flavors, neither have pepper and steak!
But they simply go well together, and work hand in hand for a much higher level of enjoyment, much longer impressions on your palate.
Try it! One of the most delightful experiences of existence.
Cognac Pairing Mobile App
Yes, there is even a mobile application to help and suggest with Pairing Cognac and food.
Developed by the official Cognac Bureau themselves (Bureau National Interprofessionnel du Cognac or BNIC), the Cognac Pairing app allows to find successful matches by ingredients, offers a selection of cooking recipes crafted by famous chefs, and even includes Cognac knowledge and a quiz.
So, next time you’re in France, make sure to stop by in Cognac!