If Cyril Camus had not been the heir to the fifth-largest cognac house in the world -- and the largest to be family-owned and -operated -- Camus Cognac would have had to pull him from soot-faced Dickensian obscurity and put him in charge anyway.
He has the longish hair and perma-stubble of the rakes who ruin maidens in five-part miniseries. He stands somewhere between six-foot-three and the moon, speaks more languages than you can name (assuming you can name only five or six languages), and says things like "The main purpose of cognac is to facilitate the great moments in a person's life" without sounding like he memorized one of his advertising brochures.
Camus needn't mention yachts and jaunts to China before you begin recalling all of your personal failures and kicking yourself for not drinking cognac just prior to each of your bad decisions.
Until three years ago, the France-based Camus Cognac did not have a presence in the United States, despite the U.S. having only ceded its spot as the largest consumer of cognac to China last year. This summer, Camus has introduced a new line of what he calls "expressions," but the slack-jawed among us might yawningly call "types" or "flavors" of cognac. He has chosen South Florida as his entry point, basing his import company out of West Palm Beach and working to get his bottles into the best bars and restaurants in Miami.
He also sat down with us at New Times HQ, and we happily moved our noontime cocktail to late morning to chat with him and try the new line. Below, enjoy some highlights from our conversation, including plenty of details about his jet-set life, his family's tradition of hunting wild boar with only knives, and what he thinks of the Thug Passion.
His first trip to Florida:
I went to Disney World when I was 8. I remember it so well because it was the first time I saw a bottle of cognac with our name on it other than our house. It was the first time I realized what the family was doing.
I also remember being disappointed that we couldn't bring our Davy Crockett guns back on the plane. And it was the first time I saw a Frisbee. We saw them being thrown in a park. This was in 1979, and Frisbees didn't really exist yet in Europe. I'm dating myself.
My father was very smart about how he brought me into the business. In a family business, that's the one worry: Is there someone who can take on the business and wants to do it? So he was good about showing us the positive parts and took us traveling around the world. And every day at home, we had people coming from around the world to visit and enjoy dinner conversation. Even more so when I left Cognac [France] to study in America, I realized how special it was. Cognac helps to get people together.
Eventually, I realized how special it was to get involved in something with so much heritage and to keep something going that is bigger than me. You don't work for yourself; you work for the next generation. The stocks I'm distilling are for my sons and grandsons. We benefit from the previous generations and prepare for the next.
I have one brother who is not in the business. He's not as interested. He had two passions: making cognac and horseback hunting. And the hunting, that's really his big thing. There came a time where, well, is that a career? No. Sort of. He's drawn his life around that. He's in the wood business. He grows trees.
How the Camus family hunts wild boar:
It's dogs, horses, and knives. The knives come out after four or five hours. It's a heavy sport. It's one of the fairest types of hunting there can be.
You identify one animal from tracks, and that is the one animal you hunt. If you lose that one, you don't try for another one. The dogs are trained. You race the animal; you train to not lose the animal. The boar will go through the water to lose the scent. At some point, it stops to fight. You call off the dogs.
Whoever is closer, whoever gets the nerve goes to do the killing. People are motivated to be precise, because if you are not, it is dangerous. You get off the horse and square off against the boar with only a knife.
I don't have the guts for that. I'm a wimp. I chase the boars on a horse. You can follow along. I'm the only person there who doesn't hunt. That was the social business, the entertainment before golf. The essential part is the eating and drinking.
Trying cognac as a child:
The first time I tried it was when I was 11, but that wasn't condoned by the parents. That was way too early, and I wasn't prrepared. It was with my brother. See, we got pocket money -- a few French francs for cleaning the dishes. One day, not everyone had not finished his glass.
What would any 11-year-old think? It's strong. But I didn't know at 11 it's more of an acquired taste. It was not pleasant, which was good because it isn't good for a child of 11 to really like cognac.
I did not try it again until I was 16. That was when my father trained me -- first, by smelling it. Taste is 80 percent on the nose, and so when I first smelled it, he said that was enough.
Being known as a cognac heir while attending college in the United States:
It was usually a positive reaction. People often knew the name "cognac" and had seen bottles. I didn't have any around because I was underage in the States. It was frustrating at the time because I could not find any Camus cognac to show my friends. And it's something that you can experience only if you taste it. But we are correcting that now.
When my children study in America, it will be here. They are 13 and 9. They have tried it, but they are too young to drink it. There is a tradition in Cognac. We put some on their lips the first day. We put it on their gums when they teethe.
The popularity of cognac drinks such as the Thug Passion and the Incredible Hulk:
They're fine and good. The Incredible Hulk is a bit redundant because Hypnotiq is made with cognac. Cognac and orange juice is great, however, and is one of the simplest but best things you can do with cognac.
These drinks did bring cognac into the drinking repertoire of people who might not have tried it otherwise. With us, we offer taste and authenticity as opposed to the cool factor, but if we were seen that way, I would be quite flattered. The commonality for our consumers is the appreciation of the finer things.
Enjoying cognac in Miami:
I understand some people think of it as a winter drink, but Miami, to me, is a great place to enjoy cognac. The blend of skyline and ocean and clouds in the sky: Miami in the evening is spectacular.
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Ten years ago [before moving to Asia], I used to come here a lot. I enjoy the lifestyle, at least the one I see. It's rather cosmopolitan, open-minded. Places are built so that people can enjoy the food and the view and the whole surroundings.
South Beach is the part of the city I know best and is a good fit for us. The SLS [Hotel], that is the kind of design that fits our brand very well. The Delano and most of the hotels on the beach are very fitting. We're also in 20 restaurants there.
Like the man says, Camus Cognac is now available throughout South Florida.