If you're the dashing heir to a cognac empire like Cyril Camus, you've been drinking the stuff since your parents put it on your gums as a baby. But for the rest of us who are merely heirs and heiresses to mining or shipping dynasties, we might be able to use a little help when it comes to selecting and enjoying cognac. Not to mention faking like you know what you're talking about.
Despite being the fifth largest cognac house in the world, Camus only entered the US market three years ago. This summer, they have introduced a new line of cognac expressions to the US market. We sat down with Cyril Camus, president of Camus Cognac, to figure out how we can make like a cognac heir, without the whole squaring-off-against-wild-boar-with-only-a-knife thing.
We started with the basics.
Cyril Camus's Tips for First-Time Cognac Drinkers:
1. "For a first-time cognac drinker, the most expensive is not always the most appropriate. A younger cognac can be good for sipping, for a cocktail base or on the rocks."
2. "People think that cognac is too expensive for a cocktail. But cognac is one of the densest cocktail bases so you don't need as much to influence the cocktail. One ounce of cognac is does same as two of another spirit."
3. "Cognac is great on the rocks and is often overlooked. You definitely do not want crushed ice. A couple of big blocks of ice will do."
4. "You want it on the nose first and then on the palate. Always bring it to the nose first."
5. "I think there is too much emphasis on terms to describe taste. With cognac, people should talk about emotions and sensations. That's what's important."
6. "It opens like wine when you pour it. Fifteen minutes later, it's a different taste. If you're enjoying it over half an hour, you will find more to it every time you bring it to your nose. Other spirits fade out but cognac does not."
Then Cyril clued us in to different aspects of cognac production.
"You develop the cognac's personality through aging. But age isn't everything in cognac. It's a deceiving aspect of cognac. It's not the older, the better but depends on barrels and cellars.
"The really important thing is how you blend the elements to get style, taste and a balance between character and smoothness. 'Smoothness' means 'less interesting' for some spirits but cognac gives the best of both worlds.
"Classic cognacs are heavy and oaky. We age in large vats, not small barrels so there's not as much oak. For first-time consumers, it is more approachable. Oak sends a message that the cognac is old but it covers a lot of the aromas. We emphasize those things: the fruit, the crispness."
"Typically, you blend the younger for some of the liveliness and the older for the smoothness. When the cognac gets to the matureness, it hits a mellow line and tastes more rounded. This brings out more of the nutty notes.
"There is something we call 'rancio,' which is the difference between a younger cognac and an older cognac. It's the magic that happens in the barrels. After a certain number of years you have the smoothness and the sweetness, the dried fruit and the nuts.
"You could argue that the brands that have been incorporated into a larger group have grown the fasted but they are brands that have lost part of their personality or soul. If you project forward, you wonder what is happening to a brand that is evolving to the requirements of the market.
"The production cycle is extremely long and it's dangerous to believe you can maintain authenticity if you change your mind every four or five years. The cognacs get less distinctive, flavorwise. They move more towards a common style and taste profile. They reflect consumers' preferences at a given point in time.
"With VS, the minimum age is two years but you have older ones, too. To evolve a blend, you need five to six years to affect changes and then it's exponential in the VSOP. In XO, you need 20 years to change the entire stock. And where you source the products from matters, of course."
Obviously, Cyril thinks that Camus is the cognac you should be drinking. So we had him take us through the three expressions of their new Île de Ré line of cognacs. These three bottles are unusual in that they come from a small island within the Cognac region, to which Camus has exclusive access. "There's no contract, per se," Cyril says. "But that's the advantage of being a family company, that person-to-person handshake principle."
Because of the nature of the soil and the climate on the island, the pineau de charentes grapes grown there were so different that most cognac houses thought they couldn't be used. Camus worked with the growers' cooperative who identified with Camus's origins not as wine merchants but growers like them.
Fine Island ($45)
This is a straightforward expression of the cognacs on the island, light in oak from the way we age it. The soil is not extremely dense so the taste is lively and crisp, almost fresh. Very approachable.
The lightest cognacs are the youngest cognacs. The first thing you notice with this one is that there is no aggressive, no alcoholic kick. You won't find overwhelming oak or tannins, no wood. A lot of fruit. I find iodine and saltiness, a maritime feeling in the soil, in the grapes remains after distillation. The soil is sandy and poor, fertilized for centuries by seaweed. It's completely unique, even from the cognacs produced on the coast of the nearby mainland.
Confirmation on the nose, light and fruity. Saltiness. All around pleasant. "Easy to drink" doesn't sound positive but it is easily enjoyable. You don't have to work at it to enjoy. It's definitely great on the rocks.
Oak and ice don't mix very well. The water helps release more of the aromas, the same effect as adding water to scotch. You can match it with oysters or raw seafood, especially if you chill it in the freezer. It takes down the perception of the alcohol but emphasizes the saltiness and changes the texture, making it more syrupy. With seafood, it matches and complements the taste and also gets a match in the texture.
Double Matured ($65)
This is the same base as Fine Island but at a later stage of the aging and handled in another way. We put it in toasted or charred barrels. This reinforces the smokey elements.
The emphasis is less on the fruit and more on the smoke, so it's closer to trying a single malt scotch. It's a great match for cigar smokers, so you can find some great pairings in Miami. This cognac is clearly defined but will not overpower the cigar.
Cliffside Cellar ($85)
We take this one through to a later stage of aging. You experience more of the maritime aspect of the cognac by doing the last moment of aging by the sea, 10 meters away from the sea atop a cliff. There are big temperature variations, day and night, humidity, a bit of saltiness. You smell it and you get the sea.
I wish we could claim all the credit as master blenders but the cognac from the island is so great. Nature has done the job.
A lot of the cognacs we use were distilled by my father and grandfather. My personal impact will be reflected in more of what my children sell than what I sell. When they take over, that's when we've done our job. That's when my portrait will join the ones of my father and grandfather.
But maybe you're just a baller who wants to drop a lot of coin on a bottle of cognac. Fortunately, Camus offers a limited edition cuvee series that is not only quite expensive but also quite a cognac. Cyril, tell us more while we chug from the bottle you made a bad decision by leaving on our desk, okay?
"We are the only spirit house to be doing these things and to tell you what's in the bottle, that we hope you enjoy and sorry, there won't be any more when it's gone. We do one a year and the last one was 980 bottles. We are at a point now where people are pre-buying the next cuvees, which is wonderful for us as a sign of trust.
"I drink it when I find myself in a place that calls for it. I always believe that in terms of enjoying a cognac, the product is important but where you are and who you are with also dictate the choice of the cognac. The last cuvee I had was two or three weeks ago, back in Cognac, with the entire staff. Every two years we get together. The time before that, i was on a cruise ship with friends. We started with the Île de Ré and then moved onto the cuvee.
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"Technical reasons kept us from bringing the cuvee to America until recently. The bottles are hard to produce in 750mL. We've been doing it for 12 years in 700mL and the glass weight and shape of the bottle were at their limit at 700mL, so it took time to get the technology and design right to produce it."
"The XO and Extra are nice weekend drinks, to close off a good week, to treat yourself to a good moment. It's a relaxing half hour or hour to reflect at the end of the week or a good dinner with friends. The last time I had it was last week in London. I went to see a show, a silly show and had to have a drink before to numb the pain."
Here Cyril told us about the show but asked us not to mention it by name. It sounded dreadful. In fact, it took a couple more sips of the cuvee for us to get over it. Eventually, Cyril Camus stepped over our lifeless, drooling body and took his magic bottles with him. Bottles just like them are now available at better restaurants and package stores throughout South Florida.