Review: Courvoisier VS, VSOP, and XO Cognac



Courvoisier is revamping the packaging of its VS, VSOP, and XO expressions, with the VSOP getting the biggest switch, moving from its old, iconic, and unwieldy bottle design (called the Josephine) to a more stylish, modern look (see above). Changes to the VS and XO aren’t as extreme. We took the opportunity to review all of the above in their latest incarnations. Thoughts follow.


All are 80 proof.

Courvoisier VS Cognac – Aged from three to seven years old. A fairly garden variety Cognac, this VS is a showcase of caramel and vanilla, with just a hint of apple and raisin fruit bubbling up toward the back end. Easy to enjoy, but difficult to truly love, it’s fine for a sidecar but just doesn’t have enough going on to merit serious attention. The finish sees some more raw, ethyl alcohol notes pushing through, as well. B- / $31

Courvoisier VSOP Cognac – No specific aging information supplied, but reportedly under 10 years old. Bolder and a bit tannic, it’s a little rough at first, but eventually it settles into a groove that showcases raisins, chocolate, caramel sauce, and heavy baking spices — maybe a bit too much, as the cloves tend to dominate before the raisiny finish makes a reprise. More exciting than the VS, but still a bit unbalanced. B / $41

Courvoisier XO Cognac – From eaux de vie 11 to 25 years old. On the nose, it’s immediately heavy on almond/marzipan notes, then dried fruits, baking spice, and toasty wood. On the palate, it’s immediately sweet with slightly winey notes, with cherry overtones — bold, but far from overwhelming, and not incredibly complex. A little menthol creeps in on the finish, along with a touch of pepper plus some vaguely soapy notes. All told it’s a perfectly credible cognac, though it doesn’t drink as particularly old or austere. I think it might be the only XO I’ve tried that I’d have no qualms about using to mix a Sidecar. B+ / $125

Review: Bache-Gabrielsen American Oak Cognac


Bache-Gabrielsen’s Hors d’Age Cognac is a favorite around Drinkhacker HQ, and so it was with great anticipation that I met its latest release: A VS Cognac that is further finished in new American oak (officially Tennessee oak) barrels for six months. (The initial aging period in French oak isn’t noted on the label, but it is 2 years.) As the label says, it’s “an innovative and bicultural product” to be sure!

If nothing else, that American oak gives the brandy a ton of color. The color of strong tea, it looks more like a whiskey than any Cognac you’ve likely encountered. Smells and tastes that way, too. On the nose, that classic, raisiny sweetness pushes through some distinct (and a little jarring) lumberyard notes, with secondary aromas of mint and orange peel.

The body is where things really start to diverge, two feet firmly planted in two diverging worlds. First there’s chewy caramel and vanilla, then raisiny sweetness shortly thereafter. A big slug of spice hits next — cloves and cinnamon, the former particularly odd in a Cognac — followed by racy cayenne and black pepper, then ample notes of raw, toasty wood. It’s this finish that will really be divisive among drinkers. Echoing the flavor of many a young bourbon, the finish builds upon a heavy wood influence that will turn off fans of more delicate brandies, but will engage drinkers who like the burlier flavors found in whiskey. As it stands here, it’s quite incongruous on the palate, a mishmash of styles that both enchants and confuses. As a fan of both Cognac and whiskey, I find it in turns appealing and off-putting — but something I’d like to keep exploring as time goes on.

80 proof.

B+ / $40 /

Review: Chapters of Ampersand Et No. 1 Limited Edition Cognac


Chapters of Ampersand is a new Swedish company that wants to bring the absolute finest in Cognac to the world. This isn’t going to be inexpensive, to say the least. For its first ultra-limited expression, called Et No. 1, the company is blending three Cognacs in collaboration with Tiffon Cognac: a Grande Champagne Cognac distilled in 1974, a Grande Champagne Cognac from 1943, and a pre-phylloxera Cognac from 1870. None of those are typos. The finished product is bottled in a unique piece of Swedish art glass crafted by artist Göran Wärff.

We received an understandably small sample to review. Let’s check it out!

The nose offers intense and nearly overwhelming complexity: raisin notes up front, then cinnamon, nougat, spiced nuts, and some dark cherry. A slight soapiness emerges with some time in glass, but this evolves into more of a powder room perfume character that doesn’t detract from the notes of nuts and old fruit.

On the palate, this character segues toward a maple syrup note, though it’s filtered through a heavy leather character, with some notes of fresh tobacco, those raisin notes settling into a Madeira character — winey, lightly balsamic, and moderately sweet. The finish is far lighter and livelier than I expected, going out gently and almost subtly with lightly toasted wood notes. It stands in a stark contrast to that punchy, brooding nose, but does offer a lingering touch of dried fruit that hangs around on the palate as a lovely little reminder of what’s come before.

Et No. 2 is reportedly in the works. Can’t wait to see what the Swedes unearth next time!

80 proof. 300 bottles produced.

A / $8395 /

Review: Germain-Robin Alembic Brandy One-Time Blend No. 23

Once Only

Germain-Robin makes some amazing brandies, but this may be the best I’ve seen from the company to date. The catch: it’s a one-time only blend, as the name suggests, so if this review catches your palate, better grab a bottle now.

The focus of this blend is French colombard grapes, which were the preferred grape in Cognac before the phylloxera era. As a blend, it is a single barrel mix of a number of different brandies aging in the Germain-Robin collection, primarily including the following distillates:

  • 1991 colombard from Ukiah Valley
  • 2003 and 2004 malolactic colombard from Hopland
  • 2006 colombard from Redwood Valley
  • 2006 viognier used for aromatics

Germain-Robin has all the technical information you could want here. While you’re digesting all of that, let’s give it a taste:

The nose is beautiful, that classic sweet raisin aroma — but as it develops in the glass it also develops an herbal note of rosemary and thyme, which makes for a fun study in contrasts. The palate keeps things more directed to the sweeter side of the street, where notes of baked apples, cinnamon buns, and golden raisins dominate. The finish offers some astringency, a mild reminder of the high-acidity colombard grapes used to make this spirit. Lightly spicy, even peppery at times, it lets you down easy, with a throat-coating brown sugar sweetness that absolutely begs for another sip or two.

Not only is the brandy worthwhile, it’s an excellent value at this price.

Aka Germain-Robin Only Once Blend No. 23.

84.2 proof.

A / $75 /

Review: Craft Distillers Millard Fillmore U.S. Brandy

Millard Fillmore

Some of the best American brandy you can buy is coming from Ukiah, California-based Craft Distillers, but said brandy can often cost a pretty penny, if you can find it.

A few years ago, the company decided to see if it could produce a more affordable product that still offered high quality, and 3 1/2 years later, it’s here: Millard Fillmore U.S. Brandy.

Naming a brandy after our 13th president — one of the least effective in the country’s history — is auspicious, to say the least, but let’s try not to judge a book by its cover. This brandy takes column-distilled grape spirit from the San Joaquin Valley and blends it with pot-distilled brandy from Germain-Robain’s old timey Cognac stills. The result is a hybrid of styles, but unfortunately it’s not a wholly effective one.

There’s lots of youth on Millard’s nose, both in the form of raw wood and raw alcohol. Gentle fruit notes line its pockets, but this brandy wears its inexperience on its sleeve. On the palate, it’s more of the same: dusty lumberyard character tempered by oily petrol notes, then finally some juicy red berries and plum notes to offer a counterpoint. Notes of licorice, tobacco, and oily leather bring up the rear, though it’s that immature wood character that makes the most lasting impression.

80 proof.

C+ / $35 /

Review: Barking Irons Applejack


Barking Irons Applejack is a new apple brandy which is distilled (for its owners) at Black Dirt Distillery in upstate New York. The applejack starts with a distillate of jonagold, macoun, and gala apples that is aged in #2 char oak barrels (time unstated but said to be just a few months) at Brooklyn’s Van Brunt Distilling before being individually bottled, hand-labeled, and numbered.

So, let’s see how this applejack fares in tasting.

On the nose, it’s rather racy stuff, immediately showing quite a lot of youth, with notes of raw wood and some petrol, though this is balanced out by a light lacing of apple cider character and some orange peel notes. On the palate, it quickly and thankfully reveals a much more well-rounded spirit, offering clear caramel-apple and butterscotch notes — though it’s backed up with more of that punchy lumberyard character. The finish is on the astringent side, though on the whole the spirit still manages to be quite sweet and fairly satisfying in the end.

All told, this is a young applejack that nonetheless manages to squeeze a whole lot of character out of that youth. Worth a look for apple brandy fans.

100 proof. Reviewed: Batch #1 (400 cases produced).

B / $43 /

Review: Gilles Brisson Cognac VS and VSOP

brisson cognac vs

Gilles Brisson, or just Brisson, is a Grande Champange-based producer of Cognac located in the Grande Champagne region of Châteaubernard. With just 65 hectares of production, Brisson is a relatively small producer, but it makes some impressive brandy from all estate fruit. Today we look at its two lower-level releases (a Napoleon and XO bottling are also available).

Both are 80 proof.

Gilles Brisson 1er Cru Cognac Grande Champagne VS – A bit rough and tumble, but it’ll work in a pinch. Initially a tad alcoholic and overtly woody on the nose, it opens up with time to reveal ample fruit and spice. The body leads the way with simple apple and cinnamon notes, vanilla touched with a bit of lemon peel, gingerbread, and grapefruit notes. The finish isn’t altogether clear, though, with a somewhat grainy character that isn’t unpleasant but which takes the focus off the fruit. I’d use this as a solid mixer or for straight sipping in pinch. B+ / $25

Gilles Brisson 1er Cru Cognac Grande Champagne VSOP – A clear step up, this Cognac offers immediately more maturity, its nose distinguished by more well-integrated wood notes complementing winey characteristics and well-matured fruit notes (think sultanas and figs). The body is seductive and dusky with notes of sherry, dried cherries, orange peel, and ample ginger. On the finish, a gentle coffee character comes to the fore, lingering alongside a complement of dried citrus. Lovely balance, and an outstanding value. A / $35