A Visit to Cognac, France – Part 1: Maison Ferrand
To know Cognac the spirit is to know Cognac the place.
Cognac is the product of a minuscule region, rigorously protected by law and produced here and only here for centuries. This tiny town in the west of France is fully built by, for, and around the production of the world’s most famous brandy. “Without Cognac [the spirit], this would just be a small farming village.” It’s a variation on a refrain I would hear more than once over the four days I spent in this remote, detached, and yet wholly loveable place. And the good news is that, once you do get here, there is plenty of Cognac — the spirit, again — to go around.
Getting to Cognac from Paris means taking a 2 hour ride on the TGV bullet train, then a transfer to a local train in Angoulême for another 45 minutes or so. Many don’t bother with the connection, as Angoulême is a bigger burg where you can rent a car or catch a taxi to Cognac. As it turns out, when we were leaving Cognac to go back to Paris, labor strikes caused the cancelation of our return train, and we had to take a car service back anyway. I’ll write more on that in a later piece. (Your other option is to make Bordeaux, to the south of Cognac, your base, and head north from there.)
When we did arrive in Cognac, we were immediately surprised by the local transportation options. Which is to say, there were none, and I mean none. There are no taxis in Cognac, no Uber, no nothing, and that is not an exaggeration. I have read that there is a local bus, but never saw it once. Asking the wholly disinterested clerk at the smallest train station in the world for transportation advice, I was gruffly handed a small slip of paper bearing several phone numbers for cabs, none of which would agree to pick us up to carry us the mile and a half to our hotel right across the Charente River. “Too short, not profitable,” I would later be told by those in the know. Needless to add, unlike Paris, there’s not much English on tap here, either, so language difficulties can be a problem, if you aren’t fluent.
But of course this should all have been expected. You’re in the country, and it’s a proud country populated by proud people who all love Cognac. They would have left long ago if they didn’t, because there’s nothing else here. There is glass making and barrel making and farm equipment sales and construction operations. Restaurants and a bowling alley to serve the locals. Some hotels for visitors like us, though in chilly, wet March we appeared to be the only foreigners residing in this town of about 20,000. Grey Goose’s vodka production is located here, by the way, in a homely metal building that I was told could be manned by three people, its operations were so basic.
But Cognac, though, that is another story. And it was a rabbit hole into which we would fall quickly, and deeply, starting with a day spent with our new friends at Maison Ferrand.
Even if you don’t drink Cognac, you probably know Maison Ferrand, which also produces Plantation Rum and Citadelle Gin. In fact, Plantation now outpaces Ferrand’s Cognac business and now makes up about of 40% of overall sales.
Majority owner and master blender Alexandre Gabriel is about as far from the typical Cognac head honcho as you’ll find, seeing as he did not inherit the job from generations of family members but rather wriggled his way in through sheer force of will. After growing up on a Burgundy farm, Gabriel got a business degree and, after working with the then-hibernating brand as a partner for awhile, somehow convinced Pierre Ferrand to sell him the company. That was in 1993.
“I invested in Ferrand at age 22 because the French government offered a loan, 80 percent of which would be forgiven if the project failed,” he explains, saying that otherwise this never would have been possible and you never would have heard of Ferrand. With little more than his degree, some experience as a barback in New York, and a whole lot of guts, he was on his way to becoming a Cognac magnate.
We sat down with Gabriel in Chateau de Bonbonnet, the headquarters of the brand and Gabriel’s home (when he’s not traveling or back in Paris), which is located in the heart of Cognac’s Grande Champagne region. (More on Cognac’s regional divisions in a later piece.) For two solid hours Gabriel spoke about, well, everything. We could start anywhere, but we may as well kick things off with the trouble of trying to market Cognac in France: Only 1% of Cognac production is sold in France (and virtually all of that is in Cognac), because everyone here drinks whiskey, because Cognac isn’t cool.
It makes sense perhaps then that Gabriel tends to spend more of his time on rum than Cognac. He had just returned from Paraguay when we met, working on a project that would revive traditional rum-making techniques (and even use local wood to age the spirits). Ferrand owns two distilleries in Jamaica and partners with many more to release special bottlings which are first aged in the Caribbean and then spend additional time in Cognac before bottling. The operation’s cellars likely represent a good portion of all the rum aging in France, if not all of it. Our tasting through the chilly cellars just a few miles away from Bonbonnet was a trip through a “who’s who” of the rum world, with old rums from Jamaica, Trinidad, Barbados, Fiji, Australia, and more all on tap.
Gabriel got into rum organically; after selling old Cognac barrels to rum producers for aging, he eventually figured out that the economics of rum-making are quite favorable, thanks to various Caribbean tax treaties, so bought a couple of distilleries for himself. This tax treatment is why rum is so inexpensive (and profitable) compared to the rest of the market, and why Gabriel continues to pour resources into this part of the world.
As for Ferrand’s Cognac, it all hails from its own estate vineyards in Grande Champagne and it’s all distilled in its own distillery — a rarity among Cognac producers, who rarely make more than a small fraction of their own eaux de vie. That’s just part of the charm for a self-proclaimed “redneck” like Gabriel, who still considers himself a farmer to the point where he has planted acres of juniper bushes (see photo, right) across the way from Bonbonnet, to be used in the production of Citadelle Gin. Walking through the fields of young juniper with him and watching his eyes light up wherever he sees berries budding, one imagines a father’s pride at seeing his child take his first steps.
Gin is an interesting topic for Gabriel. The business is as big as the Cognac business today, but, he says, at the time, “Citadelle almost drove us out of business. We just launched at a terrible time for gin.” The reason for the launch back in 1996 though has everything to do with Cognac. 23 pages of arcane rules outline in painful detail everything you can and cannot do when producing Cognac, which is why the name remains so precious. One of the big rules: Distilling must be done between harvest and March 31 of the following year. That leaves about half the year when stills can’t be running (lest the resulting brandy not be classifiable as Cognac). For the rest of the year, Gabriel figured he’d make another artisan spirit rather than twiddling his thumbs. It took time, but eventually Citadelle has proven itself to be one of the best gins on the market, and Gabriel now cranks regular special editions, including the recent Vive le Cornichon bottling, a gin in whose honor his musician daughter wrote a song. (He played a snippet for us from Spotify, but sadly, I can’t seem to find it online.)
While Gabriel is working on an Old Tom expression of Citadelle, he noted with some sadness that the aged Citadelle Reserve line will be going away at some point. “No one knows what to do with it,” he says, as we pass through barrel after barrel of gin aging in different types of exotic woods, all in the attic of Bonbonnet.
And then there’s the chaos. Like a lot of Cognac, Maison Ferrand is undergoing a massive amount of renovation and construction. Part of that is related to Gabriel’s decision to build an experimental distillery on the Maison’s grounds, which is where Citadelle will be produced going forward. As well, he’s turning another wing into a real visitor’s center and shop, which will mark the first time that consumers will be able to officially visit Bonbonnet and taste his wares.
None of that compares in any way with Maison Mademoiselle, the dilapidated home of the last member of the Ferrand family, Henriette Ranson-Ferrand. The last of her family line, Henriette preferred the sobriquet of Mademoiselle, despite living to the age of 94. She had no children and clearly treated Gabriel like a son, tasking him with carrying on the family name, a task to which his is clearly devoted. Mademoiselle Manor has been a project for Gabriel for six years now as he works with historian Jacque Blanc to curate its increasingly crazy belongings (I found a taxidermized dog’s head — just the head — in one dresser drawer), makes essential repairs, and brings it generally up to code, which today it completely is not. The frugal Mademoiselle reportedly lived here with minimal creature comforts, sleeping in a downstairs room and huddling by the kitchen stove for warmth; the remainder of the house remains a perverse museum wholly out of time, though the headquarters of the Ferrand Foundation charity is now stationed upstairs. Eventually the house will become a museum of sorts, but one feels that may be a decade or more away. And at some point, they’ll need to figure out what to do with the demijohns of Cognac in the basement, some of which date back to the 1950s.
I reconnected with the Ferrand brand a few days later back in Paris’s outskirts, where another wild Gabriel project is fully underway: A boat called Barge 166 floating in the Seine, where 30-liter casks of rum and Cognac are aging. There’s room for 1400; 650 are currently onboard.
Fans can pick up a mini-barrel of their favorite product — basically finished — for €3000 to €5500, then let it sit on the boat, bobbing in the Seine, for up to two additional years. The high humidity, small wood casks, and the gentle motion of the river (enhanced by a mechanical system that adds a little more roll to the boat each night), add an extra touch of the barrel to the spirit. As a bonus, you can drop by the barge whenever you’re in town, taste the spirit in progress as it ages, and perhaps have a cocktail on the deck.
I’d recommend dropping by either the barge or the city of Cognac in warmer months than I did — Cognac is supposed to be lovely in the summer — but Cognac has always been a particularly wintry pleasure for me. So maybe forget that advice and head to Cognac in January. Just bundle up, pour a warming glass, and let the history of this historic spirit wash over you.
If you go:
Chateau de Bonbonnet, 16130 Ars, Cognac, France
Until Maison Ferrand’s visitor’s center is complete, it is happy to welcome guests for a private tour. Prices are given on request. Inquire via Instagram @citadellegin or Facebook @CitadelleGin. Check maisonferrand.com for updates.
Barge 166, 166, quai de Stalingrad, 92130 Issy-Les-Moulineaux
Barge 166 is open to private cask customers, but additional experiences may be available. Contact management for details at barge166.com.
Up next: Part 2: Remy Martin.
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