Review: Martell Blue Swift

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Finishing Cognac is officially a thing. Hot on the heels of Bache-Gabrielsen’s new oak-finished Cognac comes this spin from major Cognac house Martell, a VSOP Cognac that is finished in previously used Kentucky bourbon casks. No word on the length of the finishing, but Martell does say this:

Martell Cognac’s latest offering represents the essence of the curious and audacious spirit of founder Jean Martell. Engraved on the bottle, Martell’s iconic swift emblem is significant as legend has it, Jean Martell was guided by the flight of a swift on his original journey from the island of Jersey to Charente, while the bird is famous for flying exceptionally long distances, crossing the Atlantic Ocean twice a year. A tribute to the shared history between Martell and the United States, Martell Blue Swift joins the core lineup along with Martell VS, Martell VSOP, Martell Cordon Bleu, and Martell XO.

Blue Swift is a rousing success that shows how Cognac and bourbon can work beautifully together. The color of the spirit is bourbon-dark, much deeper in hue than any standard VSOP you’ll encounter. On the nose, there’s lots going on, the traditional raisin-plum notes of brandy mingling nicely with oaky whiskey notes, layering in some cinnamon, flamed banana, and a touch of almond.

The palate follows that up with aplomb. A relatively light body gives way to lush fruit, touched with oak. Currants and vanilla, figs and cocoa, hints of peppermint and gingerbread — they all come together into a surprisingly cohesive whole that showcases the best of both the brandy and bourbon worlds. The finish is light on its feet, not at all heavy, cloying, or otherwise overblown. Rather, it’s slightly drying and quite clean, its toasty wood notes lingering while echoing hints of fruity raisin.

It’s lovely in its own right, but I’m particularly hard-pressed to think of a better Cognac at this price point. Stock up!

80 proof.

A / $50 / martell.com

Review: Christian Brothers Sacred Bond Brandy Bottle-in-Bond 4 Years Old

christian-brothers-sacred-bond-750mlThe bonded spirits almost always finds a home with whiskey (particularly bourbon and sometimes rye). But there’s no rule that other liquor products can’t go through the bonding process, which involves storing the product in barrel in a special, government-regulated warehouse for at least four years, and bottling the finished product at 100 proof. The bottled-in-bond seal is a mark of quality, and everyone seems to love a “BiB” whiskey.

So… how about a bottled-in-bond brandy? Christian Brothers (part of Heaven Hill, which knows a thing or two about the bonded whiskey world) just launched one: Sacred Bond (get it?), a pot-distilled brandy that goes through the full rigmarole. It’s the first ever bottled-in-bond grape brandy produced (there are some BiB apple brandies out there).

Those used to (or looking for) sticky-sweet brandy won’t find it here. Sacred Bond is distinctly oaky on the nose, with curious notes of apple peels, salted caramel, strong tea, and just a hint of raisin. The palate is striking and unexpected. Again, any sense of sugar is nearly absent here, the brandy pumping out woody tannins, menthol, and some hospital notes. The impact of wood is so strong that my hands want to type “whiskey” every time I have to write “brandy,” but the follow-up notes of cayenne, plum, and saffron are entirely unique and far away from the typical whiskey character list. The finish is drying, spicy, and aromatic, but it’s a bit rough on the back of the throat, something I don’t chalk up entirely to the alcohol level.

This is a unique brandy that’s clearly designed for cocktails, but some may find its whiskeylike kick more suitable for exploring solo. Your mileage may vary.

100 proof.

B / $26 / christianbrothersbrandy.com

Review: Courvoisier VS, VSOP, and XO Cognac

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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

courvoisier.com

Review: Bache-Gabrielsen American Oak Cognac

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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 / bache-gabrielsen.com  [BUY IT NOW FROM DRINKUPNY]

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

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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 / chaptersofampersand.com

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 / craftdistillers.com

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 / craftdistillers.com

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