If you search for cognac by price on Selfridge’s website, the first three listings are taken up by a single product – Louis XIII by Remy Martin. Three different decanters in three sizes at three prices, with the standard 70ml a mere snip at £2,300 a bottle.
To put it into perspective, that’s the price of a week’s family holiday in Crete, a month’s mortgage on an average London property, and the apparent cost of Brexit to each taxpayer by the time Britain leaves the EU. When you look at it like that, it doesn’t seem like a bad trade for a shot at bottled history.
Expensive it might be but there must be more to it than what’s in the glass in front of me; there’s barely a drop in there. But there’s a reason for this; we’re asked to smell the glass. I hold it up to my nose, take a sniff and elicit a ‘wow’. I have another go, and ‘wow’ again. The aroma is intoxicating, and seems to shut out everything else. I faintly hear Devon, Louis XIII’s brand ambassador tell me “…there are 250 different aromas to be discovered…” I sniff again. It’s sweet, soft, complex, and incomparably alluring.
I keep sniffing. It’s so alluring, in fact, I find it hard to put into words. Jean-Baptiste Grenouille, the olfactorily-gifted psychopath from Patrick Suskind’s novel Perfume, could have saved himself the trouble of grimly trying to create the world’s most definitive scent had he only discovered this.
“This is the story of the most incredible liquid in the world,” Devon says, “each decanter is the life achievement of generations of cellar master…” I can well believe it. “…since its origins in 1874, each cellar master has selected the finest, oldest and most precious eaux-de-vie for Louis XIII…” Indeed, so selective are they, we’re told, that the current incumbent, Baptiste Loiseau, is setting aside the top 2% from the eaux-de-vie vaults as a legacy to his successor, as his predecessors have done before him. “We have, ladies and gentlemen, the pleasure of smelling time itself.”
Mercifully, we get to taste it, too. As our glasses are topped up, we’re encouraged to run the liquor around the glass, to ‘rinse’ the glass, preparing it, mirroring the process when filling the decanters. I treat it like Semtex, fearful the glass may explode if I mishandle it. Devon continues her commentary, “it’s a blend of 1250 different eaux-de-vie, all from the grand champagne…” A further sniff, and more layers, notes from deeper within the liquid; saffron, sandalwood, myrrh, with citrus skimming across the top.
And so we taste it. We begin by preparing the palate with a small sip. “Let’s do it together,” Devon says, “and take the tiniest drop you can. I promise you it will pay off on the second sip.” And so it does. The first features the burn, scattering any derivatives from aperitifs and canapes. The second, and subsequent sips reveal a wealth of paradoxes; it’s complex yet subtle, vivacious yet deep, so fresh and yet steeped in time. “Remember, this is the fragrance of time,” Devon says, deep in introspection, “it’s all about time.” I think my fellow guests would agree with me when I say it’s a sublime, shared moment.
And how best to appreciate this fine nectar? Well, to do that I take a lesson from someone who knew a thing or two about cognac and how to enjoy it. We’re at his namesake venue in Mayfair, on the terrace of the Churchill bar in Portman Square, currently sporting a new nautical look for the summer. And how would the great man have enjoyed this? With a cigar, of course.
We’ve had selected a Cuban Trinidad. That’s no misnomer, it’s named after Trinidad, the small 16th century Cuban town from where its tobacco is grown, itself a ‘grand cru’ terroir in the cigar world, a ‘vegas de primera’ or first class field. Trinidads themselves are rather special; originally a Cuban keepsake, they were previously only gifted by generous dignitaries on diplomatic missions before being made commercially available in the mid-90s.
It’s a fitting choice to pair with the cognac; 54 ring gauge, it’s rolled with the stem end of the leaf at the head, allowing the flavour to build as it burns and giving a smoother draw. Its soft, almost creamy flavour, with just a few hints of cedarwood and white pepper do nothing to overpower the cognac, more that as the spirit reveals its complexities, so the cigar opens up its own flavours to complement it. It’s a happy union.
The cigar, the cognac, the conversation; it’s a thoroughly pleasant way to spend a summer’s evening. And as we settle in to revel in this rather memorable moment, Devon offers a toast, “here’s to the next 100 years of pleasure.” Quite right.
Frankly, Crete can wait (in this weather Cornwall’s just as glorious), I’ve already contacted the bank to waive the mortgage, and the government’s underestimated the Brexit bill anyway.
I think I’ll be far happier with a decanter of Louis XIII and a box of Trinidads.
The Churchill Bar’s Cognac & Cigar pairing evenings are run periodically throughout the year. For more information of when these occur, visit www.thechurchillbar.co.uk. The Churchill Bar and Terrace’s new nautical look and themed cocktail menu is available through the summer months.
For more information about Louis XIII, including details of its history, creation and its tasting venues, visit www.louisxiii-cognac.com.