In 2014 I visited several cognac houses, and had the pleasure to spend several hours with Benedicte Hardy of Cognac Hardy in their aging and blending facilities.
We got really nerdy with specifics on aging cognac. But first, some background.
Hardy specializes in luxury cognacs, and in general is blended in an "approachable" and "feminine" style. It's a very large operation, with 20,000 barrels aging at their warehouses valued at more than 50 million dollars worth of booze.
It was Benedicte's father who made the company famous in recent years putting the emphasis on luxury. She herself has a law degree and is in charge of the US market, so there may be opportunities to meet with her at events in the States (and I'd highly recommend doing so if the occasion arises- she's a character).
A Cognac Maker, Not A Distiller
Hardy is not a cognac house that grows, ferments, and distills grapes, but they do work with a co-op of 200 growers.
The blender, Michael, buys spirit from Grande Champagne, Petite Champagne, Fin Bois, and Bon Bois. But he doesn't just purchase already-distilled wine, he goes to the distillery/wineries to taste before/after and helps direct the distillation if need be. He said that for example, if a wine is super aromatic he might instruct the distillery to distill on the lees, which will mark the spirit for longer aging.
Regardless, he tastes the new-make spirit after purchase and makes a determination on which product they're destined for - VSOP, XO, etc. He says that 90% of the time the initial determination is correct and they won't have to redirect it off its appointed path later on.
Aging Cognac Versus Other Spirits
Many of the world's spirits, including nearly all scotch whisky, rum, and tequila, age in ex-bourbon casks. The wood has had its influence on the bourbon and vice-versa. So the next time that barrel is used to age rum or whatever, it will not have the same amount of influence on the color and flavor of the next spirit.
In cognac and armagnac, on the other hand, they do not use ex-bourbon casks but new and used French oak barrels. The wood gives a lot of influence when it is first used, and in the case of French oak it brings in lots of tannins along with flavor.
So while bourbon ages only in new barrels for its entire life, cognac is usually aged only for a small amount of time in new barrels then it is transferred into older barrels for the rest of its life so that the wood doesn't take over. (One thing to note that in Cognac, a 'new' barrel means that it has been used for three years or less; it's doesn't necessarily mean brand new.)
In scotch whisky and rum and tequila, since they're using used barrels from the get-go, they don't have to worry so much about the over-oaking so they don't need to move the liquids around unless they feel like it.
Aging at Hardy
So that was a lot of lead-up. Here is how the VSOP is aged at Cognac Hardy.
- The brandy is purchased at 70% ABV
- It is reduced with water down to 55% and put in Small (220 liter), New barrels. (Note that a typical cognac barrels is 350 liters)
- The barrels are divided up - some are put into dry cellars and others are put into humid cellars. The ratio is a house secret.
- At 18 months the barrels are moved into Dry cellars
- At 24 months, the cognac is reduced to 47% ABV and placed in Humid Cellars
- After 5 years, the cognac is reduced to 43% ABV and placed back into Small barrels
- After 8 years, the cognac is blended and reduced to 40%
- After another 6 months marrying, it is bottled.
Notes About That:
- At each barrel transfer stage, the cognac is taken out from individual barrels and put into a big vat before dilution, then redistributed to the next barrels. No wonder cognac is so pricey.
- Humid cellars at Hardy have about a 3% annual angels' share, while dry ones have 6%.
- For longer-aged XO cognac, they put it into barrels that have been toasted for longer so that these will continue to contribute their toasted effects to it
- XO has the same reduction with water scheme as the VSOP, but the toasting is different. (Additionally it is made from brandy that was more distilled on the lees than the younger brandies.)
- Chill filtration before bottling is at -7 degrees Celsius for 7 days before running it through the filter
The $64,000 Tasting
We were allowed to taste the highest of the high end Hardy cognacs bottled in Lalique decanters, which retail for $16,000 per bottle. They all come from the same stock of cognacs distilled in the 1920s-1940s, but are blended to bring out different aspects of each.
They are named for each of the four seasons, though currently only the spring (Le Printemps) is on the market. Summer launches in November 2015, and Fall and Winter will follow every 2 years from that.
It's weird and rather awesome to be able to taste a cognac that won't hit the market until 2019.