I wonder what Jay-Z or Busta Rhymes would make of Audry Cognac. The rappers have done much to bolster sales of France's once-dowdy but glorious brandy, most notably Mr. Rhymes with Pass the Courvoisier.
But Audry? Hip-hoppers can be forgiven for not rapping its praises. In 2005, Time magazine called it "The best Cognac you have never heard of." I would concur (assuming you've never heard of it). The 19th-century house was resurrected in 1984 by Bernard Boisson, great-great grandson of founder A. Edmond Audry. A lawyer by training, Mr. Boisson, 76, carefully tends to the family's precious cellar, meticulously blending pre-disco-era barrel reserves with new spirits sourced from small distillers. (He sold off the family still in 1974 as the OPEC oil embargo devastated Cognac sales.) This year Audry will produce just 10,000 bottles, a proverbial drop compared with millions churned out by big houses.
Now in retirement, Mr. Boisson is keen to show the world that small, and old, can be beautiful. "I took it like a challenge," he told me over a sampling of five products in Toronto on Sunday afternoon. "It's nice to be the best, but it's a pity to be unknown."
Though Cognac is distilled from wine, the raw spirit sometimes is said to account for just half the drink's quality. Wood and the blender's nose make up the balance. Reliable humidity around the town of Cognac north of Bordeaux ensures slow evaporation through barrel pores and long, controlled release of oaky elements, which contribute flavours that can suggest vanilla, spice, chocolate, even fruit. Slow oxidation also can add a tawny Port-like quality that can taste of roasted nuts or tobacco.
Audry is among a small cast of lesser-known producers gaining a stronger foothold as the Cognac market claws out from a three-year slump. If Hennessy and Courvoisier are the Mercedes-Benz and Porsche of the Cognac world, Audry and Tesseron are Aston Martin and Maserati. And because many people wonder how Armagnac, France's other vaunted, if more rustic, brandy style, differs from Cognac, I'd say it's more like a mud-strewn Range Rover.
But even among widely advertised, and heavily rhymed, brands, old age is the engine driving Cognac growth. In the decade ending last year, sales in Canada of the XO style advanced to 5,212 nine-litre cases from 4,708, according to the Association of Canadian Distillers. Meanwhile, the light VS style, aged a minimum of two years, and VSOP, aged at least four years, both fell considerably.
Underscoring consumer interest in the role of time are two new age-designated Cognacs from Courvoisier, a 12-year-old and a 21-year old. Though most Cognac producers sound like Hollywood actresses of a certain age in preferring to keep vintage vague, here Courvoisier follows single malt Scotch's lead (and popularity) by clarifying matters. They're still blended from casks of varying ages, but, as with Scotch and a smattering of small-house Cognacs, the number represents the youngest components in the blend.
"We feel there is a huge consumer palate that we are not necessarily engaging with today," said Jennifer Szersnovicz, Courvoisier's communications manager, over the phone from France. "We're trying to move out of being just another VS or VSOP category."
Audry Réserve Spécial e(score: 92; price: $167.95), was finally launched in Ontario last week. It's a glory, brimming with hints of sweet vanilla, spice and fig. Where trendy extra-old, or "XO," Cognacs are blended from eaux-de-vie that have been aged a minimum of six years in wood (in practice often longer), the youngest component in Réserve Spéciale is 15 years. Other Audry selections, including the superb $315 Mémorial 226.75 in Ontario) is lush and satiny, layered with dried fruit, vanilla, baking spices and a solemn note of old church pew. Camus Elegance XO (93; $194 in Quebec) is seductively gutsy, with traces of bacon fat and toasty wood carried on voluptuous caramel and chocolate.
For the money, I'd also recommend floral-fruity Camus VSOP Elegance (90; $58.80 in Ontario ; $78 in Quebec), spicy-honeyed Martell Medaillon VSOP (88; $79.95 in Ontario; $84.77 in B.C.; $72 in Quebec) and, from an excellent smaller producer, delicate and citrus-like Chateau de Beaulon Folle Blanche Aged 7 Years (91; $56.95 in Ontario).
But if your hip-hop video has just gone viral you might want to consider Hennessy Paradis Extra Rare (96; $675.95 in B.C., with 27 bottles remaining; $831.95 in Ontario, just eight bottles). It's made from several hundred eaux-de-vie aged 25 to 130 years and on the decadence scale is like crème brûlée made with foie gras. Words kind of fail, but I'll try: lavishly creamy, with a floral-citrus fragrance and slowly unfolding layers of caramelized sugar, chocolate, orange, banana and spice cake. Or maybe a rhyme is best: First pass the Courvoisier 21, then pass the Paradis and I'm done.