I don’t expect any of you to know who Patrick Reguenaud is and I certainly don’t expect you to know anything about cognac because I sure as heck didn’t…until last week. Cognac has never been high on my priority list because it just wasn’t a spirit my family was familiar with. I think mom may have had a bottle or two of Grand Marnier that she drank along side her coffee during ice fishing and I most recently had my first ‘Millionaire’ (made with bourbon, Grand Marnier, absinthe (or pastis), grenadine, lemon juice, and egg white), but other than that I have had literally no cognac experience.
So, when I got the invitation to attend a cognac tasting for the launch of the newest Grand Marnier addition, 1800 Cuvée, at Teatro Restaurant I just couldn’t say no to a little cognac education. I figured the best way to learn is from someone whose family has lived and breathed cognac since 1627. Patrick Reguenaud is the master distiller for Grand Marnier. That means he oversees the Grand Marnier cognac empire from grape production, to distillation, blending, ageing, and even marketing. He knows his product inside out and was also very personable and entertaining. Since the majority of the tasters in the room were beginner cognac connoisseurs, Patrick was happy to start with the basics:
- Grand Marnier was first created in 1880 by Alexandre Marnier-LaPostolle. His family crest is still present on the red seal of every bottle of Grand Marnier.
- Grand Marnier is only made in France and over one million cases are exported to 150 countries annually.
- Cognac is comprised of three main ingredients (grapes, sugar, orange distillate)
- 2-3 % of the cognac is lost through evaporation annually; the oldest barrels may have up to 50 % loss of cognac during the 70 year ageing process.
- As a minimum, all Grand Marnier is at least 51% cognac.
- Trebbiano grapes are the primary varietal used for cognac. Those grown in the Cognac region don’t make great wine because they are too acidic, but they make great cognac.
- Grapes are grown in six different regions of Cognac by over 5000 local farmers, all of whom are included in the International Cognac Association.
- The sugar used is beet sugar from beets grown in France.
- The sugar must be refined otherwise flavours would affect the taste of the cognac.
- Grand Marnier uses the Caribbean Bigaradia orange (Citrus aurantium), a very bitter orange.
- The oranges are picked while still green and peels are dried in the Caribbean sun before being shipped to France.
- The peels are rehydrated in water and the pith is removed.
- The peels are then macerated in neutral spirits for 10 days, then distilled so that the flavour is more concentrated.
- Grapes are picked and fermented, then distilled in October resulting in 30% ABV.
- The second distillation results in 71% ABV.
- Orange distillate is added after the second distillation. All distillation is finished by the end of March.
- Grand Marnier is aged in French Oak Barrels for a minimum of 2-3 years and a maximum of 70 years, depending on the product.
- The aged cognac is blended using smell and taste by Patrick to create each Grand Marnier product according to quality.
During our tasting, we tried each of the six cognacs in the Grand Marnier Cuvée Collection. We began with the Cordon Rouge (Red Seal) Grand Marnier that everyone is familiar with. I’m going to be honest, it wasn’t my favourite and I almost choked even though it has the least amount of cognac. It just wasn’t for me. Neither was the Raspberry Peach; the slight deviation from the original Grand Marnier flavour because it also includes distillate of fresh peaches and raspberries along with the orange. Once we tried the Louis-Alexandre I was really finding my tasting groove. It’s probably not difficult to conclude that the longer aged (and higher percentage) products were more enticing! We tasted them all; the Cuvée du Centenaire, the Cuvée 1880, and the Quintessence. It was a special treat, indeed, to be tasting Cognac that had been aged and blended to its maximum potential.
In the end, that was a lot of cognac. I wish I had kept tasting notes but really the stand out for me was the Cuvée du Centenaire and luckily, I think this one still may be within my price range. I left the tasting with a new knowledge, and a rumbly stomach which brought me to Blink Restaurant for a bowl of their amazing risotto. Since there were only seats at the bar open, I was seated there and enjoyed my conversation with owner Leslie Echino who was working behind the bar. She happened to have another Grand Marnier cuvée, the Cuvée du Cent Cinquantenaire, which was launched in 1977 to commemorate the 150 th Anniversary of the house of Grand Marnier. I tried that one too…seven cognacs in one day was pretty intense. I went home for a nap after that.