The most revered cognac on the planet takes more than a century, and inspired a John Malkovich movie.
By Mark C. Anderson | Photos by Manny Espinoza
Last year a unique film served up a whole new selling point: “Not coming soon.”
It came attached to two of the bigger names in film, Oscar-nominated actor John Malkovich and director Robert Rodriguez, as they wrapped up production on the most mysterious movie ever created.
When they finished the flick, called 100 Years — before its actors or producers might see the final cut — they promptly hid it in a state-of-the-art time-locked vault that won’t open until the year 2115.
Tickets to the November 2115 premiere have been distributed among VIP guests with the idea they can be handed down over generations.
Malkovich, Rodriguez and the rest of the cast and crew will not be there for the debut. They won’t see, taste or appreciate the final product.
“When I was first approached I really loved the idea…I mean, in a way, I wish all the films I made wouldn’t have been seen for 100 years,” Malkovich said upon its release. “I don’t know how much that would change the way they are regarded.”
The cognac cellar masters of Louis XIII de Remy Martin are familiar with carefully crafting something that they’ll never experience themselves.
And with creating something designed to age.
In fact, the 100-year process required to accomplish a Louis XIII de Remy Martin cognac helped inspire the film and the promotional messaging around it. Louis XIII produced the movie — and, just as importantly — guards the locked safe that holds the film in its cellars in Cognac, France.
Ludovic du Plessis, global executive director for Louis XIII Cognac, likes to riff on the relationship between time, liquor and art.
“Louis XIII is a testament to the mastery of time, and we sought to create a proactive piece of art that explores the dynamic relationship of the past, the present, and the future,” he said in announcing the film. “Four generations of cellar masters put a lifetime of passion into a bottle, yet they will never taste the resulting masterpiece.
“We are thrilled that this talented actor and creative filmmaker were inspired to join us on this artistic endeavor.”
In all truth, the process to create cognac takes longer than 100 years.
That’s not the case with, say, a whiskey, with which it’s a whole lot simpler: Create a mash, ferment it, distill it, blend if you want, then age it in a barrel of your choosing, likely something easy to find. Recipes are all over the Internet.
Cognac is a whole other species of spirit.
Its grapes grow in six designated areas, including the two most revered, Grand Champagne and Petit Champagne. Louis XIII’s cellar masters pull exclusively from Grand Champagne — and with dizzying assiduity: For each cognac they review 1,000 different distillates.
One percent of those distillates — if that — joins the initial blend.
Aging commences with brand new French oak barrels. Blending goes hand in hand with aging.
Ultimately up to 1,200 distinct eaux de vies (French for “water of life,” the name for the second distillation) go into one bottle.
After 40 years of aging, the cognac is transferred into a special tierçon cask that was made 150 years ago with wood that was 150 years old — back then.
That means 300 years of stewardship, three centuries of legacy, play in.
In those tierçon barrels, the cognac can age another 100 years.
Like one cognac expert told Shakers, “It’s a century in the bottle.”
As cellar masters will taste and select young cognacs but never taste the final product, methods and mindset are passed down across decades, oftentimes four generations.
With all that patience, attention and sheer time investment, drinking it quickly doesn’t make a lot of sense.
Which is where Louis XIII Ambassador Christophe Namer comes in.
He hosts what he calls “experiences,” aimed at people with the palate and the pocketbook to appreciate a crystal bottle that can run $3,400.
The Louis goes into cognac glasses. At this point, a pause serves for a look against the light, revealing deep and brilliant amber colors.
“The fact it can age so long develops flavors — and colors — like no other,” Namer says. He asks each taster to then smell the spirit, but not like they’d anticipate.
He has them hold the stemware low, against the chest, close to the heart. From the glass emerge elements of honeysuckle, jasmine, iris.
“You get all these floral aromas,” Namer says. “The ladies say, ‘I wish I could have a perfume that smells like this.”
Then, he guides guests to place the glass under the chin, when further layers unfold: cooked fruit, dried prune, fig, passionfruit, date, vanilla.
Now closer it goes: Tasters plunge noses completely into glass, and suddenly all that fruit rises higher — along with spices, nutmeg, cigar box, cinnamon, leather and tobacco too.
“It just keeps on giving and giving and giving,” he says.
That’s true in the nose and on the tongue: With a small sip, all that absurdly diligent sourcing, aging and alchemy pay off with deepening waves of complexity.
David Fong (pictured, right) has worked in restaurants and wine for upwards of a decade and has sat in on several tastings with Namer.
“When you first taste it, has an amazing mouthfeel — it’s hard to match that — and the taste will last over an hour if you don’t try anything else,” he says. “The things you comprehend — tropical fruit, lychee, apples — there are so many notes, and a complexity that doesn’t occur with other spirits.”
“Sheer opulence,” Namer calls it. “You have have to give respect it deserves.”
History certainly has.
As his tasting exercise unspools at private dinners across the West, including Honolulu, Las Vegas, Los Angeles, San Francisco and Silicon Valley, Namer loves to cite the moments Louis XII rode aside major world events and world-famous figures.
The legendary and luxurious Orient Express train served it. In 1945, after the liberation of Paris, one of first things General Charles de Gaulle did was order an older decanter of Louis to celebrate with his team. In 1948, as Winston Churchill was retiring in France, he found perfect muse for his favorite cigar.
“Namer takes people on a journey through time,” Fong says.
There’s no small amount of history bound up in the bottle itself.
In fact, the decanter is the most time-honored aspect of the production, its unique shape inspired by a general’s metallic flask found on the French fields that hosted The Battle of Jarnac in 1569 between Protestants and Catholics.
It wasn’t until three centuries later that a farmer unearthed the vessel.
Today individually numbered crystal Louis XIII bottles are hand blown by the jewelers at Baccarat into that same shape — only it’s pure crystal. Each is bestowed with a 24-carat gold on the neck and a fleur-de-lys stopper and tucked into a plush custom red box that looks like it could be a cradle for a museum-grade jewel.
So Louis XIII remains completely old-school, while modern pop stars like Kid Rock and Rihanna name check it in their music. There’s a uncanny timelessness there, one coveted by its admirers.
“That’s the power of time,” Namer says.
More at louisxiii-cognac.com.