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Spirit of Cognac

entertainment Updated: Jan 16, 2010 22:59 IST
Jason Wilson

Last month, in Paris, the landmark 427-year-old restaurant La Tour d’Argent cleaned out its cellar and auctioned off 18,000 bottles, including some extremely rare bottles of cognac.

Three bottles, dating to 1788, sold individually for about $37,000, $31,000 and $27,300. The same week, at Christie’s in New York, a bottle of 50-year-old Glenfiddich Scotch sold at auction for $38,000. Just over a week later, Bonhams in New York auctioned off the coveted Willard S. Folsom Collection of Old and Rare Whiskies. Among the 895 bottles on sale, more than 50 Scotches sold for at least $1,000 apiece; among them were a 50-year-old Dalmore and a 50-year-old Balvenie, each of which sold for over $7,000.

For me, this flurry of high bidding raised a few questions. Such as: Isn't there a financial crisis going on? And: Why does the value of booze go up while the value of my portfolio remains in the toilet? Have cognac and Scotch become better investments than real estate?

I’d seen firsthand some indicators of this coming madness when I visited Cognac, France, in September. I was there during the annual Le Part des Anges auction, where the bigwigs of the local spirits industry bid on rare cognacs for charity. (The name means “The Angels’ Share,” the nickname for the amount of cognac that evaporates from a barrel as it ages over decades.) There, among the highlights, I witnessed a 40-year-old Delamain sell for about $4,330, a 1975 Hine go for about $4,620 and a Martell in a crystal decanter painted with 20-carat gold get snapped up for nearly $8,000.

On the afternoon before the auction, cognac giant Courvoisier held a press conference to unveil its L’Essence de Courvoisier, which would go on sale in only one store in the world, Harrods of London, for about $2,850.

Meanwhile, the crowd was gushing over the Baccarat crystal decanter suspended on a metal hoop. “Look at the bottle! How gorgeous!”

“But what about liquid inside?” I asked.

“It doesn’t really seem to matter,” grumbled one of the other journalists. That is my main beef with expensive cognac in particular. Much of the perceived value is in the limited-edition crystal decanter, with designs by Baccarat or Erté or Sevres or whomever.

There is a delusional aspect to the marketing of cognac, with its air of unattainable affluence and sophistication on one hand and its dogged attempts to connect cognac with the general consumer on the other.

Only an hour before the unveiling of L'Essence de Courvoisier, the master distiller told me that Courvoisier’s Exclusif, which retails at around $45 to $50, was the best for mixing; that “bartenders like to use it behind the bar.” First of all, there are definitely better, cheaper mixing cognacs than this one (Pierre Ferrand Ambre at $30 to $35 springs to mind). But beyond that, if I want an affordable alternative, I can use a good brandy from somewhere else say, a $25 Asbach Uralt from Germany or the best Spanish brandies at around $30 to mix in a sidecar or a stinger. That’s not a knock on cognac, which I enjoy very much. But the cold, hard reality is that good cognac is expensive. An investment, really. But at what return?

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