Posted 08 Nov 2012
Cocktails on a Grand Scale: Imbibe 2012 Winners’ Experience
Nick Caputo, one half of Eight Bar’s winning team at Imbibe Live 2012, shares his and team mate Charlie’s experiences from their visit to Château Courvoisier – the prize for creating Courvoisier’s Grandest Cocktail.
The trip was absolutely wonderful – never have I ever been made to feel so special and unique by such a fantastic family – and I strongly emphasise the word family.
Courvoisier is such a major brand yet from grape to bottle and throughout all the members of their team, there is a passion and strength of unity which rubbed of on myself. Everything has such style, elegance, care and attention.
Rebecca Asseline, Courvoisier UK Brand Ambassador, did a phenomenal job of hosting us from start to finish and despite the long travel we definitely made the most of our time.
Charlie and I were received by Courvoisier and reached the Château, which on very first sight is an idealistic image: a large Renaissance elegant Château with subtle branding incorporated into the mason work. It is situated in a beautiful town by a gorgeous river, enhanced by the amazing weather. We were welcomed with Courvoisier Exclusif and ginger ale – perfect refreshment after a very long journey – and then shown to our rooms.
The Château is filled with wonderful paintings depicting Napoleon and other important figures in Courvoisier’s heritage which dwarf the walls - and the rooms were huge. With our own personal bottles of Courvoisier in each room, and a beautiful open window overlooking the river from the 3rd floor, we settled in and felt very much at home.
On the first day we enjoyed lunch with Jennifer Szersnovicz, the Trade Relations and Communications Manager, and were taken around the Heritage Museum by Béatrice Bernard. It was our first taste of how much history and family spirit Courvoisier embodies – just as every bottle says, Courvoisier is ‘Le Cognac de Napoléon’ – the Cognac of Napoleon. The heritage is so interesting and intricate, and they even have some of Napoleon’s very own hair in the museum.
After the tour we met Jennifer’s husband, Pierre Szersnovicz, the former Master Distiller of 35 years, and a man with so much charisma and charm. Pierre himself is the man responsible for helping to create the blend for Courvoisier XO, alongside the previous Master Blender, Jean-Marc Olivier, in 1984 – their masterpiece. His aura gave off a very excitable buzz to both Charlie and I, and he was thrilled to show us around. We were truly delighted to be in such expert hands, plus there was so much wit to the man.
Not only did he take us to the vineyards, where the Grande Champagne Cru had just been harvested, but he took us pretty much everywhere. Through the towns, telling us stories of other Châteaux and historic French families, and through beautiful countryside. There was a wealth of knowledge bestowed during our time together. In particular, that strong family bond between all the members of Courvoisier was always apparent.
The vineyards themselves were epic in scale, needing care and attention all year round. They had just been harvested, but those who tend to the vines have to cut back them and choose just one branch to grow from again. The vines themselves take at least three, and often four, years to grow to harvestable size. It was another clear sign of how much investment Courvoisier put into their product.
Pierre then showed us around the distillery where they happened to be preparing the first cut for the next day. The smell was warm with aromas of apple pie, which filled the room with all the alembic stills. The excitement was tangible and Pierre went out of his way to find time to bring us back the next day to witness the first cut and help us bottle our own personal sample of the eau-de-vie.
In the evening, upon returning to the Château, we had some free time to rest and freshen ourselves up before dinner with Patrice Pinet, the Master Blender. A humble man, Patrice is ultimately responsible for the consistency, quality and taste of the Courvoisier you appreciate whenever you open a bottle and drink. He hosted our three course meal in the elegant dinning room where we had previously met Jennifer. The whole meal was paired with wine and cognacs, and included tastings of Courvoisier 12 Year Old, a Medoc Red and Courvoisier XO. We started with salmon, followed by duck, and finished with a Le Nez de Courvoisier food pairing based on the key aromas of Courvoisier XO for dessert (a favourite of mine).
After dinner we conversed and enjoyed each other’s company before Patrice took us through the lounge and revealed the L’Essence de Courvoisier bottle. He described its design and in particular the Baccarat decanter and intricate stopper. We were then taken to the Paradis, or Jail as Patrice joked. I can speak for both Charlie and I when I say we would happily be locked away in the Paradis. It contained Courvoisier’s finest and oldest cognacs. A tribute to the brand, the room’s centrepiece was a bottle of L’Essence de Courvoisier with four tasting glasses.
However, we did not taste this cognac from the bottle, no, but from the barrel. Patrice took cognac straight from a barrel of L’Essence de Courvoisier for the four of us to enjoy, and in small sips of exploding flavour was it appreciated. We all discussed the liquid and enjoyed the company. A true highlight of the trip so far, and a cognac that changed and developed so much in the glass: one second the nose was one aroma and another second a completely different note. The same was true with its flavour, and with the liquid capturing and expressing so many flavours, it had to be appreciated over time. The best way to describe it would be to say if Courvoisier could be embodied in one expression and gifted to a deity, this was it.
It was a great nightcap and we stayed up and joked and chatted for a while before retiring for the next day – much chatter about animals, pets and all sorts of funny stories.
The second day was very full again with lots packed into a short space of time. First thing was first: a traditional French Breakfast consisting of the freshest tasting soft croissants and jams with yoghurt, bread and fruits to devour. Fed like piglets was a phrase thrown around – very appropriate too.
We began the day after breakfast by heading into Jarnac town to visit the bakery and market in search of ingredients for our cocktail demonstration to Courvoisier later in the day. We needed a scone replacement, so we definitely French-styled it with some French pastries, marmalade and crème fraîche (vanilla infused) as a dip. Jarnac itself is beautiful, with very old buildings full of character and very friendly people throughout.
We were then re-acquainted with Pierre, who was to host us again for the rest of the day’s tour. The Cooperage and Spliting area was our first stop. We witnessed 300 year old trees, the finest French Oak from Cognac and near Paris, being split to be cut into the staves for the barrels. The attention to detail and explanation on how to find the right oak was fascinating – even just little notes like the markings on tree’s denoting their age was explained.
The Cooperage itself was filled with an aroma of aged woods – that lovely oak smell that provokes a homely feeling. It was full of skilled craftsmen hard at work creating the ageing barrels for Courvoisier. Everything is still done with tools by hand, and the only machines used were for safety measures. The skill and finesse of these workers was clear for all to see and had been communicated through everybody involved in creating cognac whom we had seen so far – so much passion.
Following this, we then had the honour of being taken back to the distillery by Pierre to witness the first cut, and the now familiar smell reminiscent of warm apple pie. We got to watch and taste the first cut for the new year, and then Pierre presented us with our own small personal bottle of eau-de-vie labelled with our names. Something that I will treasure for a lifetime – un-aged and completely clear – Courvoisier’s first cut of eau-de-vie bottled for myself. A very special moment.
The rest of the day consisted of tasting Courvoisier’s range of VS, VSOP, Exclusif, Napoleon, XO and Initiale Extra with Pierre, before then presenting our Imbibe Live 2012 winning cocktail, Courvoisier Jubilee Tea, to the Courvoisier family. A very proud moment, I couldn’t resist making an extra drink of my own called the French Word.
The trip was scheduled to finish with a lovely lunch of canapés with Rebecca and Pierre accompanied by some very good local Merlot before a (slightly merry on my part!) walk to Courvoisier’s oldest ageing cellar. It was a warehouse with lovely dark markings on the outside, giving so much character to the appearance of the old building. The inside had an aroma of cigar smoke and the barrels were all labelled with dates and the specific blend of cognac being aged.
This final part of the tour was a wonderful end to the visit, and upon returning to the Château the whole family presented both Charlie and myself with a heart warming gift to depart with: our own personally blended, bottled and labelled Courvoisier Reserve du Paradis. As if they had not done enough to welcome us into their family and make us feel at home . It was the little touches peppered and lavished throughout the visit that made this personal finishing touch all the more special. A unique and personal stay, I cannot thank them enough for sharing this feeling and experience. I can only hope others appreciate like I do the love and care Courvoisier put into their products from grape to glass.
Au revoir and merci Courvoisier,