I’m concerned I shall not give Alexander Gabriel the credit he deserves, but if I can impart a smidgen of his passion and energy for cognac in this wee report, then I am happy. As way of introduction to his Ferrand masterclass, Alexander starts by telling us that whilst the Dutch made brandy, it was the British who made cognac what it is today. Reflecting on the spirits industry as a whole, Alexander points out that we have now reached a high production level of quality, competency & efficiency, yet plateaued in a cul-de-sac of excellence. Alexander believes cognac is the perfect spirit for new directions, telling us that “the cognac spirit is a great vehicle for new woods“. After some discussion over the difference between dry & humid cellars [with dry cellars you lose water whilst in a humid cellar you lose alcohol], we eventually move onto the first cognac of the masterclass.
Pierre Ferrand 10 Generations  Ob. 46% [50cl] WF80
This is an expression Alexander is truly passionate about. This cognac is made in honour of Mademoiselle Henrietta, the last direct descendant of the Ferrand family line going back 10 generations [further reading: spiritshunters.com]. It is said that Mademoiselle kept everything from invoices to top hats & stuffed birds as well as detailed family archives regarding cognac production, all found in the only two rooms of the mansion that she occupied. Alexander begun preserving & renovating the house thirty years ago.
This cognac is made from 15 eaux de vies/barrels with an average age of around 8 years. Bit sneaky then, that ’10’ moniker. It wouldn’t be at all ambiguous if it was spelled out as ‘Ten’,… Generations.
- N: Cognac-light with a congealed oiliness, this is super-fresh/vibrant/youthful/contemporary juice.
- T: Really needs water as it’s a bit feisty.
- F: Subtler notes around the essence of grape as well as the mouthfeel come right at the end.
- C: My second contact with this one [WLP80]. I want to love it more but struggle.
Scores 78 points.
The significance of the Ferrand legacy for Alexander, is that the house used to age their cognac in many different wood types. They ‘experimented’ – a word which is like music to Alexander’s ears. “Chestnut is the Rolls Royce for cognac“, he says.
We are introduced to four experimental cask samples. “They are unique to the festival,…. cutting edge stuff” says Alexander. They can’t be called cognac however because they are aged in non-oak.
Alexander also refers to spirit maturing in casks as ‘cooking’. Unlike the whisk[e]y industry, cognac producers tend to steer away from virgin oak casks as the resins are seen as too disruptive to the spirit. In these experimental wood-cask samples however, virgin wood casks have been deployed to fully demonstrate the effects of those woods. All have been reduced to 40% for comparison purposes.
[Pierre] Ferrand Acacia Un-Ob. cask sample 40%
- N: Similar youthfulness to the ’10’ Generations, with a Diageo-like magic wand coating of daiquiri-esque references, tropical fruits, a light funky (biscuity) vegetal pong and a gooey-ness to match.
- T: A light vegetal tannic > bitterness and desirably greasy/ vegetal-slick mouthfeel.
- F: Still a touch slick and vegetal tannic-dry with a charred/burned note. Forgive me, the French don’t char, that would be way too crude! They talk about ‘toasting’.
- C: Tasted blind at first, I guessed this was aged in a rum casks. What’s certain is acacia wood imparts a really interesting character on the spirit that’s probably more likeable for us than for the coopers who have to manage this tricky wood.
[Pierre] Ferrand Ash [Frere] Un-Ob. cask sample 40%
- N: A more recognisably traditional cognac style with a sweet vanilla thread and sprinkles of white flour.
- T&F: Unlike the acacia cask sample, this is far more comparable to contemporary cognac with its fruity cherry flavours and thick rich mouthfeel.
- C: More straight ahead and agreeable.
Alexander points out that the innovations he’s demonstrating today as ‘cutting edge’, were common practise for cognac producers in the 1900’s. He tells us for example, that a cognac rule in 1923 states ‘Cognac should be produced from grapes and aged in wine casks‘. “We forgot this“, says Alexander, inferring that wine casks didn’t always mean oak.
We are told that acacia and chestnut barrels [for example], were certainly still used after 1945, but would have been ‘hushed up’ to avoid those respective cognacs being deemed as illegal. Isn’t it funny what becomes considered ‘traditional’ years later. Alexander points out that even if these experimental casks became ‘legal’ today, they would only ever be colourful fringe expressions. Oak would continue to be the main driver.
[Pierre] Ferrand Maple [Erable] Un-Ob. cask sample 40%
- N: Similar profile to the ash sample with a vegetal agave-like character. I ask Alexander whether this vegetal quality comes from the wood, but he believes it’s purely from the eau de vie.
- T: Also like the ash sample, this is more comparable to contemporary oak-aged cognac.
- F: Tasty and interesting oak-like wood-oil finish.
- C: Interesting to note that it’s the finish that highlights the wood differences the most.
[Pierre] Ferrand Wild Cherry [Mensia] Un-Ob. cask sample 40%
- N: More dusty than the previous examples also with loft insulation notes – yet it still remains vibrant/contemporary.
- T: Ooh, interesting! The wood oils are so utterly present. It is if I’m inside the tree.
- F: It’s all about those wood oils & cellulose coupled with “the soul of wine“, as Alexander says.
- C: A vivid tree experience tasting!
I ask Alexander how his vision for cognac and [Plantation] rum compares with Luca Gargano & Richard Seale’s rum classification [WLP]. Surprisingly, Alexander tells me he sees their [Luca & Richard’s] classification as too limited – for cognac and for rum. Alexander certainly wants to maintain the traditions of crop source and distillation in appellation for example, but wants to be able to use any yeast strain and any wood type to ferment and mature. He tells me that people won’t allow him to use natural yeasts and woods specific to their region,…. “like mango wood for example“, he adds.
Alexander has been fighting hard to change laws & limitations in the spirits industry for decades. For example MF tells us:
‘In 1996, Alexandre created Citadelle Gin, the first artisanal Gin de France, spearheading the movement for artisanal gins. Due to strict regulations imposed by Cognac’s appellation d’origine controlee (AOC), Alexandre Gabriel was obligated to stop using his cognac stills for seven months of the year. After five long years of negotiations, he obtained the AOC authorization to distill gin during the period that the stills were usually dormant, giving the traditional copper pot stills new life and purpose‘.
Ferrand’s Renegade [below] is another example of Alexander’s determination to push ahead with new possibilities for cognac, in this case a double-matured cognac initially aged in traditional oak casks before being moved to chestnut-wood barrels. As a result of this move, it can’t currently be called cognac.
Pierre Ferrand Renegade Barrel No.2  Ob. 47.1% [50cl] WLP75
- N: A creamy one with notes of tropical pineapple, apple slices and some huskiness with similar agave vibes to the maple wood cask sample.
- T: Whisky-like in a way, the body offering the closest similarity.
- F: Full, tasty and tangy.
- C: A decent all-rounder.
Scores 83 points, a fair advance on my last outing [WLP75].
“Stay tuned”, says Alexander – “you won’t be bored”