Imbibe Ice Awards 2009: Cognac

Drinks: Drinks

In a roll call of beauty not normally witnessed outside Oscars night, Imbibe brings you the best of the best. Ladies and gentlemen, the ICE winners for 2009…


Oddly, that most prestigious of spirits, cognac, has had a hard time of late – at least in Europe. While the Asian markets are lapping up the Qualité Supérieur levels (VSOP and up), buying it in bars and restaurants by the bottle as a badge of class, sales in the UK have been tougher for a long time.

The shippers have worked hard to reinvigorate the drink in the style bar sector, with new mixable, modern VSOPs. Indeed, Imbibe carried out a tasting of these shiny new arrivals not all that long ago. But at the ICE Awards we were looking at the best of the best, which means XO.

Cognac sales are dominated by a handful of big names, and all bar Hennessy (who declined to enter) were present here, pitched against a nice line-up of smaller producers. Whereas last year big names took the prizes (Martell and Courvoisier shared top spot), this year it was the turn of the little guys.

That said, the overall standard was impressive, with even the lowest-scoring cognac managing a combined ICE average score of 22/30 (for taste and look).

You might argue that at the kind of prices demanded here, the scores should be high. But nonetheless the consistency and craft of the liquids in the bottle, and the thought that had gone into the obviously highly expensive packaging, was reassuring.

With many thanks to The Atlas for hosting the tasting.

Best by taste

1 Ragnaud Sabourin
2 Château Fontpinot
3 Maxime Trijol
4 Hine Antique
5 Martell

Best by taste

1 Maxime Trijol
2 Hine Antique
3 Martell
4 Ragnaud Sabourin
5 Rémy Martin

ICE winner

Maxime Trijol XO

This XO achieved the double whammy of enticing the tasters when it was tried blind, then knocking them out with its look once the bags came off. Plenty of sweet, dried fruit characters on the nose (figs, dates, peaches, stone fruit and oranges were mentioned in dispatches) were backed up with Christmas spice and some intriguing, earthier, smokier rancio characters. Rounded and complex, it was nevertheless this cognac’s subtlety that most appealed to the panel. The bottle (although one judge worried that it might be a bit ‘twiddly’) also sent out all the right quality cues.

Eaux de Vie, 020 7724 5009

ICE runner-up

2nd Ragnaud Sabourin

This cognac narrowly sneaked the ‘best by taste’ section – and no wonder. A brilliant, harmonious combination of soaked apricot fruit, with dark chocolate, truffles and rancio, a whiff of cedar forest, a dusting of spices and a terrifically punchy, fresh finish. It was very high-class stuff, let down by a bottle that some felt was ‘understated’ and others dismissed as ‘old-fashioned’. Certainly, with a bit more bling in the packaging, this would probably have taken top spot.

Eaux de Vie, 020 7724 5009

3rd Hine Antique XO

After an oddly muted performance at Imbibe’s XO tasting earlier in the year, Hine was back on form here. Tasters thoroughly enjoyed its combination of spicy orange fruit, delicate truffly mid-palate and elegant spicy finish. The description of the bottle by one panellist as ‘elegant but assertive’ could equally well be applied to the drink itself.

Paragon Vintners, 020 7887 1800

4th Château Fontpinot

From a single vineyard in the Grande Champagne, this dry, linear cognac was favoured by our tasters, who liked its chalky, floral elegance and understated power. Long, subtle and impressive.

McKinley Vintners, 020 7928 7300

The judges

Chris Losh Editor, Imbibe

This was an impressive line-up. Even the ones that I scored lowest were still good – I’d be happy to drink them and, even more unusually for a journalist, pay for them. The best ones were sublime. They had a real length and poetic finesse to them. Far from being a blinged-up way of parting the gullible status-seeker from their cash, these are truly great drinks.

Alice Lascelles Bars and spirits editor, Imbibe

This seemed to be the year for lesser-known brands to shine in the blind tasting, offering more complexity and subtlety (although I also liked the Martell). Some of the bigger brands were possibly a bit over-sweet, although I can imagine this giving them broader appeal for a wider market. Design-wise I personally preferred the vintage-looking decanter-style bottles like Hine, which had a more subtle, stealth-wealth feel about it, than the showy Rémy or Martell bottles.

Dawn Davies Selfridges

The cognacs were all very smooth and approachable in style, especially the bigger brands, although they were a touch sweet in some cases. The top two (by taste) shone out for me, with a complexity of flavours that really showed what cognacs can do.

Mike Harrison Consultant

The cognacs all showed well. Though you could accuse them of lacking individuality, the overall standard was still impressive.

Emily O’Hare The River Café

This was a really beautiful line-up of very, very fine brandies. There was great intensity of aroma and flavour, all expertly bound together. It’s all about the structure, and these were excellent at purveying flavour without too much weight. As a tasting, this was a great reminder of how brilliant cognac is. It’s worth spending up on XOs – they really deliver.

Hannah Lanfear Bungalow 8

This was a really fine range of super spirits. They were all excellent, with no massive let-downs. Each cognac would have been a suitable match to a particular dessert, a particular hour or a particular cigar.

Nigel Lister Asia de Cuba

The cognacs showed really well. Though they were a bit less expressive of their place than the armagnacs, I enjoyed the consistency. The good ones were well blended, round and powerful – a bit like Robert Maxwell in the 1980s. In Asia de Cuba we encourage diners to view aged rums as an alternative digestif, but we do stock a lot of the big cognac brands as people are always going to ask for them.

Editorial feature from Imbibe Magazine – January / February 2009

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Since its launch in March 2007, Imbibe magazine has established itself as the UK’s leading publication for on-trade drinks professionals. Imbibe’s editorial coverage takes in all the main drinks categories, from wine to water, spirits to soft drinks.

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