Yes, it comes with prestige and bling to burn, but is the liquid in the fancy decanters of XO cognac worth the price tag? Clinton Cawood puts a selection in front of an enthusiastic on-trade panel to find out
Dominated by a handful of big houses, cognac is famed not for its rebellious spirit, but rather for its stately, consistent quality and luxurious flavour profile. XO is in many ways the flagship of the category, brought out after special meals, or paired with fine cigars. But is that perceived quality reflected in the contents of the category’s fancy bottles, and do they justify their high prices?
We called in a range of XOs available in the UK, from producers both big and small, and pitted them against each other, blind, with a panel of top bartenders and sommeliers, at Joyeux Bordel and Galvin Bistrot de Luxe in London. And what emerged, in addition to consistently high quality, was the unexpected differences within the 13-strong flight.
Even the highest-priced bottles proved to be worth the money. And in the middle price range there were some serious (if relative) bargains to be found…
How it works
UK cognac suppliers were asked to provide an XO cognac from their range. These were tasted blind by a panel who were only aware of each spirit’s price. They were scored out of 20, resulting in an average score for each. All prices are RRPs for a 70cl bottle and were correct at time of tasting.
Andrea Briccarello, Galvin Restaurants; Clinton Cawood, Imbibe; Felix Cohen, Manhattans Project; François Carpentier, Joyeux Bordel; Gaëlle Laforest, Imbibe; Michal Maziarz, Novikov Bar & Restaurant; Tristan Moffat, The Piano Works; Benjamin Purslow, Victory Mansion; Adrien Russotto, Joyeux Bordel; Jess Kildetoft Sørensen, MASH London; Lewis Wilkinson, The Met Bar
86 Courvoisier XO Imperial
Showing off its Grande and Petite Champagne eaux de vies, as well the addition of some Borderies, Courvoisier’s offering proved to be deserving of our panel’s lavish praise and high scores. The nose was endlessly complex, with ‘textbook rancio notes’ alongside leather, oak, cinnamon, burnt butter, honeycomb, nutmeg and plums, as well as a lifted orange note.
The palate was ‘amazingly fresh’, as one taster put it, with bags of fruit: spiced apple, peach, mango, pineapple and apricot jam, as well as some chocolate, liquorice, nutmeg spiciness and a rounded, honeyed, buttery texture. This was big and uncompromising, and ‘a good winter warmer’, with ‘impressive depth’.
40% abv, £159, Maxxium UK, 01786 430500
85 AE Dor Vieille Fine Champagne XO
AE Dor’s XO drew nothing but praise from our panel, starting with ‘soft elegance’ and a delicate aroma of white flowers, no doubt from the Grande and Petite Champagne eaux de vies used to make it. The complexity of its aroma didn’t end there, as everything from crème caramel and brown sugar followed, not to mention figs, milk chocolate, marzipan and hazelnuts. That sweetness continued on to the palate, with tasters describing caramelised vanilla and toffee, as well as abundant fruitiness, including prunes and dates.
‘What I would expect from an XO,’ one taster simply said. And you can’t ask for much more than that, especially clocking in at what was a mid-range price point for this category.
40% abv, £89, Speciality Brands, 020 8838 9367
82 Hine Antique XO
A complex and excellent cognac, on which our panellists heaped praise, and for which they penned fascinating tasting notes . Some described a compelling mix of sandalwood, white stone fruit, baked prunes and citrus fruit, while others found spicy notes, like cinnamon sticks and generous vanilla. Roasted orange and pear aromas were there too, as well as a wood polish note.
Chocolate, liquorice, fudge, toffee, toasted almonds, oats, orange and dried apricots all appear on the palate, leading to a green apple and marmalade finish. One to savour and contemplate as it evolves in the glass.
40% abv, £140, Pol Roger Portfolio, 01432 262800
82 Rémy Martin XO Excellence
As the most expensive cognac on the table, Rémy had a lot to live up to, and for most of our tasters, it did. There was a subtlety, elegance and finesse on the nose that exceeded many of the other cognacs here, with gentle bergamot, leather and oak notes, as well as some richer cocoa.
The palate was beautifully balanced, with good weight and mouthfeel to go with some attractive confit fruit notes, as well as rooibos tea, toasted pineapple, coffee and bitter almond. ‘This would be a delight with a cigar,’ noted one taster.
40% abv, £160, Rémy Cointreau UK, 020 7580 6180
79 Hennessy XO
Delicate and elegant on the nose, while also showing great complexity and depth, Hennessy’s XO was quite vinous in character, with dark forest berries, candy floss, flower and walnut aromas.
This led to a ‘voluptuous and very textured palate’ of candied fruit, wild berries, chocolate, kumquat, white pepper and tangy citrus. It concluded with a fascinating combination of treacle and rancio notes. ‘Beautiful!’ was one taster’s succinct conclusion.
40% abv, £120, Moët Hennessy UK, 020 7808 4400
78 Frapin Château Fontpinot XO
Frapin’s offering proved to be a vibrant, powerful spirit. Coffee and cigar-box notes kicked things off, along with marzipan, baked apples, cinnamon, orgeat, and banana and walnut cake.
This led to an equally bold palate, with cooked apricot, candied fruit, some liquorice, and peppery spice. Perhaps most distinctive was an appealing bitterness, giving this some character and lift to the finish, leading one taster to suggest this cognac’s affinity to cigars. ‘Outstanding – full of body and character,’ summarised one panellist.
41% abv, £105, Louis Latour Agencies, 020 7409 7276
76 Martell Cordon Bleu
Martell elected to submit bartender-favourite Cordon Bleu, technically an XO, rather than its standard XO, to positive reviews. The nose was intense to start, with cane sugar syrup aromas, cooked fruit and nutty notes, as well as some cacao, nutmeg and caramel. ‘Indulgent, rich and spicy,’ said one taster. Some sweetness was detectable on the palate, with leather, tobacco, and generous vanilla notes. Special mention was made of the textured mouthfeel here, with similarities drawn with sauternes. ‘Round, mellow and lush,’ said one.
40% abv, £100, Pernod Ricard UK, 0800 376 5550
76 Pierre Ferrand Sélection des Anges
This was an intense, fruity offering, with orange and apricot notes dominant. These were accompanied by some cinnamon and vanilla spice. The palate was no less an ‘explosion of flavour’, as one taster put it. Savoury notes and white pepper joined a big biscuit note, along with plenty more fruit – what one described as ‘ripe clementines’. Soft caramel on the palate led to a long, rich, honeyed finish, with ‘good complexity and rancio notes’.
40% abv, £110, Identity Drinks Brands, 07890 277 024
74 ABK6 XO Family Reserve
While delicate floral notes opened things up here, notably orchid and lavender combining with some vibrant spice notes, this soon turned into a voluptuous, rich aroma, with honey, baked pear, toffee and clove. The palate was fruity and buttery, with lemon shortbread, coffee and mocha in evidence, not to mention a slightly smoky note. An interesting and versatile spirit, with good length.
40% abv, £95, McKinley Vintners, 020 7928 7300
74 Reviseur XO
More than one panellist commented that Reviseur’s offering was one of the most distinctly XO cognacs in this line-up. This meant a comforting and familiar combination of oak, vanilla, leather, biscuit and fruit on both the nose and palate, but with some added coffee, liquorice, bitter almond and honeysuckle notes for interest. Good balance and length, along with that price tag, made this one of the real bargains of the day.
40% abv, £66.99, Marussia Beverages, 020 7724 5009
72 Leyrat XO Vieille Reserve
Some tasters thought that the combination of price and flavour made this a perfect entry point into the XO category. There was plenty of fruit here, including peach, pineapple and fresh green apple. This was accompanied by some sweeter notes of caramel, treacle and honey (drawing some Christmas pudding comparisons) leading to a fresh, brisk finish, with a touch of spice to add some complexity.
40% abv, £70.99, Marussia Beverages, 020 7724 5009
71 Delamain Pale & Dry XO
Some were reminded more of armagnac than cognac by this XO, with its prune, stonefruit and dried pineapple notes taking preference over more traditional vanilla and oak flavours. Honeycomb was present too, as well as some biscuit notes, deep orange citrus character, along a herbal element. ‘A mouth-wateringly dry finish, with vanilla and sweet almonds,’ said one panellist, while another picked up crème brûlée and baked apple notes.
40% abv, £90, Mentzendorff, 020 7840 3600
56 Tesseron Lot No 90 XO
It might not have received rave reviews from every panellist, but a number had praise for the lowest-priced cognac of the day. Apricot and fig notes gave depth to some green fruit, all lifted by floral notes, and backed by a sweet pastry element. ‘Easily enjoyable,’ said one panellist, while another taster described this as soft and elegant.
40% abv, £53, Enotria, 020 8961 5161
‘XO has a stereotype of having rich, intense, caramel flavours – and there were a lot of those textbook styles in this tasting, but it was also interesting to see other more floral, precise styles. On the whole, people know what to expect with XO, and the category sells itself. It’s an experience.’
Andrea Briccarello, Galvin Restaurants
‘For a category with a reputation for consistency and similar characteristics throughout, there was an impressive degree of diversity here, with this flight really showing off what XO cognac can do. What was most impressive was the consistent quality, and value for money, at all price points.’
Clinton Cawood, Imbibe
‘There was amazing variation here. Some of the cheaper cognacs I’d struggle to recommend, and there’s not much that I’d mix with here, but that’s mainly a GP issue. I’d like to have one of the higher-priced ones on my list for high rollers.’
Felix Cohen, Manhattans Project
‘This overall category is beautiful, really subtle, and tends to be more and more interesting every year. This selection was a good way to showcase the versatility of the category. I think that it has become more interesting to invest around £100 in a good cognac rather than some other categories, which trends can make pretty expensive.’
François Carpentier, Joyeux Bordel
‘I was pleasantly surprised by the diversity of flavours in the category – from profiles that were spicier, to some that were in the confit fruit domain, while others had bitter coffee and nutty aspects. Given the price point of many of these, they can be a hand-sell, so comprehensive staff training is a must.’
Gaëlle Laforest, Imbibe
‘I’m generally sceptical, and question everything, including price, but today I had to question my scepticism. In the mid-price range I encountered a few cognacs that received high scores for being unique, special and particularly interesting – and they will probably appeal equally to customers with particular tastes and palates.’
Michal Maziarz, Novikov Restaurant & Bar
‘What really makes a stand-out cognac for me is being able to give the blend its own character and identity by having stand-out flavours, while not allowing the alcohol to consume the flavour.’
Tristan Moffat, The Piano Works
‘The tasting notes were pretty wide-ranging here, with everything from heavy, leathery and dark spirits, to some light ones that really surprised me. There are definitely flavours that you get in cognac that you don’t get in other categories, but whether those are desirable to a modern palate… I don’t know.’
Benjamin Purslow, Victory Mansion
‘I found real personality and character here, which is what I’m looking for in a good cognac. There was a really nice selection, from big brands to smaller production, and the middle price range – £80 to £120 – was very interesting, with great value.’
Adrien Russotto, Joyeux Bordel
‘You could definitely taste the quality in this line up. I understand the price points – you’re drinking a piece of history. I used to have regular guests that wouldn’t spend on wine, but would on cognac. I personally would try to seek out the smaller, family-owned domaines, as they have that personal touch. But there’s definitely a place for all of these.’
Jess Kildetoft Sørensen, MASH London
‘The quality of the higher priced XOs is quite evident. The levels of complexity, balance and finish of the top-end products are definitely rewarded by paying a higher premium. That said, cognac, and XO in particular, remains an acquired and informed choice for experienced consumers with pre-existing loyalties to reputable brands.’
Lewis Wilkinson, The Met Bar
– There was the expectation here that XO cognac is a homogenous category when it comes to flavour, but this tasting put paid to that. There was some real diversity here, with these XOs showing an admirable range of flavour.
– Similarly, there was a spread of prices too, from £53 to £160, and while quality generally increased with price, there were some gems to be found in the middle price points.
– While tasters might have had the occasional criticism of some spirits in this flight, they were far more often moved to praise them, and weren’t shy with their scores either. An average of 76.2% is no mean feat, and a testament to the consistency and quality coming out of the region.
Many thanks to the teams at Joyeux Bordel and Galvin Bistrot de Luxe for hosting these tastings and for all of their help on the day. Photos: Lewis Wilkinson