Features 16 March 2021

The Cognac bounty hunter

From his base in rural Wiltshire, Cognac enthusiast David Baker has built up a peerless library of historical bottlings of the spirit. Joel Harrison peers inside the quiet, discreet world of Hermitage Cognac

Words by Joel Harrison

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The world of Cognac is dominated by the four major blending houses – Hennessy, Martell, Courvoisier and Remy Martin. These major players produce very little spirit themselves, historically preferring to purchase eaux-de-vie from a huge number of small, farm-house distillers dotted across Cognac’s sub-regions, rehousing them in their own cellars, before blending, bottling and selling them around the world.

Each year, Remy Martin, for example, tastes over 2,000 eaux-de-vie from over 1,000 producers across just the Grande and Petite Champagne regions (collectively known as ‘Fine Champagne’, these two areas contribute around 40% of Cognac’s total production) in selecting the spirit to be purchased and aged in their own cellars.

 

Cognac's vineyards are owned by a range of small producers, many of whom supply the "big four"

By comparison, single-estate, single-distillery Cognac is relatively rare. Which makes the work of David Baker and his team at Hermitage Cognacs all the more notable. Hermitage is an importer of single-estate, unblended Cognacs, often with an aged statement or a vintage attached. With three decades of experience in sourcing in the region, he specialises in rooting out  very old barrels from the cellars of family producers, which he bottles and supplies to top UK merchants and restaurants.

Baker seeks out those small holdings of spirits that have escaped the big producers, that have rested in private cellars across the region, often for decades, occasionally for a century or more. He is, essentially, a brandy archaeologist, digging up Cognacs that are as much important historic artefacts as they are beguilingly tasty bottles of brandy. His inventory is peerless, boasting bottles containing eaux-de-vie distilled in the 1800s onwards; liquid that is a testament to time, that has experience, character and personality.

David Baker
Hermitage Cognac's David Baker has built up a peerless library of historical bottlings of cognac

“For me, Cognac really develops something special after 60 years or so in barrel,” Baker muses casually, as if six decades of slumber is a mere starting point for a good Cognac.

A recent example is the Hermitage Paradis 1885, launched by Baker last year. Baker found just 150 litres of this Victorian Cognac resting in the cellars of a contact in the village of Bouteville, in the Grande Champagne region. It was a find that highlights a characteristic that Baker prizes above all other in his liquid antiquities – a phenomena he calls “double rancio”.

“What makes this 1885 so special, for me, is that it was moved from one barrel, into another old barrel, which still had some life left in it. This gave it an additional level of rancio that I really haven’t tasted in a Cognac like this before. For me, this is just magnificent.”

Expanding on the subject of maturation, Baker notes that, “In its early days, a Cognac will take out the tannins of the oak, followed by the lignin. It is when it starts to pull out the deeper hemicellulose elements that we get this rancio note come through.” Of course, grape flavours still need to be at the heart of any good Cognac, and finding this balance, especially after a century or more in cask, is what makes Baker’s bottlings so unique; a equilibrium of fruity grape tones and deep, leather-like, rancio notes.

Baker’s nose for details such as these, and his passion for understanding how Cognac matures, along with over three decades of experience, provides him with a clear-eyed, personal benchmark for the quality of brandy he bottles. His passion for Cognac was ignited on a business trip to Monaco 30 years ago, where he sampled brandies dating back to 1840. Intrigued, he took what turned out to be the life-changing decision to visit the region to learn more about the grape spirit. Digging deeper, he encountered friendly Cognac distillers, more used to dealing with the big brands, who were willing to release some of their personal stocks, their liquid heirlooms of aged spirit, to him.

Old cognac barrel
“What makes this 1885 so special, for me, is that it was moved from one barrel, into another old barrel, which still had some life left in it"

Today, from his base in rural Wiltshire, Baker travels to Cognac around six times a year, sniffing out exceptional barrels and demijohns for his own Hermitage label, which are available in upscale establishments from Claridges Hotel to Hedonism Wines, as well as Baker’s own understated website, brandyclassics.com where he curates a wider selection of spirits from across a number of French producers in Calvados, Armagnac and of course Cognac (a selection of those that excelled at last year’s IWSC, including the overall brandy trophy winner, are below).

Over the last year, we’ve all become increasingly conscious of the passage of time – not just the minutes and hours of the days, or the days themselves, but the passing of weeks and months as we count down to a return to normality. Such forbearance rather brings into focus the patience of Baker. His latest discovery is a Grande Champagne Cognac from 1890, due for release in April; the idea of a brandy being made available to sip 131 years after it was first distilled, gives the slow tick-tock of our clocks some context. As such, it’s the perfect example that what Baker does at Hermitage – not so much bottling brandy, but bottling patience itself.

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