Spirits: Pearls of Great Price
When high-end spirits producers release a limited-edition version of a product packaged in a costly crystal decanter, they often go to great lengths to explain how the spirit it contains (usually Cognac but, increasingly these days, Scotch as well) is, by dint of its rarity, worthy of so opulent a receptacle. And so one is both surprised and gratified to hear Vincent Géré, director of Cognac for Rémy Martin, candidly admit that there is essentially no difference between the Cognac housed in the company’s magnificent new Louis XIII Black Pearl limited-edition Baccarat decanter and that contained in the original Louis XIII ensemble.
Although Louis XIII Black Pearl comes from a single tierçon—a large, 555-liter barrel employed to finish Cognac’s aging process—it should not be confused with a single-cask spirit. Most Cognac is aged in small barrels for anything from three to 100 years before being blended (a process called the assemblage) and then finished in a tierçon for just a few years to effect the marriage of all the constituent eaux-de-vie, as the Cognac is styled at this stage of its career. However, the process is somewhat different with Louis XIII. The eaux-de-vie intended for this exalted Cognac spend only about 25 years in barrels before undergoing the assemblage, after which they are transferred to the tierçons, where they rest for 40 to 80 more years.
The assemblage is the heart of making fine Cognac. This process involves combining thousands of endlessly varying eaux-de-vie into one harmonious and consistent product, and Géré does not exaggerate when he observes that "blending 1,200 eaux-de-vie is an act of creation." The new Louis XIII Black Pearl Cognac, already decades old, was blended in 1960 and then spent the next 46 years resting in a century-old tierçon before being bottled in 2006.
The use of a tierçon for a larger portion of the aging process is one of the details that differentiate Louis XIII from other Cognacs. Because it is both larger than a regular barrel and made of old wood, the tierçon more subtly affects the way in which the eaux-de-vie mature and yields, according to Augustine Depardon, director of Louis XIII, a uniquely powerful yet delicate Cognac.
What sets Black Pearl apart from the standard (if such a term may be applied) Louis XIII is the beautiful, limited-edition Baccarat decanter in which it is bottled. Similar in shape to the regular Louis XIII flacon inspired by a vessel discovered on the site of the Battle of Jarnac—in which the army of the Catholic Duke d’Anjou confronted the Protestant forces of Prince de Condé—this remarkable carafe is formed of black crystal, and its platinum accents play with light, flashing highlights of blue and bright steel, as well as muted glints of silver and smoky gray.
Still another difference between this limited edition and the standard Cognac is the number of bottles available: Only 786 of these exclusive, individually numbered decanters will be released, with just 100 assigned to the American market at a cost of $8,000 each.
One taste of Louis XIII—long dubbed the "King of Cognacs"—reminds one that the regal moniker is not merely a gratuitous allusion to its namesake. One of the wonders of a great old brandy like this is the multiple layers of complex flavors it expresses, and the way in which they reveal themselves slowly, over time. If one leaves a little Louis XIII in the glass for an hour, the dominant fiery alcohol fades, and more subtle flavors begin to emerge. At first the spirit is redolent of wood and earth, leather and tobacco; then its darker elements gradually unfold: tar and licorice, smoked almonds, and aromatic, exotic spices. The patient imbiber eventually will be rewarded with essences of dried fruits, marzipan, burnt orange, prunes, and old-fashioned fruitcake with cream. Like all hidden treasures, these nuances are worth waiting for.