Friday, September 16, 2005

Booknote: Cognac: The Seductive Saga of the World's Most Coveted Spirit

Title: Cognac: The Seductive Saga of the World's Most Coveted Spirit
Author: Kyle Jarrard
Publication Information: Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley, 2005
ISBN: 0471459445
Pages: 224
Genre: Nonfiction
Subgenre: History

This book will make you want to go out and get some Cognac to sip as you read it. Mr. Jarrard has written an interesting and engaging history of Cognac. From the Middle Ages to the present day, Jarrard takes us on the journey of the eau-de-vie now known as Cognac. Cognac is a brandy, but remember, while all Cognac is brandy, not all brandy is a Cognac. Jarrard describes the rise of the business and how the business has survived and thrived in spite of wars and disease. What started out as a fairly poor grape for wine became an excellent grape to distill into Cognac. This book has a lot of interesting stories. One of them is how Texas actually saved the Cognac industry. I had no idea. It turns out that in the late 1800s, French vines suffered from an outbreak of Phylloxera. This is a yellow insect, very small, that attaches itself to the vines' roots and suffocates them. The solution was found in Texas in a rootstock that was resistant to the bug. So, they began grafting and working with that Texas stock to remake the industry. The man who saved the vines? Thomas Munson of Denison, Texas, who this day is remembered in Cognac. In fact, the cities of Denison and Cognac share an official sister city relationship.

Another interesting chapter. Two actually. These are the chapters telling the tale of a large Cognac house (Hennessy) and a small Cognac house (Delamain). Delamain's tale is particularly interesting because it describes the little rituals and traditions that Cognac makers maintain in order to preserve the quality of the product. In the case of Delamain, this includes the daily 11:00 am tasting of new samples done by a select number of experts. This is a business that passes down from generation to generation. Fathers teach their sons the craft and so on. A convincing argument in the book is that this pursuit of perfection and quality is what has allowed Cognac to survive and thrive. The two chapters are interesting because readers can see the contrast between a large Cognac maker and a small one. However, readers will see that both are proud of their traditions and that they strive to offer the very best. Just because Hennessy is a large Cognac house part of a larger corporation, it does not mean their product is of any lesser quality. The makers there put a lot of work and attention to detail as well.

Readers will also get a glimpse at all the related industries and crafts that help Cognac succeed. The chapter "From the Nursery to the Glass" tells the story of barrelmakers, glassmakers, woodsmen who choose the trees for the barrels, and even the labelmakers for the bottles. Making the Cognac is important, but you have to move the product as well. For instance, once it could be shipped in bottles rather than barrels, the indsutry took a leap forward in transportation. However, you still have to age the liquor in barrels, so the barrels are not gone.

At a little over 200 pages, it is an engaging book and a pretty light read. It discusses the processes of distillation, but it does so in a way that lay readers will understand. Readers may feel they know a bit more about Cognac when they are done with it. And at times, the prose is so good, you can almost smell the Cognac in the cellars as the angels take their share. Angel's share, in the tradition of distillers, is the part of the liquor that is lost to evaporation during aging in the barrels. Actually, in the case of Cognac, which is often aged for very long periods of time, the angels are very happy angels. The Cognac makers accept this as just part of their art and trade. As I mentioned, the tradition of angel's share is not just for Cognac. I actually learned about it when I visited Bacardi's plant in Puerto Rico (this was a long time ago) as well as Woodford Reserve in Versailles, Kentucky (a stop on my way back from a conference, where I also learned another little phrase, that all Bourbon is whiskey, but not all whiskey is Bourbon). At any rate, those travels are maybe stories for some other time. Note, I tried to see if the Bacardi plant in Puerto Rico had a website of its own, but all I could find was the official corporate site. So, in the interest of giving a link to both places, there it goes. In the meantime, I highly recommend this book for readers of history as well as nonfiction readers looking to learn something new. Needless to say, Cognac enthusiasts will love it.

Similar books include the works of Tom Standage: The Victorian Internet and The Turk. I have read these two and recommend them as well.


kyle jarrard said...

I thank you for the kind and positive overview of the book, which I hope many people will enjoy. I have lived in France for more than 20 years and know the Cognac region very well, having married a Charentaise woman from the region and having been trundled around to just about every Cognac house in existence by her relatives. Not a bad gig. Enjoy the book! Best, Kyle Jarrard

Angel, librarian and educator said...

Mr. Jarrard: What can I say? I am thrilled the author found his way here somehow. I really enjoyed reading your book. It had a strong evocative sense to it; you could get lost in it, and I did. It sounded like a wonderful gig, and it showed in the work. Thank you for the story, and I will look forward to a next one (maybe?). Best.

P.S. thanks for leaving your URL. I will have to jump over soon.