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Martell, three centuries old but the spirit for today

Dr Samuel Johnson, famous in the 1700s as a lover of life in London and a fountain of many fine phrases was once noted by his trusty diarist James Boswell to observe that “Claret is the liquor of boys, port for men but he who aspires to be a hero must drink brandy.”

The times were a little less correct, attitudes to drinking a little less refined and a touch of sexism went unnoticed, but the thought remains that there was something mightily impressive about the spirit distilled from grape wine.

Just as there are many sparkling wines but only one Champagne, (produced in a defined area by defined processes) there are many brandies around the world but only one Cognac, a brandy made by defined processes, in the defined Charente area in South West France.

Martell This Magnificent LIfeIt all starts with the ugni blanc grape which is firstly fermented to give a not very enjoyable, highly acid white wine.

But this mean liquid becomes alive and sublime when it is distilled, and most importantly aged in wood. Over many years it rests in casks in the cellars. Some of the alcohol evaporates through the wood, rises up and is thus called ‘ the angels’ share’. As much as 3-4 % is lost, the equivalent of 20 million bottles a year across the Charente.

The oldest of the great cognac houses, the House of Martell, was founded by an enthusiastic young John Martell passionate about distilling spirits who made the trip from Jersey to Cognac in 1715.

The secrets of the Red Barrels

Recognising that quite a lot has happened in the intervening 303 years we were gathered at the headquarters of Pernod Ricard in Sydney to celebrate and taste the latest expression of that man’s passion.

Martell This Magnificent Life
A nice welcome from the five important food groups. Meats, olives, cheeses, bread and cognac

The Martell VSOP, aged in red barrels.

VSOP, of course, stands for Very Special Old Pale, but you knew that. However, you may want to know what Martell’s red barrels are.

Martell has always favoured the double distillation of exclusively clear wines from which all lees have been removed. This results in a finer purer spirit where more subtle aromas and flavours are smoothly presented.

The second guiding principle of the House is the use of only fine-grained oak barrels from the Troncais region of France typically crafted from wood 180 to 200 years old.

Today the distillers have chosen barrels that have already been used to age eau de vie, during which time the wood takes on a reddish hue. They also mellow and deliver softer tannins allowing the delicacy of the original fruit to shine through.

Now, this is a taste test
Martell This Magnificent Life
Our host, Romaric, passionate about his cognacs

For the evening we are in the hands of Brand Ambassador Romaric Belhagel, French and passionate. The highlight is the launch of the Martell VSOP aged in Red Barrels, but for comparison, we look at three more cognacs from the House.

The Martell VS.

The modest one, aged for just two years, is for gentle sipping. In the glass, it is a pretty and light golden colour but it swirls with lively young flavours. “A good balance, round and not too harsh, fruity even.” we are told. Good to mix in cocktails or straight over ice, even over ice cream. Yum!

A food match with cognac? Chocolate, especially one with orange.

The Martell VSOP.

Slightly richer in colour and certainly in flavour. More complexity, more roundness. Its heart has more fire but it delivers mellowness, smooth and long-lasting in the mouth. Great balance and power.

This Magnificent Life
The King XO flanked by sturdy sidekicks, VS and VSOP

The Martell Cordon Bleu.

Gold and coppery colour, this is even more complex as you’d expect, rich, well cultured and a touch earthy. Says Romaric: “It reminds me of Christmas, all candied fruit, sweet and delicious”

The Martell XO.

This is the top of the range. The King in the elegantly structured bottle. Gold with mahogany highlights. Great strength, but still achieving a harmonious balance. Smooth and a touch waxy. A little spicy and peppery. Very complex, as it lingers silkily in the throat. 

About time for your cocktail
Daniel, our cocktail king with some important ingredients

Daniel Millhouse, master of the cocktail, told us he is using cognac more and more in his creations. It gives them a heightened je ne sais quoi exuberance over some other spirits.

We taste three of them. Two originals and his version of a classic, the Sidecar. You can try these at home but it’s probably better for you to pop down to the soon to be opened Nick and Nora’s in Parramatta where Daniel’s wizardry will be on display.

Martell This Magnificent Life
The makings of the Rhubarb Royale, a slurp of bubbles to finish
  • Rhubarb Royal:
    • 30ml Rhubarb brandy (pre-prepared with Martell VS Single Distillery Cognac)
    • 2 dashes of Saline
    • 120ml of Champagne Perrier-Jouet Grand Brut
    • Peychaud’s sugar edging
    • Dehydrated rhubarb garnish, pegged
      Martell This Magnificent Life
      Daniel’s refreshing look at The Sidecar. Again I couldn’t wait
  • Sidecar
    • 40ml of Martell VS Single Distillery
    • 20ml of Triple Sec (Cointreau)
    • 15ml Lemon Juice
      The Super8. Perfectly intact. What a refresher!


  • Super8;
    • 50ml Martell VSOP Red Barrels
    • 10ml Amontillado Sherry
    • 20ml House Cola Syrup (a secret blend)
    • 15ml Lemon Juice
    • Folded fruit strap to garnish

In the course of the evening, Daniel mentions another simple classic which we’ll have to make ourselves. The Horseneck. A good slug of cognac, topped with ginger ale with a floating circle of orange on top.

What could go wrong? With Martell, you are in fine hands.

You can find out more about the history of cognac and its place in the modern world of drinking here


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Ian MacTavish

Mr MacTavish is a celebrated writer and one of Australia's more respected Wine reviewers, appearing regularly in national magazines, in print and on line. So far, he has never been heard to say 'no' to a wee dram.

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