G’day guys and welcome to my first article on Cognac, the beloved spirit from its namesake, that famed green-hilled romanticised rural region of France. Like I’ve said in the past, I have a fondness for brandy, and therefore Cognac, that needn’t be explained; wine wearing whiskey’s clothes. But Cognac is beloved far and wide as a symbol of success and affluence, sophistication. Indeed there is a rich vein of history behind every bottle of Cognac on every store shelf. For the spirit to exist in the first place, it owes its existence to an alignment of circumstances. The soil of the region, varying from fine and chalky through to compacted clay. The climate in which the terroir lays, the gentle warm climate of south-western France. The river flowing through the heart of Cognac, the Charente, affording the traders access through to the Atlantic Ocean to trade with the world. And the thriving oak forests within, with which were coopered. These events that unfolded in Cognac, that without, the beloved spirit couldn’t exist. But these were of course, all small matters compared to all the problems the Cognac industry faced. While the introduction of the Phylloxera pest brought in by grapevines by botanists to study from the United States is well documented and talked about, this label today Meukow, brings with it, a separate less spoken of story to tell.
Meet Lieutenant Gustav Klaebisch, a Cognac-born Nazi officer. A man who, though he served under the Third Reich, saved Cognac from the gluttony of his fellow comrades. Therein lies a deeper connection with Meukow. In the Nineteenth-century, the world grew a larger and larger taste for Cognac. So much so, that Cognac forgeries became a real problem for the industry. In mother Russia, forgeries known simply as коньяк (or Kognac) came about from the wineries of the Crimea. A market the genuine dealers of Cognac were determined to stamp out. To this day even in the modern democratic Russia, it is said that a third of Cognac on liquor store shelves are Crimean distilled forgeries. An industry, it was thought, easily tackled by flooding the market with the genuine article. In eighteen-sixty-two, two Russian brothers Auguste-Christophe and Gustav Meukow moved to Cognac to found a label under the instructions to supply Cognac for the court of Tsar Alexander II, and the pedigree was born. Towards the end of the Nineteenth-century Gustav Klaebisch (the namesake father of the Nazi officer) purchased the label from the brothers. Gustav was born in the region and became familiar with the area and the Cognac trade. An organization that was confiscated from his father from France because of the first World War, as he was a Deutscheman. Klaebisch moved back to Germany before the second World War, where he worked as a distributor for several labels for Cognac during the inter-war period. Then in nineteen-thirty-nine Adolf Hitler declared war and invaded Europe, bent on beginning his new world order. In nineteen-forty, the Blitzkrieg swept through France, the Nazis overran the French defence and the French government surrendered, the French citizens went underground refusing to surrender to the Third Reich. In June, the Nazis took Cognac. The traders of Cognac found themselves under occupation of the Nazi Regime, isolated and unable to do business with their clientele, especially with their best customers, the allied powers – the United Kingdom, the United States. Though their stocks were moving, they were not being paid for. The Nazis commandeered hundreds of litres of wine, champagne, and Cognac throughout their occupation. So much of the story of the general wine industry and Cognac’s survival of the Nazi occupation is mired in secrecy and scandal, and very much is unsaid, some of what was said was that many businesses, Cognac labels included coasted through by cozying up to the Nazis. I’ve even read once of a Cognac bottled during the occupation bearing a Swastika. And that after the allies stormed Normandy and the fall of the Third Reich, many were thrown in jail as collaborators. But what is known, is the action taken by the lieutenant Gustav Klaebisch, who prevented the Nazis from guzzling down the entirety of eaux-de-vie, left many stocks safe from their grasp, many of which that predated the second World War and are enjoyed to this day. By comparison, Klaebisch’s brother; Otto Weinführer, the officer in charge of the region of Champagne, saw the region’s wineries ransacked without regard and hundreds of shipments sent off to Berlin for the benefit of the high-ranking Nazi officials. To save Cognac, Klaebisch halted shipments of Cognac being shipped off to Berlin in careless numbers, and ensured they were released from the distilleries in controlled quantities, creating a quota system to stop the Boche from sucking the distillers dry. In so doing, he laid the foundation for what today is known as the B.N.I.C. – “Le Bureau National Interprofessionnel du Cognac”, in English “The National Interprofessional Office of Cognac”. The B.N.I.C. was officially founded in nineteen-forty-six, the wine station, established in eighteen-ninety-six merged with the B.N.I.C. in nineteen-forty-eight, building on the work Klaebisch in the second World War to manage the equal distribution and preservation of wine and eaux-de-vie. In so doing, Gustav Klaebisch undoubtedly saved Cognac from ruin, that without his actions, important vintages such as the famous Nineteen-fifteen Grande Champagne, said to be the best Cognac ever made, with which Rémy Martin’s several thousand dollar flagship their Louis XIII Cognac is blended, would exist only in history books. Klaebisch died in nineteen-sixty-two, his work at an end. Sadly this story is seldom ever told. And as for Meukow the label, like all the other Cognac houses in the region after the war, sales were spurred on first of all by the celebration of the war’s end. Though these celebrations were a quick, sweet upswing as very much of their clientele were still reeling from the ravages of war. Indeed many were still practising rationing well into the Sixties. The market afterwards was awash with financial rich and ruin, the Asian financial boom was a big time in Cognac, when markets such as China, Japan, Taiwan and Thailand became lucrative markets. To this day China is Cognac’s second most successful export market, rivalled only by the United States. I’ll stop at the Martini Wars tax debacle between the American and French exchanges before this site starts slipping into a theme of stock-exchange and financial investments.
The bottle of Meukow, is ovular and wide, much the same as a bottle of Woodford Reserve, some very storage-inconvenient dimensions. And with the imprint label of a panther, this is in fact, the run-of-the-mill shape of all of the bottles in Meukow’s range, from their X.O. through to their line of their flavoured Cognac liqueurs. For those who’d like to begin their Saturday morning with a Cognac coffee liqueur. It would be hypocritical of me to judge. Their V.S. (Very Special) bottle, is elegantly dressed minimally with simple small writing, and their trademark panther in matte black colouring encompassing the shape of the bottle, visible from either side through the glass and the rich caramel brown liquor housed within. And now to open the bottle before I compulsively find some excuse to tie the panther labelling to some Black Panther reference.
The closer is of course a cork, all Cognac it is said proudly, are corked. I tear away the top, pull off the cork and take a deep breath in. The nose is as expected, a deep fruity rich nose of Christmas cake, nuts, berries, cinnamon sugar, and lumber. A nose uniform to any humble V.S. Cognac, the liberator of the average man. The inviting pungence of the nose sends my taste buds tingling, I can almost taste the liquor already on the tip of the tongue as I hastily drop an ice sphere to a tumbler to drink. Over ice, the nose is freed up and blossoms into a bouquet of sweet fruity notes, nose of hot mince pie. Extremely inviting. If this is their V.S., I may not be worthy of their X.O. So I take a sip. Again, full and rich of vibrant lifeful fruity tastes. Tastes like it smells in short. I wish I could drag out this summary but I feel as though I’ve said enough to send any brandy-lover who hasn’t already had a drop of the distillate of the Russian Cognac running to the liquor store. And God knows I’m ready to stop typing and keep drinking
To close: Cognac has once again, proven eaux-de-vie to be the king of all the brandys. And the legend of Meukow lives on, as a label that was birthed as the exclusive byproduct of the Tsar. But what amazes me, is that a Meukow V.S., is in fact ten dollars less expensive than the V.S. of that figurehead Cognac; Hennessy. While (from memory) the taste profiles of Hennessy and Meukow are of a distinctly different character, a rich caramel-y sugary taste, or a mince pie. By quality, neither one is better. The notion that people simply aren’t as aware of Meukow can’t be the simple cut-and-dry truth of the price difference, I can only imagine that Hennessy had the presence of mind to milk the healthy market they had made for themselves a little harder. But for a note to end on; you owe it to yourself to drink this. I may even go as far as saving, this is to hard-liquor what Moscato as a grape is to wine – Even people who don’t like to drink will like this.