A Chat and Tasting with Courvoisier Master Blender Patrice Pinet

Courvoisier Master Blender Patrice Pinet. Photo courtesy of Courvoisier.

Courvoisier Master Blender Patrice Pinet does not travel to the U.S. much.  So when the rare opportunity to meet with him privately arose, I jumped at the chance.  Pinet was in New Orleans for Tales of the Cocktail representing Courvoisier.  As Pinet’s time was very limited, only three tasting sessions were made available.  I was lucky to nab one of those sessions.  

The soft-spoken Master Blender poured a taste of Courvoisier VSOP, XO and rare L’Essence as we talked cognac.  On the subject of cognac and cocktails, Pinet called it “a very interesting period of time where we are rediscovering cognac.”  The spirit was used in punch back in the day, but it wasn’t called cognac.  At that time, the spirit we now know as cognac was referred to simply as brandy from the Cognac region.  The regulations that define cognac were put in place much later.  Remember, all cognac is brandy, but not all brandy is cognac.

“There is no crime to dilute or use cognac in a cocktail,” Pinet said.  “Back in the 1950s, people drank cognac fine à l’eau, which means cognac and sparkling water.”

In terms of modern cognac-based cocktails, Pinet compared the French spirit to cuisine.  “If you want to prepare a meal in an established restaurant, you need to have a very good ingredients to have a very good meal,” said Pinet.  “To make a very good cocktail, you also need good ingredients.  With Cognac you have a very good ingredient.  It’s very aromatic.  There’s something about cognac that combines very well with fruits and liqueurs.  Mixologists can play with cognac very well.”

Making cognac shares similarities with whiskey-making, but they are worlds apart.  Whiskey comes from grains, which are pretty much the same year-to-year.  Cognac, on the other hand, is made from wine.  The grape harvests are different every year.  Pinet explained, “To have a very sustainable quality, it is very important to blend different years.  Otherwise you’d have too much variation from one year to another.”

I asked about the blending different crus, or sub-regions, in Cognac.  “We obtain different wines, and depending on soil, it gives the possibility of different taste profiles.  There is very chalky soil in Grande Champagne and Petit Champange. A little bit less chalky in Fin Bois or more flint in Borderies,” said Pinet.  “It depends on what I want to do.  If I want to do something very floral, like Courvoisier VS, I like to use Fin Bois.  Fin Bois is very good after just two years of aging.  We do not like to distill Fin Bois with the lees (residue yeast from wine-making).  We eliminate them for the Fin Bois in order to have something very floral and very fruity.  This is my favorite cru to make a young cognac. When I want to do higher quality blend, I use Grand Champagne as a base. The richness in Grande Champagne is very interesting. We like to add a touch of Borderies in the higher quality blends to give some spiciness and floral notes like violet or iris.  It is not a lot. I would say maybe 10 – 20% Borderies.”

All cognac must be aged in French oak casks.  In addition, Courvoisier, along with most cognac producers, utilize both dry cellars and damp cellars to store their cognac-filled casks. 
“When you have a dry cellar, there is more evaporation of water. There is more concentration of alcohol, making the spirit dry.  In a humid cellar you have more evaporation of alcohol.  You have more smoothness.  That’s why it is important to have both types of cellars.  You need to have the balance.”

Courvoisier is one of the world’s largest cognac producers, so consistency in their product lines is of utter importance.  Their eight person tasting panel tastes daily for quality and consistency, but Pinet says their knowledge and experience makes the process or manageable.

“I would say that for a Master Blender, the easiest thing to do is a limited edition.  You make a batch that’s unique and that’s it.  To have a very consistent blend, it’s much more challenging.  You need to play with different cru and different ages.  We have a standard recipe, but this recipe has to be adjusted.  We know that Courvoisier VS, for instance, we have about 85% Fin Bois and 15% Petit Champagne.  From year to year we move a little bit.  Our VS is aged from two to seven years, so we play with different years to have a very consistent quality.”
Lastly, I asked about the possibility of a high proof cognac.  Pinet smiled and said, “If there is a demand from mixologists to use a cask-strength cognac in order to have a lot of aroma and a good basis for cocktails, it is something we would look at.”

Photo courtesy of Courvoisier.

As for the cognacs we tasted, you can find my review of Courvoisier VSOP and XO here.  The last pour, L’Essence de Courvoisier, was heavenly on the nose and refined on palate.  Rich dark toffee, dried fruits, and leather filled the nose alongside light floral notes.  The palate carried over more of the same, with a touch more on the fruitier side.  I remember plum and herbs on the finish.  This cognac was made using Grande Champagne and Borderies dating back to the early 1900s.  Exquisite!

I want to thank Courvoisier for the chance to speak with one of the great blenders in the spirits industry.  The best way to learn about a brand is to drink their spirits.  But learning from the person who actually blends said spirits is enlightenment on a whole other level.  

My Tales of the Cocktail Adventures: 2017 Edition

July in New Orleans means only one thing: Tales of the Cocktail. This spirits industry convention celebrated its 15th anniversary in 2017, and probably its largest gathering yet. Major and craft spirits brands show up in full force to showcase their spirits and spread knowledge through tastings and seminars. This is my third year attending. It’s easy for me because I live in NOLA, so I’m in the middle of the chaos after a short 10 minute drive from home. Wow, what a week! Here are some highlights:

Photo courtesy of Bulleit Distilling Co.


My Tales adventure this year kicked off with a Copper & Kings Happy Hour event to enjoy a delicious brandy cocktail before heading off to dinner with Tom Bulleit at Compère Lapin. Tom was in town to promote a new partnership between Bulleit and Revelator Coffee. Revelator created a Bulleit barrel-aged coffee syrup. It smells and tastes heavenly, by the way.  I’m already experimenting with the syrup at home.  Let’s hope it becomes available to the public in the future.


Irish whiskey was the star of the show at Kilbeggan’s Single Grain launch.

Wednesday started with a visit to the Kilbeggan Rambling House, where Kilbeggan Single Grain Irish Whiskey was the star of the show. Because my schedule was packed, I was only able to stop by for a few minutes as they opened. Unfortunately, there was a slight hiccup with the distributor and the new Single Grain expression hadn’t arrived yet. No problem. I enjoyed a pour of Tyrconnell 10-year-old Madeira cask finished whiskey. That’s no consolation prize. It’s a delicious malt worth seeking out.  The good news is a small sample is on its way as I type this post.  A review will soon follow.

Hennessy’s Director of Distillation Olivier Paultes walked us through a sampling of different cognacs.

Next up was the Hennessy Experience at Bevolo. National Brand Ambassador Jordan Bushell was on-hand to walk visitors through the cognac making process before introducing us to Hennessy’s Director of Distillation Olivier Paultes, who also sits on the Hennessy Tasting Committee. Olivier led us through a tasting of several cognacs, including a 52-year-old cognac from Grande Champagne. There was so much to see and taste – a quick recap won’t do it justice. Expect a separate post soon.

The Napoleonic Complex, the winning cocktail at Exotico’s cocktail competition. Photo courtesy of Hank Allen.

I managed to stop over to see the tail end of Exotico Tequila’s 2017 cocktail competition. “The Napoleonic Complex,” a margherita pizza-inspired cocktail saw its creator Megan Deschaine take top prize.  Here’s her winning recipe:

  • 1.5 oz Exotico Blanco Tequila
  • .75 oz lime juice
  • .5 oz agave syrup
  • 4 dashes Bittermens Hellfire Bitters
  • 2 dashes Scrappy’s Celery Bitters
  • 1 ripe roma tomato (quartered)
  • 8-10 basil leaves

Muddle tomato quarters and basil in a mixing tin.  Add remaining ingredients and shake vigorously with ice.  Double strain into dressed rocks glass over one large ice cube.  Garnish with a skewered mozzarella ball and basil leaf and half of a salt and pepper rim.

Redemption’s Joe Riggs met me to go over some of the whiskey brand’s offerings, including the newly released Wheated Bourbon. Delicious and priced right at about $45 a bottle. It has a whopping 45% wheat in its mashbill – much more than most, if not all, wheated bourbons out there. It was softer in character, with a nice non-cloying sweetness up front.  Those barrel proof bourbon and rye expressions Joe pulled out at the end of the tasting were no joke!  Fantastic stuff.

Balvenie Malt Master David Stewart and I at the William Grant & Sons Portfolio Party.

Wednesday night ended with the William Grant & Sons portfolio party. It was great catching up with and meeting new Balvenie and Glenfiddich brand ambassadors – and sipping on Balvenie 14-year-old Peated Cask and 21-year-old Port Cask finish. Oh, did I mention Balvenie Malt Master David Stewart was just hanging around. I walked up and introduced myself. We chatted for a good while. As our conversation drew to an end, spirits author extraordinaire Fred Minnick offered up a cigar. Who was I to turn him down? After a wonderful evening, I was off to bed. I had to rest up for what was to be a busy Thursday.


A lovely dram of The Balvenie DoubleWood 17-year-old.

A quick coffee to start the day? Nonsense! I had a morning meeting with Balvenie’s Brand Ambassador Jonathan Wingo, who brought along pours of Balvenie DoubleWood 12- and 17-year-old whiskies. We talked all things Balvenie, which I’ll cover in-depth in an upcoming post.

Courvoisier Master Blender Patrice Pinet pouring me a glass of XO during a marvelous chat.

Then a quick Lyft ride to the Ritz-Carlton was the only way to not show up for my next appointment soaked in sweat. It was HOT out there! That meeting was with Courvoisier’s Master Blender Patrice Pinet. He makes it to the U.S. only once a year, so I was extremely fortunate enough to meet privately with him. We chatted about cognac cocktail trends and misconceptions, among other things, while tasting through Courvoisier VSOP, XO and L’Essence de Courvoisier. That last one… what an exquisite cognac!

Next on the agenda was a tasting of something new from Japanese spirit maker Nikka. No, it wasn’t whisky. I was there to taste their new gin and vodka. Both spirits were distilled in Nikka’s Coffey still. Emiko Kaji led an informative presentation that included tasting a 100% corn spirits distilled in a column still and one distilled in Nikka’s Coffey still. The latter was much creamier with more body. I also got to smell the different botanicals found in the gin. It was nice to get away from whiskey or cognac, even if was only for a few moments.

Now there are whiskey geeks and then there are whiskey geeks.  All showed up for “Better Drinking Through Chemistry,” a seminar that took a microscopic look at what gives whiskey and cognac their unique flavors.  Moderated by Diageo’s Ewan Morgan, this molecule and compound filled science orgy featured Wiser’s Dr. Don Livermore, Diageo’s Dr. Matthew Crow, and Hennessy’s Jordan Bushell.  We learned why rye grain gives the flavors it does and how barrels and different types of oak affect a spirit’s nature.  Those in attendance sampled Lot 40 Cask Strength, JP Wiser’s Dissertation, a 10-year-old whiskey finished in a cask whose wood staves were seasoned for four years, a 12-year-old Cardhu, an 18-year-old Glen Ord that matured in recharred casks with new American oak ends, as well as Oban Little Bay.  Bushell guided us through a tasting of three different cognacs: a 4-year-old Fin Bois aged in a grade D barrel (an old, used barrel) in a dry cellar, Hennessy Master Blender’s Selection No. 1, and Paradis Impérial to cap off the seminar.  The inner whiskey geek in me walked out with a smile.

Later that night I grabbed a cocktail and a bite to eat at High West’s Spirited Dinner.  The theme was “A Toast to Old Orleans.”  The familiar (to me, anyway) creole food, ragtime jazz band, and Highwest cocktails proved to be a pleasant way to end a hectic day.


My Friday evening started with a visit to The Macallan’s “Flight for a Cause” tasting at the Ritz.  Sure, it was pretty exciting to get to taste Macallan’s 1824 Series, including Rare Cask, Reflexion, No. 6, and exquisite (and expensive) M, but what impressed me most was the charity aspect.  For every person who attended, Macallan donated $250 to support wounded veterans and their families.  Brand Ambassador Raquel Raies led small groups through a tasting of the series.  I have to say, the small amount of pre-WWII peated casks added to this expression was a masterstroke.  It was one of the most memorable pours in a week of unforgettable spirits.

Westland Whiskey Master Distiller Matt Hoffman

Deep in the French Quarter, I met up with Westland Whiskey Master Distiller Matt Hoffman.  I was pretty pumped to be able to chat with Hoffman and taste Westland for the first time.  “We’re all about balance,” Hoffman said as he poured a few of his single malts:  American Oak, Sherry Wood, Peated, and Garryana.  They were all rich, balanced, and easily drinkable.  The limited edition Garryana offered the same with an added complexity.  That last one is a great example of terrior.  Garryana is a type of American oak only found in a minuscule area in Washington state, and, to my knowledge, Westland is the only whiskey distillery utilizing it.

Capping off my Friday was Diageo’s portfolio party, featuring a performance by Snoop Dogg.  Since I’ve never seen Snoop in concert, I was able to check it off my bucket list while enjoying a Guinness and Bulleit 10 Boilermaker.  This was by far the most crowded portfolio I’ve attended since coming to Tales.  Lots of people, but a helluva lot of fun.


Saturday morning started with a meet-and-greet with Cedar Ridge founder/owner Jeff Quint.  We talked about how he started the Iowa distillery and his aim to put out a quality product that doesn’t taste like anything currently on the market.  Quint brought along some expressions for me to try.  The corn whiskey was light and sweet (perfect for a highball), while his malted rye had some nice characteristics not found in standard rye whiskies.  Cedar Ridge single malt was rich but not overly complex.  The two bourbons were nice, especially the 5-year-old expression.    I hope to get the chance to try these whiskies again.

As someone who runs a whiskey blog, I wouldnt miss Noah Rothbaum’s “The Original Whisky Writer: Alfred Barnard” seminar.  He impressive panel included David Wondrich, Dr. Nick Morgan, Dave Broom, and Lew Bryson.  The group tackled the life of the enigmatic Victorian whisky writer whose book, “The Whisky Distilleries of the United Kingdom” served as a blueprint for most future whisky writers.  Though Barnard wrote other books, they didnt have the gravitas of that first one.  This may have been the most entertaining panel I’ve attended.

Capping off my Tales experience was a visit to Cafe Adelaide, where the restaurant was celebrating its newly launched Breakfast for Dinner menu.  The food was to die for, as were the cocktails, wich were made using spirits from the local Donner-Peltier distillery.  If you make it down to New Orleans, you should really stop by Cafe Adelaide.  There’s simply no friendlier hospitality in the city.

What another wonderful year!  It was probably my most hectic.  Next year’s goal is to slightly scale back, which could prove difficult if there are as many great events as this year.  Till then, cheers!

Courvoisier Cognac Reviews

Kicking off a short series of cognac reviews is a look a few expressions from Courvoisier, specifically their V.S., V.S.O.P, and XO from the core range as well as their 21-year-old expression from their Connoisseur Collection.  

Courvoisier has been around for a long time, and is one of the Big Four alongside Hennessy, Rémy Martin and Martell.  The company was established in Bercy, a suburb of Paris, in 1809 by Emmanuel Courvoisier and Louis Gallois, the then mayor of Bercy.  At first they traded the best cognacs they could find, eventually moving to the Cognac region and becoming producers of the spirit.  Napoleon III apparently liked the spirit so much, that in 1869 he gave the company the title of “Official Supplier to the Imperial Court.”  The company changed hands a few times over the years and is now owned by Beam Suntory.  A household name it may be, but how are its spirits?  Let’s dive in.


The entry blend.  It features eaux de vie aged between three and seven years, mainly from the Fins Bois cru.  With a young age comes a vibrant nose featuring fresh grapes and floral notes, with a touch of citrus zest and mild spice.  The light-bodied spirit’s palate closely follows the nose with light toffee, sweet fruits, grape and oak.  The finish starts slightly sweet and spicy with fruit and wood spice, but then turns dry.  Not much complexity and a bit young, Courvoisier V.S. is best used as a mixer.  $24.99  7/10


Aged at least four years, the eaux de vie in this blend come primarily from the Grande and Petite Champagne crus.  The nose is richer and more rounded, featuring stone fruits, grapes, light caramel and nutmeg.  Taste-wise, the heavier brown sugar, vanilla, and oak notes are complemented by wonderful floral and light baking spice notes.   The finish is medium in length, soft in nature and slightly drying.  I’d recommend starting here if you’re in the market for a reasonably priced sipper that doubles as a quality mixer.  $37.99  7.5/10


A bit more age than its younger sibling, XO is made with eaux de vie matured between 11 and 25 years.  The extra maturation shows on the nose, with dark brown sugar, berries, burnt orange peel and vanilla extract.  There are brief floral topnotes as well.  The palate is decadent, with layers of caramel and creamy vanilla.  A heavy dose of baking spice season candied berries and raisins.  The finish begins with caramel and fruit, developing some allspice and drying oak.  Courvoisier XO is a rich, after dinner spirit that deserves your time and attention.  $150  8.5/10


A rarity in the cognac world – one with an age statement.  Courvoisier kept strict records on some casks, which allowed them to publish a 21-year statement on the label.  The eaux de vie here hail from the praised Grand Champagne cru, which is supposed to produce fine Cognac with its chalky soil.  From the start, this is an elegant Cognac.  Rich toffee, candied fruits, spice and floral notes on the nose along with vanilla, marizan and figs make this spirit smell like the perfect dessert.  The palate is equally praise-worthy with hints of spice cake, raisins, vanilla creme, lavender, and burnt sugar.  Oak tannins begin to appear towards the back palate, adding some astringency.  A touch of leather is also present.  The long finish features sweet fruits followed by  a wave of baking spices, soon turning dry.  Wow! A wonderfully exquisite blend from Courvoisier.  Please, please, please don’t mix this one.  Sip and savor slowly.  $249.99  9/10

Thanks to Beam Suntory for the samples of VSOP, XO, & Courvoisier 21.  As always, all thoughts and opinions are my own.