Cognac gets an unfair reputation. Especially since it’s a spirit slightly adjacent to whisky — which has, in the recent decade or so, managed to shed it’s image as an old man’s drink. Doing the same for Cognac are two women: sommelier Julie Dupouy and entrepreneur Sabrina Duong, who founded Exsto Cognac.
The story isn’t as simple as that though. The third party involved with the Exsto’s creation is Géraud Vallantin-Dulac, a seventh-generation master blender coming from a long line of Cognac producers. The Vallantin-Dulacs also happen to be family friends of the Paris-based Duong, who has spent many evenings with friends, drinking Cognac.
A new style of Cognac
For the 39-year-old Duong, these sessions were the basis of the idea to create a more modern style of Cognac for the next generation — something more fruity and floral, without an overbearing influence of oak — to move away from the idea that it’s a drink for a certain demographic. Some might be quick to label this as a Cognac “for women”, but Duong is careful not to gender it, explaining “It’s not so much about creating Cognac that women will like but to create cognac from a female point of view”.
This is where Dupouy comes in. Originally from France, and now based in Dublin, the 36-year-old placed third in the ASI World Sommelier Championship, and has been named the best sommelier in Ireland since 2009.
“I wanted a sommelier specifically because this was about creating something new. I didn’t want someone who was already in the Cognac industry, who held traditional views,” explains Duong. In that sense, Dupouy ticked all the boxes: French, young, female, and English-speaking.
Even the way the two blends of Exsto — Elixir and Or Imperial — were created is far from the norm. Dupouy worked with Vallantin-Dulac to blind-pick eaux de vie (the double-distilled brandy that’s seen time in a barrel, but hasn’t been blended into the final product yet) without knowing their provenance or price.
While most Cognac houses blend dozens, and even up to over a thousand eaux de vie for their bottlings, both expressions of Exsto contain just 8 each.
“We were inspired by the ‘less-is-more’ approach, so we told Géraud to put as little eaux de vie into the final blend as possible”, shares Dupouy. It’s a move that’s only possible for a young brand like Exsto, since established Cognac houses blend to stay consistent to house styles that have probably been around for decades and sometimes centuries.
What’s in a bottle?
The result is something quite spectacular, and certainly not everyday (if there is such a thing) Cognac. The Elixir (RRP $688) is a measured tipple, strongly reminiscent of baking spices, raspberries, stone fruit, roasted pineapple, and buttered caramel with well-integrated oak that gives a touch of edge and heft.
Meanwhile, the Or Imperial with its run of only 888 bottles worldwide, contains eaux de vie from private, family stocks that have been kept for generations. There’s kind of a romantic story there too — many these eaux de vie predates WWII, and had to be hidden from the Nazis during the occupation. You can’t taste the war story, but you can taste (and nose) plenty of flowers, citrus fruits, and honey in its opening, with an almost-Kyoho grape like flavour lurking around with chocolate, and just a hint of salinity.
The future of a brand
Because of the way Dupouy blind-tasted and picked the component eaux de vie, stocks Exsto are inevitably limited since many Cognac houses blend with careful consideration of their casks in order to ensure the longevity of the brand. It’s something Duong shares that they’re already prepared for, as the future of the brand is in innovating.
Singapore’s the first stop in Exsto’s global launch, and they hope to hit the Shanghai and Hong Kong markets soon (probably also explaining all the 8’s in their numbers). Dupount shares, “Until recently, cognac has suffered a lack of popularity in the European markets. Today, people are rediscovering cognac because of its inner quality — it is a drink with a strong personality that has a lot of beautiful aromas to offer. The younger generation is open to rediscover old drinks and will want to enjoy a drink regardless of their social status, their gender and what message it conveys.”