Popular Science Monthly/Volume 10/February 1877/The Production of Cognac Brandy


THERE is a small district in the south of France known as the Deux Charentes, which has a commercial centre called Cognac. From the grapes of this district there comes a wine, and from this wine there is distilled a celebrated liquor which is named after the place, and called Cognac brandy. This spirit, eau de vie supérieure, as the French call it, is liked by a great many people, and hated by a great many more, so that it may fairly be assumed as an object of general interest. A writer in the Pall Mall Gazette has been at the pains to collect a large amount of information concerning it, to which we are indebted for the substance of the following statements.

England consumes by far the greater part of the supply; English firms practically control the export trade; and English influence is so potent in Cognac, that the rural population of the department speak jocularly of the place as the "little English town on the river Charente."

The Cognac-brandy district begins at Angoulême, about three hundred miles south of Paris, and comprises from fifty to sixty square miles. It is divided into five parts, and is cut in two from east to west by the river Charente. The parts are, in the order of their importance as established by the quality of the brandy they produce, though in the inverse order as to size, as follows: the Grande Champagne; the Petite Champagne; the Borderies, a strip of land along the banks of the Charente opposite the Grande Champagne; the Fins Bois; and the Bon Bois. The country is undulating. The surface, dotted with towns and villages, and diversified by occasional tracts of woodland between bright-green pastures on either bank of the river, is divided into fields spotted with walnut-trees and vineyards, with red-roofed farm-houses, and traversed by broad roads lined with rows of tall elms and poplars. The soil is principally clayey and flinty rock, supported by a bed of chalk or limestone, and occasionally of marl, that in the Grande and Petit Champagnes being of the best quality.

Eau de vie is a French term equivalent to the English word spirits, and hence is applicable to alcohols derived from any source. But the eau de vie de Cognac is the spirits obtained by distillation of the fermented juice of a few varieties of grape, chief among which is la folle blanche as it is called. This is a white grape. The name, which means literally "the white fool" is probably due to the fact that the folle blanche produces only a very inferior wine, which commands but eight cents a gallon, while a common red wine brings sixteen.

In the Deux Charentes there are three kinds of vineyards, called "vignes pleines" "vignes en allées" and "vignes à boeufs" In each the vines are planted in rows, which in the first are five feet apart. Hand-labor is generally employed in the cultivation, though the plough is used to loosen the ground where the rows are wide enough apart. The vignes en allées consist of long, narrow strips of land planted with vines in rows, every fourth or fifth row or so having a slip of ground sown with grain or vegetables in between. In these vineyards, which are more common in the Grande Champagne, the vines as a rule are planted rather wide apart. The vignes à boeufs are so termed from the rows being wide enough apart (from five to six feet) to admit of oxen and a plough passing between. The vines, as a rule, are left without supports. The producers are mostly small farmers, who cultivate their own vineyards, with little if any help. When help is employed, the wages vary from two to three francs a day, according to whether meals are furnished or not. These peasant proprietors are a frugal, saving class, and are not uncommonly rich.

It is unpleasant to relate that a speedy and almost complete suspension of this important industry is threatened in the ravages of the Phylloxera vastatrix, a minute and (to the naked eye) invisible insect, that preys on the roots and leaves of the vine, to the unfailing destruction of the plant. Large rewards offered by the French Government have had the effect of calling forth a number of remedies, but none of them have proved efficacious. During the year just past the insect spread nearly all over the Deux Charentes and reduced the vintage, so that it nowhere amounted to more than one-half a crop, and in some places not more than a tenth, the average being about one-sixth. Many farmers, in despair, actually cleared their fields and sowed them in grain. In many places a large part of the vines have been killed and the influence of the scourge was to cause a general neglect of the vineyards.

The grapes are picked, for the most part, by women wearing high-crowned fluted caps, who use a hook-shaped knife to sever the stems. Each carries with her a small wooden box with sloping sides, into which the fruit is thrown. When these boxes become full they are emptied into the baskets of the men who carry the grapes to the cart at the edge of the vineyard. The carts have long bodies and very high wheels, and a huge tub, fixed between four upright stakes. The carriers, bending beneath their heavy loads, mount a ladder to the top of the tub, and by a peculiar twist of the body empty their baskets of grapes into it. Within the tub is a lad, who treads upon the grapes to reduce their bulk, and, in a measure, press out their juice. The cart being loaded, is drawn off by a yoke of oxen to the neighboring press-house. The grapes are next emptied, through an opening in the wall, upon a sloping stone floor, where they are crushed by an ordinary grape-mill, which, however, forces out only a portion of their juice. Formerly the juice was trodden out by the feet of the laborers. It runs down the sloping floor into a covered trough at the lower end, by which it is led into a tank—whence it is emptied into the casks, and then left to ferment.

As already said, the mill does not express all the juice from the grapes, and so the "must" is shoveled through an opening in the wall into a large, shallow trough at the foot of the press. Then it is heaped up in the centre of the trough, into what is called the motte, a form like a millstone, and subjected to powerful pressure. The sides of the motte are now trimmed, the screw loosened, and the trimmings piled on the top, when the pressure is again applied. This process is repeated until the must has been subjected to four pressures. Each pressure lasts about two hours, except the last, which, being generally put on in the evening, continues all night. Next day the must is spread out in the trough, watered from a watering-pot, and raked about in the water for an hour. The water being drawn off, the must is again put under pressure, and the juice obtained is mixed with the water, and the whole put into a cask to ferment.

The must, or juice, obtained from the milling and four previous pressures is put in casks, vats, or cisterns, to ferment, and it is from it that the eau de vie supérieure is obtained. The yield of fermented liquor in good seasons is, in the Grand Champagne, about 900 gallons to the acre; in the Deux Charentes, as a whole, about 500 gallons; and in some parts of the Bon Bois as low as 200 gallons. And, although, as already stated, the vineyards are generally small, crops of 20,000 to 50,000 gallons from particular ones were formerly known.

It is to be observed that the method of fermenting the wine intended for the distillation of brandy differs a little from that pursued with the red wine of the district: the murk being allowed to remain in the juice in the last case, while it is not allowed to do so in the first.

The still comprises a reservoir, with a pump for supplying it from a large stone tank below, and the usual furnace and retort, with head and worm. The average capacity of the stills throughout the Grand Champagne is only about fifty-five gallons at a single operation. The wine to be distilled having been emptied into a square stone tank, already referred to, is pumped into the reservoir, whence, through a tap, it is conveyed into the retort, which is heated with coal, at first to a high degree, and afterward to a lower. At the end of several minutes a few drops of white, translucent liquid issue from the pipe of the worm, increasing soon to a little streamlet, which falls into a small cask. This liquid contains about half its weight of water, and is called the brouillis. It continues to flow until it becomes gradually less alcoholic, when a momentary pause occurs in the operation. A tap at the bottom of the retort is opened and the boiled wine, a brownish liquid, is either put back into the reservoir or allowed to run away. The wine from the reservoir is then turned into the retort until the latter is about two-thirds full. The same process is repeated, day and night, until all the wine has been converted into brouillis, which, being rectified, is then ready for delivery to the Cognac-brandy shippers as eau de vie. The proportion of brandy yielded by the wine is not fixed, but variable with certain circumstances. In a vintage of good quality it is one gallon of brandy to six or eight of wine; but in unfavorable seasons it is not more than one to seven and a half or twelve. Newly-made wine furnishes more spirit than wine twelve months old; and wine fermented in large bulk more, in proportion, than that fermented in small casks.

Cognac brandy is at first a colorless liquid, but it gradually acquires a pale yellow or amber color from the cask in which it is kept for ageing. With its natural appearance, however, it never appears to the consumer; public taste having become vitiated to the extent of requiring a rich brown or brandy color, which is imparted 'by a mixture of caramel or burnt sugar. Occasionally, too, a little red sanders-wood is used for coloring. The constituents are alcohol and water and small quantities of volatile oil, acetic acid, acetic ether, œnanthic ether, tannin, etc., and, as it reaches the consumer, coloring matter. The quantity of alcohol varies from 48 to 55 per cent.; the latter being the standard strength, or "proof." It is generally imported into England at 1 to 3 over proof, but the strength is lessened by age, so that, when taken from bond for sale, it seldom exceeds 3 or 4 under proof. The quality of the brandy depends not, as may be generally supposed, on the quantity of alcohol it contains, so much as on the minor constituents, notably the œnanthic ether, from which it derives its distinguishing smell and flavor. This fact becomes apparent when it is reflected that, while brandy, as is well known, improves with age, it loses thereby a part of its alcoholic strength. The very finest brandies, in fact, average from 5 to 10 under proof, and never rise above 2 under proof. In this connection, one or two interesting facts may be noted. It has already been stated that the grape from which the finest Cognac brandy is obtained yields at best an inferior wine. Now, the best wine-making grapes contain a comparatively large proportion of sugar, which varies from 12 to 26 and 30 per cent., and it is the sugar that in fermentation is converted into alcohol. The folle blanche, however, contains a relatively small quantity of sugar, or only about 7 to 8 per cent. Again, the riper the grape the more sugar it will contain, but experience has taught the vine-dressers of the Deux Charentes that, if their grapes are allowed to thoroughly ripen, the brandy produced is stronger, but proportionally inferior in quality. So that all the facts lend confirmation to the statement just made.

It was remarked, a little while ago, that the quality, or "bouquet," of the brandy—that is, its peculiar odor—was derived from œnanthic ether. This ether is obtained from the seed of the grape, and, according to Neubauer, is a combination of various substances, of which caprylic and caproic acid ethers are the most important part.

The strength at which Cognac brandy is sold in England to consumers is from 11 to 12 under proof, to which it is lowered by the addition of water, after, it is said, it has passed into the hands of wholesale and retail dealers. The standard recognized in the brandy-trade is 10 under proof, and it is never lowered beyond 12 under proof, except by special agreement. Below 17 under proof it is seizable by the English excise.

It is the opinion of those, who have investigated the matter, that very little, if any, adulteration is practised before the brandy is shipped from France. Heavy penalties, imposed by the tribunals on certain Charente farmers, who some years ago were detected in the practice of doubling the quantity of their brandy by sophistication, have operated to prevent other farmers from falling into like practices; and a still more powerful deterrent is that no farmer can adulterate his brandy without making it known to his neighbors. In France no wine or spirit can be moved about without an official permit, and a distiller in the Charente could not receive a cask without everybody knowing it; so that any one who procured a raw spirit would at once become a marked man, and excluded from doing business with shippers. It is said that the farmers now confine their attempts to cheat to overstating the age of the brandy they offer for sale.

Besides water, the adulteration is chiefly made with inferior spirit. In addition to the dishonesty, there is much injury to health and life involved in the practice. There is a kind of alcohol known as amylic, or fusel-oil, contained in the spirits obtained from every substance except the grape, but in particularly large quantities in the spirits of potatoes, beet-root, and Jerusalem artichoke, which, being inferior, are those chiefly used for adulteration. This fusel-oil is a deadly poison. Says Dr. G. O. Drewry, "The public would not drink such a poison at any price if they were once awakened to a sense of its terrible nature." It is never formed in the presence of tartaric acid, which, as is well known, abounds in grape-juice; hence, spirits distilled from the pure juice of the grape contain no fusel-oil whatever.

It remains, before closing this paper, to speak of the manner of collecting the brandy into the shipping-houses in Cognac, and of the treatment it receives therein. It is bought up from the distillers by commission-merchants, or shippers, who have large storehouses, supplied with facilities for filtering, mixing, ageing, etc. The two largest houses in the trade are those of the celebrated English firms, Martel & Co. and Hennessy & Co.; next to these are Otard, Dupuy & Co., and Augier Frères, the oldest house in Cognac; and besides these are many smaller ones. The farmers generally sell their spirit while it is new, or immediately after distillation. In the second year it is classed "stale," and in the fourth "old." On its arrival at the magazine it is tested by a sampler, to see that it corresponds with the representations made for it. It is measured in large dépotoirs, about 265 gallons capacity, which have glass tubes on the outside to indicate the quantity of spirit within. This is said to give a fairer measurement than smaller vessels. The price depends on the strength. For the English market this is classed at 58° of Gay Lussac's scale, or about 1° above English proof. For the French market it is 60°, and for the American 61°. It may as well be stated in this connection that England takes nearly the whole supply—her portion in 1875 amounting to 4,500,000 gallons. A small part is consumed in France, and other small parts go direct to the north of Europe, South America, and the United States.

Sales of spirits are based on the French scale—or 60°. For each degree above that standard the shipper pays the producer 5 per cent. extra; while for each degree under he deducts 10 per cent. After measurement the spirit is placed in new oaken casks, of the proper seasoning, and its age, quality, and origin, are indicated thereon. The casks are stored in a series of chambers threaded with tramways for moving them about; and in a vast gallery, beneath, stand long rows of conical-shaped colossal white vats, each more than twelve feet high and nine feet in diameter at its base. These are for use in mixing. By mixing, the peculiarities of the different varieties of spirit are blended, and so the "brands" are multiplied. In this process the various kinds are emptied, first, into a copper-plated trough on the floor above the vats, and at the same time passed through a filter of flannel; then it is drawn off into the vat below, passing in its course through a second filter of white blotting-paper, surrounded by flannel. In the vats it is stirred by paddles—in some houses worked by hand and in others by machinery. This completes the mixing, and the spirit is drawn off into casks or bottles and stored for shipment. A part of the alcohol, estimated at 7 to 10 per cent., is lost by evaporation in the first year of ageing, and a considerably smaller part in subsequent years. The visible effect of this evaporation is displayed in the carbonized appearance of the walls and roofs of the older stone houses—a sootiness which the stranger is sure to attribute to the smoke of the distilleries, of which, however, there are none in Cognac.