Artistry, Passion, and Time: This is what every Heavenly Spirits supplier puts into their products. In June, Christine, four members of our sales team, and I had the pleasure of visiting with twelve exceptional, family-run businesses to get an in-depth look at how they do what they do. We started the tour in Normandy, visiting with Calvados Roger Groult and Calvados Claque Pepin respectively. Nine days later we finished our tour in the Gascony region with visits to Armagnac Artez, Dartigalongue and Delord. In between, we visited with the makers of ArmoriK Single Malt Whisky, Jahiot Creme de Cassis, and Domaine Magnaut, as well as Cognacs: Normandin-Mercier, Jean Fillioux, and Du Peyrat. Plus, there were several other surprise stops along the way.
A Team Tour Travel Diary
Christine and I arrived in Paris three days before the team, mostly so we could acclimate to the time change and the new “buy-back” touring van we would be driving, but it was also so that we could spend a day with our sons, Austin and Keenan. Austin now lives in Versailles and we hadn't hung-out together as a family since Christmas. We ended up spending our day together visiting Claude Monet's garden at Giverny. French Art is something I have always admired. Whether it is in the form of fine paintings or fine spirits, the French always seem to strive to attain a universal quality grounded in nature. Despite temperatures in the high 30s Celsius (100 F) we had an enjoyable day walking, talking, eating and laughing together in Claude Monet’s house and garden. In retrospect, learning about this French artist’s art and his passionate expressions of life was a perfect way to prepare ourselves for the tour we were about to embark on.
A Weekend in La Rochelle
Day 3, Saturday the 24th was spent driving from Brittany to La Rochelle, Christine's hometown. Part of the Bois Ordinaire cognac designation, La Rochelle is also known for its sea salt and outstanding seafood, and it boasts the largest pleasure sailing port in Europe. This was the longest leg of our trip without a distillery visit, but we did our best to make the drive interesting with several stops along the way, including a spontaneous picnic with breads, cheeses and charcuterie purchased at a small village outdoor market. Once we arrived in La Rochelle, the team was given the evening to themselves so they could explore the famous fortified medieval port town and make discoveries of their own.
Day 4, Sunday, June 25th - The Heavenly Team was invited for a magnificent back-yard Sunday lunch at the house of Cognac Normandin-Mercier. The menu included La Rochelle oysters, bar-b-que meats and local organic wines from the Charente Maritime. Our visit also included a tour around the family estate. We even had the pleasure of meeting Edouard’s wife Laure as well as his mother and father, Jean-Marie who joined us for the dejeuner. The lunch was delicious, especially the special chocolate covered desert made by Edouard’s mother.
The Normandin-Mercier family has been making, blending, aging and exporting cognac for five generations, dating back to 1872. The estate actually dates back to the 17th century. During the tour, we visited the historic old distillery room which is no longer in operation but now serves as a family museum and tasting room. Edouard also took us to the deepest part of his cellars, where even Christine and I had never been; to show us a room he was restoring to become the cellar’s “paradise.” In the bottling room we had a look at some exciting new product ideas still being perfected, and he gave us a sneak peak at this year’s special Christmas Cognac. It was a wonderful way to spend a Sunday afternoon in June and a most enjoyable time was truly had by all.
Distillerie Du Peyrat Organic Cognac
Day 6 - part 1 (Monday, June 26) - Our Heavenly Team Tour rendevoused early morning with Jean-Francois Rault in a quaint village South of Cognac where he cellars a large part of his cognacs. We tasted a small range of cask-strength cognacs right out of the barrels to understand the impact of the wood during the different phases of the aging process.
Around noon, we drove back to Du Peyrat's property in Houlette, North of Cognac, in the Fins Bois area , where we were greeted by Jean-Francois’ wife Sonia and their son, Guillaume. We learned that Guillaume had stepped down from his position at an architectural firm and made the commitment to help his father manage the distillery, representing the sixth generation to carry on the tradition. Sonia was also celebrating her first day of retirement and an opportunity to transition from a long career in education. She is looking forward to further develop her skills as a painter.
Jean-Francois gave our team a complete rundown on his pioneering methods of organic farming, as well as his family’s long history of distilling for some of the bigger Cognac houses. Back at the distillery, we tasted a 1948 vintage, 100% Ugni Blanc at 43% ABV and a fabulous 1929 Fin Bois from Guillaume’s great, great, grandfather, Paul Brisson. Later that evening, this bottle of 1929 was graciously delivered to our hotel room in Cognac as a gift and I am savoring a treasured taste of it now three months later, as I write the accounts of our memorable experiences. Knowing that Jean-Francois was also a true whisky fan, I shared a taste of the rare, lightly-peated ArmoriK Single Malt that David had so graciously given me as a birthday gift.
All in all, it was a fantastic visit where we learned quite a bit and enjoyed a wonderfully tasty lunch with the Rault family that featured local, smoked trout from the famous fishery of Gensac-la-Pallue. Distillerie Du Peyrat is without a doubt the best producer of organic cognac to be found, and we are very proud to be representing them to the US market as their popularity grows.
Artez Bas Armagnac, Arvani and La Muse Verte
Day 7, part 2 (Tuesday) - After a quick look at a very old but impressive dolmen, (a type of megalithic tomb) located in the middle of a field only a few miles from the Fillioux home, we had a longer-than-expected drive from Cognac to Armagnac. Despite the two-hour delay caused by an overturned truck in Bordeaux, we arrived in time to meet and eat with Jean-Philippe and his wife Susie at Armagnac Artez. The sun hadn’t quite set, so we had an opportunity to view Jean-Philippe’s garden full of Grande Absinthe plants, of which he only uses the baby leaves to make his highly-rated Absinthe La Muse Verte. Susie had prepared a wonderfully appetizing dinner that began after we tasted several aperitif variations of the house: pastis and absinthe. The dinner started with Foie gras on toast with chutney, duck breast with ratatouille, home-made French cheesecake, and finally a tasting of a new Armagnac specialty spirit, still in the works, and a wonderful Bas Armagnacs 1995, the first ever single vintage single barrel released by Artez.
As late as it was getting, we still took time for a look at the absinthe lab where the group had a good laugh at the extra large coffee filters that are used to strain the absinthe in its final stage before bottling. If this is not "artisanal," what is? We were only 30 minutes from our hotel on a clear, but pitch-black moonless night, driving on twisted roads that were not much wider than a cow path. I was glad this was not my first time at this rodeo.
Dartigalongue Bas Armagnac
Day 8, Part 1 (Wednesday) - We started this day by visiting the oldest house of Bas Armagnac, Dartigalongue in Nogaro. Benoit Hillion, who is the current director of the house and Francoise Dartigalongue's nephew, gave us a tour of the compound, including the extensive cellars, the bottling room and finally the Armagnac museum, located in a separate historic house across the street. I have to say, the entire operation actually appears to be a working museum, but this is what you expect from the oldest producer of Bas Armagnac. Shortly after 11:00AM, (perfect time for tasting) we ended up in one of the main cellars, which has a lot of retired stills, full barrels and other equipment on display, tasting some amazing vintages with the long-time Cellar Master, Gislain. Francoise Dartigalongue, who continues to help run the company was also present and happy to share some stories with us. Here is a list of what we tasted and some of the shared comments, taken from the notes that Naomi recorded:
- Cuvee Louis Philippe – blend of 1974 and 1976 - long on palate, 1974 = 70%, tannins, structure; 1976 = 30%, fruitiness, elegance/lightness - stock will end in 2018
- 1959: 50 years in oak barrels, caramel/crème brulee on the nose, espresso-chocolate beans, leather finish, tobacco, dry - (a perfect vintage for me as it was one of my best years...)
- 1934: 60 years in oak barrels, drier nose, sweet-spice, sweet palate; This came from a barrel forgotten behind a door, according to Francoise!
- 1893: mushroom, cellars, flower notes, creaminess, coffee grounds, perfumed flowers, tobacco, dark dark chocolate, oak – 1893 was a big harvest, so many houses had it.
Afterwards we headed over to La Ferme aux Cerfs, a restaurant and game farm, where we dined on fresh stag and boar, raised on site. Before sitting down to eat we had an enjoyable hike through the preserve and had a good look at what would be on the menu. It was a good thing we did that exercise, because the menu we were offered on our return was "quite complete."
1st course: big tray of wild boar, fallow deer, and stag paté. (At this point Christine was already full.)
2nd course: braised beef stew that melted in the mouth (After this the rest of us were also full.)
3rd course: big tray of grilled steaks of wild boar, fallow deer, and stag, (one of each for each of us) plus a generous amount of gersoises sautéed potatoes.
Desert: the famous "croustade" (a flakey dough pie crust filled with apples and armagnac).
Wines: local and delicious - 2016 Cote de Gascogne Colombelle & 2012 Madiran from Chateau Bouscassé
Did we finish it? Of course we did! Did we have fun in the process? You bet!
Domaine de Magnaut – Côtes de Gascogne Wines
Day 8, part 2 (Wednesday) With our bellies full and our souls content, we headed over to our scheduled appointment with the fabulous Domaine de Magnaut, one of our Côtes de Gascogne wine suppliers. Currently, we only import a small portfolio of wine, as we are primarily French spirit specialists, but the idea was that promoting Cotes de Gascogne wines gives us another reason to talk about Armagnac. Plus, the wines are reasonably priced and beautiful.
Cecile and Jean-Marie Terraube are the owners of Domaine de Magnaut and they are passionate about the wine they make. When we showed up for our visit they gave us a tour of the winery and showed us around their vineyards. We loved how they have sample vines of all the grape varieties they use, growing right in front of the tasting room. It makes it very easy to talk about the grapes particular to the Gascony region. Examples include: Tannat, Gros Manseng, Petit Manseng, Sauvignon Blanc, Syrah, Ugni Blanc, Baco, and Colombard.
We enjoy selling these delicious wines here in Massachusetts and we’re very proud to have them in our portfolio. We remain open to introducing them to other states that might be interested in distributing them as well.
(Lakeville, MA) As the leading importer of Armagnac in the United States, Heavenly Spirits, a Massachusetts-based importer is accustomed to handling rare vintages, but nothing they have ever imported quite compares to their most recent shipment, which includes a single bottle of vintage Bas Armagnac distilled in 1848, and valued at over $20,000. To put that in perspective, we are talking about a brandy that was distilled one hundred and sixty-nine years ago, when the United States was only seventy-two years old, before the (so called) Civil War, before the invention of the telephone, electric light bulb, or the gas-powered automobile. It is a work of living art and a piece of French history. “We were almost too nervous to handle it while we were doing the photo shoot,” says Christine Cooney, founder and co-owner of Heavenly Spirits.” “In case you were wondering,” adds Dan Cooney, Christine’s husband and co-owner, “Yes, this Armagnac is still wonderfully drinkable.” “Someone asked us if we had the opportunity to try it, and we actually did several years ago,” says Christine. “We thought it was wonderfully intact, but joked that it might need a few more years.”
Dartigalongue, the distillers of this rare cultural artifact, is the oldest Bas Armagnac house operating in the world. They were founded in 1838, in Nogaro, France, the heart of the Bas Armagnac region. This bottle of 1848 vintage Armagnac is part of a very small cache of demi-johns that have been quietly hiding away in the Dartigalongue paradis, and the oldest known certified Armagnac in existence. The grape variety used to make this Armagnac was Folle Blanche and of course this was many years before the devastating phylloxera outbreak.
Because of its extreme rarity and age, the producer recently decided to sell no more than 1 or 2 bottles per year in the world. The last ones were sold in Sweden and in France. This year, Heavenly Spirits is the only importer so far to have been extended the privilege to purchase this 1848 vintage, and this transaction marks the only bottle ever imported to the U.S.
Other single bottles of Bas Armagnac Dartigalongue, distilled in 1893, 1900, 1918, and two bottles distilled in 1929 accompanied the 1848 vintage in the recent shipment. Each of the rare vintages comes in a specially designed, suede-lined wooden case and includes a certificate of authenticity signed by the Dartigalongue Master Distiller. Another certificate of Authenticity is issued by the BNIA, (Bureau National Interprofessionel de l’Armagnac).
This batch of extremely rare Armagnac vintages will be sold in the U.S. mostly through Binny’s Beverage Depot in Chicago, Illinois. Additional rare French spirits imported by Heavenly Spirits will be made available subject to interest and demand.
Heavenly Spirits is a leading importer of artisanal French spirits, such as Armagnac, Calvados, Cognac, whisky, gin, aperitifs and liqueurs. For the past eight years, the company has been recognized as the number one importer of Armagnac in the US, accounting for 26% of all Armagnac sold each year. Contact Christine Cooney at: Christine@heavenlyspirits.com
Artistry, Passion, and Time: these are what every Heavenly Spirits supplier put into the exceptional spirits they produce. In our new ad campaign, we illustrate this dedication in both word and image. While we have always tried to convey the authentic quality of the small-to-medium-sized family-owned producers that we represent, the difference in this new effort is in the way we show it. Instead of presenting the respective products in sharply-focused photographic images, as is commonly done, we decided to literally paint (or draw) a more authentic picture, reflective of the hand-crafted spirits that we represent.
What the viewer will see in this new campaign is an image of individual Heavenly Spirits products, rendered in a painterly illustration style, symbolizing the unique art and craft that have gone into each of the spirits we sell.
The initial concept for this campaign came about while Dan Cooney, owner, marketing director, and former college art professor was looking at some classic advertising from the 1940s, specifically that iconic French illustrator/designer, A.M. Cassandre. Dan’s intention was to impart a bit of inspired nostalgia by borrowing the look and feel of those classic French designs. After a few experimental sketches, he ended up with an illustration style that combined painting, drawing, and collage, which seemed to communicate the desired hand-crafted look.
As the concept began to take shape, the Heavenly marketing team decided to add some of that artistry and poetic license to the body copy as well, with Naomi writing a great first draft. After that, the team turned their attention to the backdrop for the bottles in the ad and tried a dozen creative options before referring again to A.M. Cassandre for inspiration. Our design intern, Emma helped develop the stylized shadows to place behind the bottles for a Cassandre-esque feel. After a dozen or more evolved iterations, Dan submitted a tight comp to the magazine, FRANCE Today, to get their reaction, and was very pleased when they said they “loved it.” Additionally, the magazine’s ad team said they wanted to consider it for a back or inside cover, adding, “archetypal French advert/products always resonate with our audience.”
So far, the reaction to the handcrafted spirit art from the ad campaign was so positive that we have started work on similar illustrations of Heavenly cocktails as well. Look for these to appear in a Heavenly Spirits Cocktail Recipe Book in the future. Cheers!