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The Interview: David Baker

Published:  23 July, 2008

Brandyclassics, Bradford on Avon, Wiltshire
Interview: Anastasia Edwards
Photography: Tristan Newkey-Burden

Is specialising in vintage Cognacs an uphill battle?

The Cognac world is changing dramatically, and we are now starting to see a much more selective market. Instead of looking at Cognacs with VSOP and XO and all that sort of thing on them, people are much more interested in seeing numbers on bottles, and numbers are what I think are crucial. They've been doing that in whisky for years and years, but the French haven't really woken up to the fact that people feel much more reassured by numbers. Customers tell me that they'll buy a vintage Cognac that may cost more than an XO because they feel reassured. But vintage Cognac has been shot down left, right and centre by the big houses because they say it's all in the blending.

But surely blending cannot be ignored?

There are not a lot of people who know about blending Cognac. I know it sounds daft, and it's probably a very serious claim to make, but I've tasted a lot of Cognacs that are totally unbalanced and not very good at all. One of the things I find is that people will reduce a Cognac down too quickly. You get what I describe as a two-tier effect: you can actually taste the water separate from the Cognac in it, and that to me is a very serious blending problem. You can't just go slopping distilled water into a Cognac hoping that it will turn out all right - it doesn't. It takes years.

So how do you find the best Cognacs?

A Cognac, let's face it, is very personal. When someone makes a Cognac, what they're doing is making something that they believe is right. Now sometimes it might be awful - God knows there are some awful ones out there - but there are an awful lot of very good Cognacs whose makers believe in them with all their heart and soul and body, as did their fathers, their grandfathers and their great-grandfathers before them. Sometimes these houses go back to 1800 or 1850 and they're still so good at making Cognac and repeating that story. But then, of course, in order to survive they've had to sell to the big houses and the ngociants - and, to put it mildly, it's buggered up the industry.

How do you convince people to try vintage Cognacs?

Once people have tasted a different Cognac, they'll buy it. The problem is for the buyers to get their clients to buy it. It's quite hard work. We do try to train sommeliers, but, with the greatest respect in the world, there are very few sommeliers who can tell you anything about Cognac. We try very hard to teach people about Cognac through videos and our own training CD, and all the products we sell have data sheets.

How do you source your Cognacs?

When you go around to visit all these people they are very keen to show you what they've got. Sometimes you'll walk through their cellars and see something and say, That looks interesting. What's in there?' A classic case was at the house of Forgeron. They had this tiny barrique in the corner, all covered in dust, and I asked, What's that in there then?' And he said, Oh, that's the 45-year-old Ancestral Family Reserve. It's very special.' I asked if I could taste it, and he said, I suppose you could do.' So he got this Cognac out. I was very familiar with all their Cognacs - I knew exactly what they made and how they made it - but when I tasted this, it hit me like a ton of bricks. It was phenomenal! I asked if I could have some and he said, No, it belongs to the family.' But a few months later they let me have some.

How much vintage Cognac is left?

There are well over 150 producers, and there are always new Cognacs on the market. From about 1960 on, there are always going to be vintages available, so we find the ones that are good and ship them through to bond in the UK, and they ship it on to wherever it has to go to. Most of the time it's going to Russia, I'm afraid. I would rather sell them in the UK, but we've got to find some way of making some money out of it.

What is it like doing business in Russia?

Russia is a very interesting market at the moment, especially for pre-phylloxera Cognacs. We're pretty keen on 1805 Cognac in this part of the world, and I reckoned that the Russians are going to be pretty keen on 1812. Someone put me in touch with a demijohn of 1812 Cognac, and you can just about scrape a dozen bottles from it. They did express interest, but everyday I'm sending e-mails about these damn Cognacs and their authenticity. The Russians are so bloody dishonest that they believe everybody else is as dishonest as they are, so they try to check up on you. I just had an e-mail from one of my suppliers saying, We had some Russians come in asking after some 1812 Cognac. We told them that we didn't have any left.' Those are the games they try to play, so it can be difficult to work there.

Do people buy an 1805 to collect or drink?

I would never sell a Cognac to anyone if it weren't suitable for drinking. Most of the people who buy these things have so much money that they just knock it back when they feel like opening a bottle of 1805. Last year, one of my hotel clients sent me an e-mail to say they had a connoisseur come in who had 29 measures of an 1802, which they are selling at 1,000 a measure.

Brandyclassics, 87 Trowbridge Road, Bradford on Avon, Wiltshire, BA15 1EG

Tel: 01225 863 988; fax: 01225 863986


Brandyclassics is a one-man band run by David Baker, who has built up his company through reputation and personal relationships with many of the best producers in Cognac. Most of them are family houses, some with just a few barrels left, but all are making their Cognacs in the traditional manner with no additives. The company began in the late 1980s, when David was so taken with the 1840 Cognac from AE Dor that he traced the house, asked to buy some bottles and ended up as their distributor. Specialising in pre-phylloxera Cognacs, David finds extremely rare bottles, from as far back as 1800, and sells them to connoisseurs, collectors and top restaurants around the world. In October, the bicentenary year of the Battle of Trafalgar, five bottles of 1805 Cognac will become available. This year also sees the launch of the Hermitage range, Brandyclassics' personally picked single-vintage Cognacs. David also sells brandies from all the main producing regions in France.