We’re celebrating brandy this week at Master of Malt so we were delighted to get some time with one of the biggest names in the industry, Thibaut Hontanx chief blender at Courvoisier. He’s the man responsible for making sure that every drop from Courvoiser VS to the £2k L’Essence de Courvoisier Lunar New Year Limited Edition is impeccable and consistent. Big responsibility.

In 2022 Hontanx became only seventh person to have the title of chief blender at Courvoisier following the retirement of Patrice Pinet. The role involves overseeing the entire Cognac production process from grape selection to final blending. He said: “My responsibility towards the Maison Courvoisier and its past chief blenders is to honour their legacy when crafting existing Cognacs. I’m benefiting from the work of my predecessors and must infuse a new blend, such as Courvoisier XO Royal, with the heritage and style of the Maison.”

Thibaut Hontanx and Patrice Pinet from Courvoisier

Chief blenders past and present: Patrice Pinet and Thibaut Hontanx (right)

The Courvoisier story

It really is a long heritage. The Courvoisier story began in the Parisian suburb of Bercy where Emmanuel Courvoisier opened a business as a wine and spirits merchant in 1809. It was two years later, in 1811, that Courvoisier met the man who would transform his business, none other than Napoleon Bonaparte, who was so impressed with the Cognac that he designated Courvoisier as the supplier to the French army.

While Napoleon’s empire was shortlived, the imperial link was resumed when his nephew Napoleon III designated Courvoiser ‘Official Supplier to the Imperial Court’ in 1969. The Second Empire collapsed the following year but Courvoiser thrived in the Belle Epoque period obtaining warrants from the Royal Courts of Denmark, England, and Sweden.

Patrice Pinet

Where it all begins, in the vineyard

600 growers

Today Courvoisier is one of the four largest houses in Cognac. Hontanx works with around 600 growers and eight distillers to provide the high quality eaux-de-vie needed to produce its range. Hontanx explained: “It is all about relationships, Courvoisier’s relationships with family owned estates since the start.” Ageing takes place in a mix of tight and wide grain French oak.

Making Cognac means working with nature which isn’t always easy. 2023 was a challenging vintage with its wet summer saved by a warm autumn. The crop was large but there were concerns that it was lacking in the acidity necessary for great Cognac. Hontanx explained: “The 2023 vintage was abundant, the distillation was long, the selection of the wine was important to distil the more ‘fragile wine’ at the beginning of the campaign of distillation. The low acidity was a source of worry at the beginning, but we saw that it was a low but a good acidity.”

The changing climate is a concern in Cognac as it is in every grape growing region. Hontanx commented: “Global warming means the bursting starts earlier than it used to be, and we might face late frost that could affect the harvest a few months later. In the summer we are also facing longer draughts. We must adjust our practice in the vineyard, in the cellar and in the distillery to these changes, and we already are, so that we continue offering a great quality spirit to our consumer.” Courvoisier has been working with Bureau National Interprofessionnel du Cognac (BNIC) on research into new varieties of grapes which can be harvested a month earlier than the ubiquitous ugni blanc.

Courvoisier HQ in Jarnac

Courvoisier HQ in Jarnac

Making new converts

Courvoisier’s biggest markets are in the US and UK but the Far East is increasingly important. Cognac’s challenge is to keep recruiting new customers and turning them on to the magic of Cognac. Here it is helped by the brand’s cult reputation among hip hop musicians. As the late Cognac expert Nicholas Faith once said: “they should put a statue of Busta Rhymes up in Jarnac.”

Hontanx thinks that the best way to get people into Cognac is through mixing expressions like the VS and the VSOP; “I do think introducing them to the Cognac category with a refreshing long drink is the way forward,” he explained.

If the VSOP is a versatile mixer, the prestigious XO Royal is best savoured neat – though, Hontanx says that it makes a particularly decadent Old Fashioned. It was created by Hontanx’s predecessor Patrice Pinet and Courvoisier launched it in 2022 as a permanent addition to its range. The expression is inspired by the maison’s long association with royalty. Hontanx said: “Courvoisier XO Royal is the quintessential expression of our Maison style: Cognac in blossom. The unique taste profile created by blending Grande Champagne and Fins Bois, two crus rarely blended, creates a delicate, perfectly balanced and intense blend of spicy oak and floral, fruity notes.”

So whether you’re looking for a Cognac to sip neat or mixing up a storm, pass the Courvoisier.