Sipping Pricey Brandy: An Essay
When your budget doesn't always match your passion
In my office cabinet rests a tiny bottle, with a handwritten label, holding about two sips of a brandy that retails for more than $15,000 per bottle. On the shelf above and below sit several dozen other vials, each with anywhere from a half-ounce to an ounce of Cognac or Armagnac—XOs, Hors d’Ages, 50-year-olds, Vieille Réserves—that retail anywhere from $500 to $3,000. In one small bottle remains a scant quarter-ounce of a pre-World War II Calvados, one that I have never seen for sale, and may actually be priceless.
To be clear, I am not a wealthy person. I am a freelance food and drink writer who, even after two decades of experience, still lives a chaotic seat-of-the-pants existence. I have the great fortune to travel to Europe a half-dozen times a year to write about wine and spirits. But most of my life is a suburban existence, and each month is constant and creative juggling act to pay life’s expenses. The cost of sending my sons to college gives me night terrors.
And yet here I am, with micro-samples of some of France’s finest and most expensive brandies. Over one 18-month stretch before the pandemic, I’d tasted, written notes on, and rated more than 400 Cognac, Armagnac, and Calvados for an audience of who pay annually up to $200 for an annual subscription, many of whom have the financial resources to buy full bottles the top-scoring spirits I’ve reviewed.
This is, of course, the reason that PR people and brand reps are more than happy to send along 100 or 200 mililiters of a client’s product worth hundreds or thousands of dollars to a schlub like me. The tiny bottles that arrive are uniform, standard. Absent is ostentious label design or, in the case of Cognac, those flamboyant, limited-edition crystal decanters that big brands use for their highest-end bottlings. Tasting a $16,000 brandy from an anonymous vial, followed by a much better one than costs “only” $200, is always an eye-opening exercise in perception and value.
When the Armagnac report was published, a reader on the chat forum told me that, based on my scores, he planned to drop about $5,000 to grab six specific bottles I’d rated. On the one hand, I was flattered by his trust in my palate. By any measure, I am a brandy expert and I’m proud of that. On the other hand, due to the measure of my bank account, I am not the regular customer for a $1,000 or a $600 or even a $200 brandy. Sometimes, that gulf can be disquieting. But the pride I have in my own knowledge and our shared love of brandy will have to be the equalizer.