We continue our analysis of best performing wines at auction, but this time with a difference: not wines, but rather cognacs, armagnacs, whiskies and rums.
The spirits market: a French forté
In France, the spirits market represents 9 billion euros, of which half is generated by export. French spirits are in fact a flagship French export. The French market is relatively stable, both in terms of volume and value. The primary markets for export are the United States, United Kingdom, China, Germany and Singapore. At auction, spirits represent a small fraction of bottles traded: fewer than 500 bottles went under the hammer during the first half of 2019, of a total of 84,000 bottles sold on the platform. Nonetheless, there has been growing interest for spirits that combine quality, rarity and limited quantities produced. A sector to watch out for!
French spirits: the eternal dual between very old Cognacs and Armagnacs
|#||Highest-priced bottles||Price per 75cl bottle|
|1||1 bottle of Cognac Louis XIII Rémy Martin Très vieille Grande Champagne||1,970 €|
|2||1 bottle of Armagnac Très vieille réserve des caves Fauchon 1868||1,317 €|
|3||1 bottle of Bas Armagnac J. Lassis Domaine de Cavaillon 1900||766 €|
|4||1 bottle of Bas Armagnac Domaine d’Escoubès Joseph Laberdolive 1924||730 €|
|5||1 bottle of Cognac Grande Fine Champagne Héritage de Madame Gaston Briand Ragnard||730 €|
The top 20 is neatly divided between cognacs (10) and armagnacs (10), which can seem surprising given the international renown of the former. The price of these spirits ranges from €1,970 for the most expensive bottles to €158 for the cheapest. As spirits have quasi infinite aging ability, it doesn’t come as a surprise that the majority of bottles are very old vintages.
Cognac is produced in the Charentes region of France, from eight authorized grape varieties – mainly Ugni Blanc, Colombard and Folle Blanche – and produced by a double distillation in copper stills (“Charentais stills”), then matured in oak barrels for at least two and a half years, often much longer. Vintage cognacs exist, but in the majority of cases, they are blends of several different years.
Armagnac is produced in the Gers region, as well as in the Lot-et-Garonne and Landes. 10 varieties are authorized, but the region is planted with a majority of Ugni Blanc (50%) and Baco Blanc (40%). As a general rule, armagnacs are distilled only once, in a column still. Elevage is carried out in oak barrels and there again, blends of different years are commonplace. Vintage armagnacs are nonetheless more common than vintage cognacs.
The highest priced spirit in our rankings is the Cognac Louis XIII Rémy Martin Très Vieille Grande Champagne, sold for €970 a bottle. This is the flagship cognac from the Rémy Martin house, a blend of more than 1,200 eaux-de-vie exclusively from Grande Champagne Premier Cru vines aged between 40 and 100 years; this nectar of the gods is released in a Baccarat crystal carafe blown by master glassmakers. This spirit is as rare as it is exceptional and was snapped up by a French bidder.
Second in the Armagnac Très Vieille Réserve des Caves Fauchon 1868, sold for €1,317. 151 years old! This is closely followed by the Armagnac J. Lassis from Domaine de Cavaillon 1900, third in the rankings. The rest of the list continues in the same vein: almost hundred-year-old armagnacs and rare, prestigious cuvées of cognac.
Large négoce houses versus individual producers
There is a dichotomy between these two regions as concerns their methods of production. In Cognac, these spirits are sold primarily by large négociant (who also have most of the stocks in their hands). 90% of the global market value for Cognac is made by four houses (Hennessy, Martell, Rémy Martin, Courvoisier). On the other hand, the market for armagnac is much more scattered: according to the INAO, 890 suppliers (winegrowers, distillers, négociants, and cooperatives wineries) contribute to production, of which 560 independent grape growers. Production and sales are carried out by independent producers (20%), cooperatives (50%) and négociants (30%).
These varying models are reflected in this top 20: for Cognac, Rémy Martin, Hennessy, Frapin and Martell are present, whereas for Armagnacs, the most well-known names are Cavaillon, Laubade and Ducastaing, names that are mostly recognized by enthusiasts in the know.
Non-French spirits: old rums and rare whiskys
|#||Highest-priced bottles||Price per 75cl bottle|
|1||1 bottle of Rhum Vieux Depaz 1950||1,034 €|
|2||1 bottle of Whisky Carsebridge 52 ans Gleann Mor Spirits Company 1964||547 €|
|3||1 bottle of Rhum Caroni High Proof Heavy Trinidad Rum 17 ans d’age||486 €|
|4||1 bottle of Whisky North British Signatory 45 ans 1963||486 €|
|5||1 bottle of Whisky Parker’s Héritage Collection Promise of Hope 7th édition 10 ans Single barrel Kentucky Sytaight Bourbon||383 €|
Our ranking of non-French spirits is made up of seven rums and 13 whiskys. The rums are from Martinique, Guadeloupe and Trinidad and Tobago. Four are old vintage rums, such as the Vieux Depaz 1950, first in the ranking (sold for €1,034 the bottle), or the Martinique Dillon 1982 aged in oak barrels and a more recent example, the 2005 from Martinique Distillerie Neisson. The three others are blends, for instance the Caroni High Proof Heavy Trinidad Rum 17 years, with only 3,910 bottles produced, this rare cuvée was distilled in 1996 and bottled in 2013, sold for €486.
As for whisky, seven are vintage whiskies (and rather old vintages: 1963, 1964, 1973, 1975, 1978, 1997 et 2016), the rest is made up for old blends. For the most part, they come from Scotland, but also Japan and America (bourbon).