Entering an age-old spirits world with a contemporary twist

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Martin Moodie
Martin Moodie is the Founder & Chairman of The Moodie Report.

If you’re feeling locked-in by the Hong Kong restrictions, you might as well make the most of it, I say. Whatever the constraints posed by the pandemic and the strict post-arrival hotel quarantine regulations, the Special Administrative Region offers so much in terms of nature, cuisine and shopping, that there’s little chance that boredom will be one of the side effects of not being able to travel internationally.

Just before 2021 drew to a close, I had the pleasure of visiting one of those attractions, albeit of the temporary kind, courtesy of Rustom Framji, General Manager – Southeast Asia at Pernod Ricard Travel Retail Asia.

Pernod Ricard is the owner of one of the world’s great Cognacs, Martell – acquired in 2001 as the late, great Seagram Company (hands up who remembers them) was broken up. Under its appropriately French 21st century ownership, Martell has flourished around the world, notably in China where – despite numerous challenges to high-end spirits consumption over recent years – it enjoys a stellar reputation. The brand is going gangbusters in Hainan’s offshore duty free market with the high-end XO and Cordon Bleu expressions to the fore (good news that this key channel is seeing premium spirits leading the way).

But Cognac faces plenty of challenges in China, including Hong Kong, and Martell is constantly seeking to emphasise its heritage, craftmanship and – to younger consumers – relevance and even mixability. To underline those qualities, the maison launched the L’Atelier Martell Hong Kong boutique in early December. This lavishly curated, brilliantly experiential temporary (until the end of February) boutique is dedicated to the tasting and exploration of the Martell Cognac range.

Dominic Hu (left) of Pernod Ricard Hong Kong & Macau and Rustom Framji from Pernod Ricard Travel Retail Asia at L’Atelier Martell Hong Kong

Visitors discover the history (dating back to 1715) and heritage of the maison and the extraordinary skill involved in producing Martell Cognacs – a true example of a craft spirit born long before the term became bastardised on the contemporary drinks scene with an almost implicit naivety at best or arrogance at worst that nothing that had come before, or that came from big companies, was ‘craft’.

L’Atelier (‘the workshop’ in French) Martell is anchored by a stunning wall display that showcases over 100 montres (20cl Cognac sampling bottles) and a barrel zone featuring French oak casks.

The boutique comprises elements of wood and copper, evoking the materials involved in the decades-long Cognac-making process. But – very deliberately – it’s not all about history and tradition. Like all Cognac houses, Martell needs to attract younger (drinking age) consumers, many of whom will not be drawn by the brand preferences nor taste profiles of their parents or grandparents.

Talking of Cognac houses, the L’Atelier (‘the workshop’ in French) Martell allows guests to (virtually) visit the Château de Chanteloup – the historic maison of the Martell family – located in the terroir  of Borderies, in the heart of the Cognac region.

A film experience, the ‘Virtual Journey to Martell’s Chateau de Chanteloup’ (pictured below), portrays the maison across all four seasons and their varying impacts on Cognac-production during the most engrossing tasting session (of three signature Martell Cognacs: VSOP, Noblige and Cordon Bleu) you could imagine. Without any overstatement, it is almost like being there. This is my kind of cinema.

Photo above courtesy of Martell 

In the Art of Blending Area, the VSOP Blending Experience allows participants to create their own blend while experiencing the impact of different eaux-de-vie on a Cognac’s aromatic profile. The Extra-Old Blending Experience demonstrates the influence of terroir and spotlights the distinct characteristics of two prestigious crus, Borderies and Grande Champagne.

The ‘Cognac from the Cask Experience’ features a VSOP blended exclusively by Martell Cellar Master Christophe Valtaud. Patrons can draw Cognac straight from Martell casks into an exclusive montre bottle, finished with their own hand-printed label.

The boutique also showcases the dazzling new Martell Noblige Hong Kong Edition – a limited-edition bottling only available in January 2022. The bottle evokes the incomparable energy of the city, featuring landmarks such as the city’s skyline, Peak Tram, double-decker tram and neon lights.

It’s a fantastic experience designed to enthral the novice or the Cognac aficionado (like me) alike. “We don’t want to simply create retail or sell product, we want to create a great experience,” says Pernod Ricard Hong Kong & Macau Assistant Brand Manager, who oversaw exactly that during my visit.

Later I chatted about the concept with Rustom, a key member of Pernod Ricard’s fine global travel retail team in Asia, over dinner at Ami/Wood Ear in the Landmark Alexandra – helmed by Michelin-starred chef Nicolas Boutin, and Chef de Cuisine Eric Taluy.

There’s a real pride within the Pernod Ricard GTR team about how they champion the heritage and values of their brands not just the commercial aspects and Rustom was keen to show me more.

From the mysteries of Cognac to the secrets of Speyside with Rustom Framji

Before our meal, we switched spirits. Not because we were tired of Cognac but because Wood Ear features an extraordinary collection of over 400 whisk(e)y labels sourced from auctions and private collectors from all over the world. Given Hong Kong’s current travel constraints I will get to work through many more of them in times ahead but certainly Rustom and I made a high-quality start with a sublime dram of Caperdonich 21 Year Old Peated Secret Speyside with that trademark peat medicinal smokiness and a delectable mix of nuts and dried fruit on the palate.

The single malt is part of Pernod Ricard’s Secret Speyside Series (‘Once gone there will never be another’). In Gaelic, Caperdonich translates as the secret well, highly appropriate for its inclusion in this extraordinary collection of whiskies from vanished (closed), remote, pioneering or remote distilleries. We might have polished off another dram or two but that would be revealing secrets.

Whether the liquid in question was whisky or Cognac, the evening was a reminder of what exceptional products our industry showcases and sells to the world.

That was confirmed in the days leading up to the Lunar New Year when a parcel arrived on my doorstep at Moodie Davitt Asia HQ.  Inside, courtesy of Rustom and his colleagues, was a bottle of the Martell Cordon Bleu Chinese New Year Extra Old, a limited-edition Cognac featuring an exquisitely illustrated bottle and gift box themed ‘The Audacious Voyage’. For now I’m content to admire rather than broach it. The opening must wait until Tuesday. What better way to celebrate the arrival of the Year of the Tiger?

Martell Cordon Bleu Chinese New Year Extra Old (left and centre) with its (rather depleted) 2021 predecessor

*To book the L’Atelier Martell Hong Kong experience visit https://www.latelier-martell.com.hk/

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