With a mischievous twinkle in his eye, Bernard Hine, of the eponymous cognac house, placed two glasses of identical-looking brandy in front of me. This was a test. Both were from the 1975 vintage. The only difference was that one was matured in France and the other in Britain. But which? I took a sniff of one and, thinking aloud, said: "Mmmm, caramel."
"No! It does not smell of caramel!" Bernard replied, looking at me as if I'd just insulted his family and all of France. We argued a bit. The twinkle disappeared. This wasn't going very well. I smelled the other glass. It was fresher, grassier, less mature-smelling. I held the second one up: "This one was matured in Britain," I said, trying to sound confident. He paused. He's going to throw me out of the house, I thought. Instead, he told me I was right. I breathed a sigh of relief.
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British-matured cognac is known as "Early Landed," and Hine are one of the few houses that still produce this most traditional of styles; the company is known for its vintage offerings. But in recent years, Hine has also branched into what is, for it, radical new territory. Along with an increasing number of cognac producers worldwide, the house is experimenting with nontraditional ways of producing and marketing the spirit—and in doing so, they hope to change cognac’s image as either a fusty after-dinner drink or something that people drink to show off rather than savor.