The bizarre tale of the world’s oldest cognac
The only remaining bottle of the world’s oldest cognac will sell at auction next week, and will almost certainly set a new price record for a bottle of the famous French brandy. Like many of the world’s most expensive cognacs, the bottle of Gautier Cognac was made prior to the phylloxera plague that wiped out Europe’s grapevines in the late 19th century.
Indeed, this cognac has been authenticated as being a 1762 vintage Gautier Cognac, which means it was distilled 258 years ago during the reign of King Louis XV of France, nearly three decades before the French Revolution of 1789.
Three bottles (two small and one large) of the rare Gautier Cognac 1762 were discovered, having been held in the same family for generations with their original labels attached.
The bottles can been traced back to the 1880s at Lachaise, a town in the Cognac region of France, and were owned by the Donsir family. The glass bottle containers date from around 1840, at which time they were filled with a cognac distilled by Cognac House Gautier in 1762.
The story of the Donsir family ownership began when the family adopted a son by the name of Alphonse. Alphonse went to the vineyards of Cognac in 1870 to find work, not long before the phylloxera outbreak. Phylloxera destroyed between 75 percent and 90 percent of the vineyards of France, and a decade later Alphonse returned home with a cart laden with bottles – as vineyards had been financially ruined, they would often pay wages with the only form of currency available to them, which was the bottles of cognac they produced. Amongst these bottles representing Alphonse's "savings" were three bottles of highly-regarded Gautier 1762. When WW1 commenced in 1914, Alphonse was conscripted to the French army, perishing that same year.
Alphonse's legacy was preserved in the form of his bottles of Gautier 1762, having been stored in the family cellars for a century, and will culminate on May 28 with the oldest vintage cognac ever to be sold at auction.
One of the smaller bottles is now housed in the Gautier Museum. The 265-year-old cognac maker is still in business, with the company having been passed down through 10 generations of the family, proudly displaying its near priceless royal warrant signed by King Louis XV himself in 1755.
The second smaller bottle of 1762 Gautier Cognac was auctioned by Bonhams in New York on April 30, 2014, selling to an online bidder for a final price of $59,500.
The winning bidder turned out to be Wealth Solutions, a Polish company that specializes in rare spirits and collectables. Once Wealth Solutions had secured the bottle it submitted the evidence to Guinness World Records and had the “world’s oldest cognac sold at auction” claim validated.
From there, Wealth Solutions did something quite unconventional that has the potential to change the marketplace for whisky, rum, cognac and other spirit collectors.
They opened the bottle!
Then the bottle was decanted in a ceremonial gathering and the apparently still drinkable contents were then resealed in much smaller bottles that had been allocated to partners.
From there, the first partner in Wealth Solutions plan for the bottle was unveiled: Armin Strom, a Swiss Watch Manufacture.
Armin Strom then produced in a limited edition mechanical timepiece with each wa;tch featuring a small drop of the cognac in a capsule. Just 40 pieces of the watch were made, with a mixture of stainless steel, 18k rose gold and titanium cases.
The limited edition watches were then shown to Armin Strom’s best clients behind closed doors with a large percentage of the production run sold prior to the watch being announced at Baselworld 2016, the world’s best-known jewelry and watch fair. There are still stainless steel Cognac watches available at €25,000 ($27,300) apiece.
Wealth Solutions didn’t stop there though, leveraging the $60,000 bottle of the world’s oldest cognac into several more items of merchandise.
Wealth Solutions partnered with Italian manufacturer of writing instruments Montegrappa to create a limited edition Cognac Fountain Pen, this time containing drops of the world’s oldest cognac so they are visible in the end of the fountain pen cap. In total, 100 silver fountain pens were hand-crafted, and 10 gold versions. The gold edition retailed for €12,000 (US$13,000) and the silver edition retailed for €4,000 (US$4,375).
Then Wealth Solutions also partnered with Lux Coin company and the Mint of Poland to create 300 gold coins each containing a drop of the world’s oldest cognac and 2 ounces of pure gold. Wealth Solutions has now produced three coins series in collaboration with Lux Coin: a Whisky Coin, Rum Coin, and the Cognac Coin. The coins are all legal tender containing a capsule filled with rare and extremely old alcohol and each retailing for €7,900 (US$8,135) apiece.
The whisky coin contains the oldest whisky in the world (Old Vatted Glenlivet 1862), the second one is filled with the oldest rum in the world (Harewood Rum 1780), and the Cognac Coin is home to small amounts of the Cognac Gautier 1762.
The 1862 Glenlivet and 1780 Harewood Rum were purchased by Wealth Solutions in separate deals, and quite clearly, there’s a commercial pattern forming that requires old and rare alcohol if it is to continue.
The bottle currently going to auction
Now Wealth Solutions' obvious success in leveraging the moxie out of the world’s oldest cognac is good news for whoever is selling the next bottle of the world’s oldest or rarest <fill in the name of your favorite spirit here>, but quite possibly for not many other people, and certainly not for whisky, rum, cognac or any other collectors of spirits.
Given Wealth Solutions success in purchasing the last small bottle for $60,000, one can only assume that the company will be bidding on the next bottle because it has exactly the same heritage and one of the three extant bottles was destroyed in creating the watches, fountain pens and coins.
That should make the last and largest of these bottles going to auction at Sotheby’s even more expensive as it is the only one that will ever be available to the public. Already there are indications it will sell for far more than the previous bottle, and perhaps become the most valuable bottle of vintage cognac in history.
Estimated by Sotheby’s to sell for between £80,000 and £160,000, at the time of writing, with eight days to go in the auction, the bottle had already been bid to £80,000 which, with the 20 percent buyers premium, means that the bottle will fetch around $120,000 if no other bids are logged. That's double the price of the last bottle and counting down ... and the Sotheby's web site indicates that the reserve price has been passed, so it will definitely be selling.
Given that Wealth Solutions has now shown its hand in how to leverage an investment such as this for short term gains, it seems even more likely we’re going to see a bidding war on this bottle and the world record price for a bottle of cognac is not out of the question when bidding closes at 10:00 PM on 28 May, 2020 (London time).
Andy Simpson of Rarewhisky101, one of the world's best known and most respect rare whisky consultants, classifies auction bidders into three categories: drinkers, collectors and investors.
Drinkers can be excluded from this equation as once a standard bottle gets above $30,000, it is simply too expensive to drink – $2000 a shot is about the point where rare spirits cross the line into a traded commodity that has transcended its original purpose as an alcoholic beverage.
Hence, traditionally, it is only the investors and the collectors that bid at auction for a bottle in this price range. Given the above activities surrounding the last bottle of Gautier cognac however, it's quite possible we're going to see a new type of investor enter the fray on a regular basis.
In some ways it is analogous to the dismembering of books such as the elephant edition of John James Audubon's Birds of America. Individually, the leaves of that book fetch more at auction than the whole, so we're seeing copies dismembered and sold as individual leaves.
If investors buy the oldest bottle of cognac and "dismember it", more enthusiasts will be able to have a moment of what once was, but what once was will no longer be, and that is a shame.
The auction records that could be broken
According to the Guinness Book of Records, the world’s most expensive bottle of cognac was an 1858 Cuvee Leonie that sold at auction for ¥1,000,000 (US$156,544) in Shanghai (China) on September 24, 2011.
We believe that the retail record for a bottle of cognac is considerably higher than $156,544, at very least because BrandyClassics reported that London’s appropriately named Hedonism Wines had sold an imperial three quarter gallon bottle of 1801 Massougnes Cognac for £222,000 on October 12, 2016, which translates to US$270,761 at the exchange rates of the day.
Several of the vintage three-quarter gallon bottles had been acquired by Hermitage Cognacs from Marie-Antoinette des Allées, Comtesse de la Bourdeliere whose family owns the former cognac producing estate. Marie-Antoinette des Allées is a direct descendant of French King Louis VII and Eleanor of Aquitaine and their children, King Richard of England and King John.
The Massougnes estate once boasted 360 hectares of vineyard but the phylloxera plague which destroyed the vines meant that cognac production ceased 170 years ago. A second of the giant bottles of cognac dated 1805 was sold in 2018 for a price reported to be more than £200,000 – the exact price fetched was never reported though it was listed at £246,600 (US$302,000). The company also reported selling an 1805 jumbo-sized bottle for £148,000 in 2015 – around $230,000 at the time.
Similarly, the auction record for a bottle of cognac reported by Guinness World Records also appears to have been surpassed when Sotheby’s sold three distinct versions of L’Odyssée D’un Roi (Journey of a King) in three separate auctions on different continents in 2016, with two of the three exceeding the Guinness World Record figure.
Designed to raise money for The Film Foundation’s cinematic heritage preservation effort, the three bespoke crystal decanters of unique blend of Louis XIII Cognac were auctioned with 19th century maps etched into the decanter, each appropriate for the geography of the sale.
Offered by Sotheby’s in New York (September 10, 2016), London (October 1, 2016), and Hong Kong (November 16, 2016, the New York Americas Decanter fetched US$134,750, the Hong Kong Asia Edition Decanter fetched HK$1,470,000 (US$189,520) and the London European Edition Crystal Magnum Decanter fetched £188,000 (US$234,142). The latter two both set world records for a bottle of cognac sold at auction.
Quite clearly, the 1762 Gautier Cognac will need to double its current bid of $120,000 to take the world auction record, but it may well be that even at that lofty price, the extra value required to bid the bottle to become the "most expensive cognac in the world" will give it the necessary gravitas to launch a new set of merchandise.
One wonders whether spirit collecting will ever be the same again.