Words by: Simon Difford and Paloma Alos
Alexis Cabanne is a sixth generation Cellar Master and proud of his cognac producing family’s heritage. The Cabanne family have been distillers since 1686 and the ownership of the business and accompanying distilling skills have been passed father to son through the generations.
The Cabanne family’s distillery is 10km east of Cognac, where the family operate 15 traditional Charente cognac stills, each with a 25 hectolitre capacity. The family’s traditional cellars bordering the River Charente hold stocks of around 4,000 hectolitres of eau-de-vie with some of the oldest stocks dating back to 1806.
The Cabanne family are winegrowers as well as distillers with 74 hectares (183 acres) of vineyards planted exclusively with Ugni Blanc in Petit Champagne and Fins Bois cru areas, located between St-Brice and Bourg Charente.
While the Cabanne family have made cognac for generations, they have supplied their eau-de-vie in bulk to the large famous houses. Indeed, they still do. However, the family have the capacity to produce two million bottles a year, from field, via distillery, ageing and blending to bottle, all on their own estate. A weakening in demand for cognac prior to the millennium, particularly in China, led to a sharp reduction in demand from the bigger houses. This was the impetuous Alexis and his English wife, Chrystelle Hawkins, needed and it led them to create and market their own cognac brand under the Richard Delisle label.
Francois Mitterand, former President of France, is from the Cognac region and the Richard Delisle cognac brand was originally the property of Mitterand family. During the uncertain WW2 period Alexis' grandfather purchased the brand from the Mitterand family with the intention of using it to create a new champagne brand to sell in America. Indeed, Alexis still has a Richard Delisle Champagne label carefully preserved in his office. For many years after the post war period however the brand name remained dormant and unused. Alexis and Chrystelle recognised this historic cognac brand as being perfect to elevate the branding of their family’s cognacs. And so, in 1999 it enabled them to start with an established brand rather than create a new one.
Wanting to also be in control of their own distribution, the couple also established their own distribution company, named Hawkins Distribution, after Chrystelle’s maiden name. If the Hawkins name sounds familiar, her English father was a well-known jockey.
With renewed impetus behind the ‘new’ brand and their own distribution company, the Cabanne family were able to begin the process of developing the brand and creating momentum for their cognac range around the world. Today, the largest markets for Richard Delisle cognac are Russia, Belarus, China as well as the Duty Free market in airports as diverse as Dubai and Schipol. New and emerging markets are just as important for future growth with increasing presence for the brand in countries such as the UK, Poland, Slovakia, Hungary, Netherlands, Belgium as well as the southern European countries such as Italy and Spain.
Don’t expect to see Richard Delisle generally available in your local supermarket though; the size of the business is small and means it is more likely to be discovered in independent stores, restaurants and bars. As Alexis says "Independent stores are loyal. You can build the business with them steadily over time. They are looking for small brands with interesting stories that they can talk to their customers about.” It’s not trying to be a big brand, but rather Alexis is interested in creating a unique family style for the range.
Alexis describes this ‘family style’ of cognac as being especially attractive to the discerning end of the market…”the epicureans amongst us, who like good food and good cognac". He explains how he doesn’t want to make a cognac which is easy to drink, but "one which has a personality and distinct character" and not scared to be particularly spicy or rich. The Club Cigare XO, for instance, was made by Alexis for himself and is recommended to pair with a cigar (of course) or for non-smokers some dark chocolate.
Alexis is particularly proud of the 2015 IWSC awards his cognacs have received; with a Silver Outstanding for the VS and VSOP, a Gold Outstanding for the Collection Prestige and Club Cigare XO and the ultimate Cognac Trophy for the Club Cigare XO.
What’s inside the bottle is much more important to Alexis than the packaging around it. Unusual for a premium cognac brand and as Alexis explains, this way of thinking "required a lot of hard work with the Chinese to encourage them to look past the packaging", often so elaborate in the Asian cognac market, to experience the liquid inside.
Ask Alexis what his most rare and precious cognac is and he tells the story of Marie Domain, a cousin of his and quite a local celebrity way back in the 19th century. “It was 1806 and to celebrate her marriage some local cognac producing families made a special blend for her wedding day. Sadly for her, she didn’t get married and that meant the cognac stayed intact and the families still have small stocks to this day.” Alexis has just 25 litres left, but with one glass selling at 400 Euros he may keep this precious stock for some time yet.
It’s quite something to be a sixth generation cognac Cellar Master. Alexis has three daughters and describes what "a very big pleasure it would be for me if they came into the business’”. He himself has learned a lot from the generations before him, and now he wants to transmit his cognac making and brand building know-how to the future generations. There is also the younger generation of consumers who “don’t know what cognac tastes like, so we try to be in the right places for them so they can experience and appreciate cognac as the many generations before them.” We wish Alexis all the best in building on and evolving all that the Cabanne family have created.