Claire and I met during a spirits training course in 2018. Starting a cognac brand is a major gamble, but it seems that the hard work is about to pay off: not only did the brand held on during a complicated period both in France and internationally, it also was rewarded with a several beautiful medals. Therefore, after presenting what is cognac in our previous post, Maison Coquard-Thomas seemed to be the perfect fit to inaugurate Monsieur Baco’s focuses on brands…
This article is structured as follow: Monsieur Baco first sat down with the producer in a long form interview. Then a review of the product range is conducted with technical specifications and tasting notes. Finally, a summary points out, as always, the main points to remember.
Can you introduce yourself and tell your personal story up until the creation of Maison Coquard-Thomas (a. k. a. MCT Spirits)?
I was born more than 40 years ago in the Beaujolais region between vines and barrels, in a family of independent wine producers and sometimes co-operators. My dad, a qualified oenologist, travelled a lot and he used to always bring back wines from his different travels. We would taste these wines during our Sunday lunches, that’s what fuelled my passion for alcohol tastings. I have an older brother who is a winemaker himself, producing wine and spirits in the US, as well as a twin brother who works as a consultant-oenologist in Dijon, helping wine estates develop. I personally started my professional career in the wine industry working in the US and Germany first before moving to Bordeaux where I worked for seven years. There, I met my husband Olivier, born in the Charente-Maritime region and himself the son of wine producers. We did not make this cognac immediately. My brother-in-law took over 66 acres of vines from my father-in-law and my husband and I were very interested by this very noble product. We quickly realised that we had gold in our warehouse and we decided to try to make something out of it. To dilute our identity, to weaken our quality of work just so our product can be sold to the big houses is both quite honourable, but also quite disappointing as we loose the DNA of our product. We contribute to the rise of the fame of cognac worldwide, in a market representing more than 3 billion euros, but at the end of the day, we end up with no personal benefits.
So, what is Maison Coquard-Thomas after all? You produce cognac but do you still sell it to the wholesale trade or are you keeping everything to yourselves?
Today, we mostly sell to the wholesale trade because of previous contracts with big houses we have to honour. However, it is on the free-market side that we isolate and blend our products from our warehouse. That allows us to really create a distilled product that is of top quality that matches our values and vision.
Who is behind Maison Coquard-Thomas exactly?
MCT Spirits was created by my Husband Olivier and myself. I am buying from my brother-in-law just like big houses would buy in the wholesale trade. We could potentially get our source from another vineyard tomorrow, but it wouldn’t be a Coquard-Thomas and we would call it something else. Today, MCT cognac is a 100% a family business.
So, on paper this is a wholesale cognac but in reality, it really is a producer’s cognac.
Absolutely. To be honest, we thought: we all have different jobs with different skills. My brother-in-law is a wine maker, so his strength and speciality are his mastery of the 66 acres of land, with a clean environmental approach from the vine to the aging process. I, on the other hand, am more focused on brand development, marketing and communication, developing relationships with the different actors such as the cellarman or the grocer. Overall, it constitutes a good synergy of skills.
Are there any specificities to the terroir or in the making process that are unique to Maison Coquard-Thomas?
Yes, we have 66 acres on a single terroir: Bons Bois. But I always heard my parents-in-law say “we are harvesting the Champagne”. The Champagne is made of big limestones that are found mostly in the vines and that are very present in the Grande and Petite Champagne terroirs. We might be apart because of administrative decisions, but out soils are geographically identical to this terroir composed of limestones and very little clay. We also benefit from the influence of the ocean. The Bons Bois terroir allows for a faster aging process and allows us to have mature cognacs in a faster timeframe. We end up with a product that is round in flavour and does not have a strong ABV.
Do you distil your cognac yourselves?
We are working with an independent distillery. Our cognacs have been distilled in the same distillery since my father-in-law took over the business in 1988. This allows a certain level of consistency across the production, and it is reassuring for us because, when showcasing our spirits to big houses, we know our distillation is reliable and in line with their expectations. Obviously, the vintage also has an impact on the result. Cognac compared to most alcohol is a more “living” alcohol. The people in charge of the distillation know their job. Again, each of us has his/her own job.
Do you need to be a Kamikaze to start a cognac brand nowadays?
Yes indeed, you need to be a little crazy [laughs]… but most of all, you need to be passionate. There is an obvious risk: today we arrive in the cognac market as a free and independent producer in a market dominated by brands. In the rest of the world people buy Hennessy or Rémy but rarely cognac per se. In fact, they would buy any type of brandy. Therefore, we now have two ecosystems with The Big Five (Hennessy, Rémy Martin, Martell, Courvoisier, Camus) and the other brands. How do we shine and get attention? We chose to break the norm a little with a modern packaging and this single terroir. Distribution is where we can make the difference. We are also aiming at customers that are more curious than experts because the French markets needs that change: we need to build relationships with cellars, cocktail bars and such. We are tired of seeing the same thing everywhere. All cognacs are good. They are all up to our standards, it is a beautiful family, a beautiful product, but within these standards, we must think outside the box and get out of our comfort zone.
That being said, isn’t it similar to the Champagne market where all the big houses, who produce very standard champagne, drive the entire sector upwards thanks to the prestige and reputation they reflect internationally?
They are carrying France on their shoulders. Cognac, with 3 billion euros of sales revenue, is the best French ambassador in the world. Obviously, these big houses carry the name “cognac” and are doing the important job of setting up a standard of quality. Today, without comparting ourselves with others, we must be able to offer more diversity. The consumer, wherever he is in the world, and especially since the events of the last year, needs some authenticity, a history, something that will make him travel and will push him outside of his comfort zone. But it is challenging. Very challenging.
That is the exact purpose of Monsieur Baco, to put the spotlight on small houses.
I would rather talk about “beautiful” houses [laughs]…
What are the main difficulties you came across since you launched the brand?
To be honest, as of today, it is the funding and the cash flow. Cognac remains a high end, luxury product with a premium positioning and therefore everything is expensive. Financing stock and paying the excise duty when you are selling bottles is very challenging. I believe the focus and effort were not set on the French market because we still pay 6.60€ per bottle, which is incompressible. So even for an entry range product, it impacts the final sale price. The rotations are less important than what we see in wine because you drink a bottle of wine faster than a bottle of cognac, yet the tax is heavier on cognac. Other difficulties include making yourself known, finding a distributor and financing the whole thing. Today, you clearly need a strong mental to make it work.
How does the distribution work for you?
It is mostly word of mouth, so I have multiple points of sales here and there. I was the one to start this active prospection style. We collaborate with different teams to export, especially in Southeast Asia, more precisely India where our collaborators live. As of today, we have not been able to do much, but once the economy starts again, we will be ready to target new markets where the population knows cognac, knows that Hennessy and other big houses exist without considering it to be the Alpha and Omega. We can represent a different, trendier alternative and if you are represented and promoted by locals, that’s already a lot of the job done. Being a small blond girl, if I were to go to Malaysia or Sri Lanka by myself, people will just assume I’m crazy. The global situation did not help either. We could not imagine having the Yellow Jackets movement in France AND a global pandemic AND Donald Trump’s taxes. Thankfully, Joe Biden appears to be more open and keener on reconciliation. Before Trump’s taxes, everyone loaded up, then Covid came and nothing happened for a while, the stocks are therefore full as no one consumed, and the bars were closed. So, it has been a very complicated one and a half year. As I said earlier, you need to be strong mentally. You also need to anticipate. So, for 2021, we decided to focus on winning contests and medals so we could gain some notoriety. We had some good referencing such as the restaurant Gaya by Pierre Gagnaire as well as some nice cellars and cocktail bars. We therefore create our distribution that is validated by the quality of our cognac that have been awarded medals.
So how do you obtain medals and what does it mean to you?
We presented two cognacs to the Concours International de Lyon (VSOP and XO). These sample we sent were tasted blindly without any signs but a code. We obtained the gold medal for the XO and the silver medal for the VSOP. The tasting commentaries allow us to know how people reacted to our cognac as well as understand the criteria on which they are judged. It also helps us to understand where we stand compared to our competitors. For me, Lyon represents Gastronomy, beautiful table traditions. It is located in between the Rhône Valley and Burgundy, so it really is a meaningful acknowledgement of our product’s qualities. We also went to Frankfurt and won the gold medal there with a grade of 19.33/20 with tasting commentaries in line with those we had in Lyon. Frankfurt is Germany, which is the strongest country in Europe. We also submitted in May samples of the VS and VSOP to the Bartender Spirits Awards in San Francisco. These two cognacs are usually associated with cocktails, and we won two gold medals with very interesting tasting commentaries focused on cocktails.
Winning medals in three different markets must feel like a solid validation?
It is very reassuring, and it legitimates the work we do from the vines to the warehouse, from distillation to blending. Our XO’s particularity is that it is a single cask and therefore it does not require any blending. We decided not to mix it with other barrels because we thought it was top quality.
So from one batch to another, the taste will potentially vary.
Absolutely. It is similar to what I mentioned earlier. When you buy a VS from a major brand, you will have with some exceptions the same product all around the world, today and in the future. It is similar to Mouton Cadet, it’s clean, well done, never disappointing, but not very bold and exciting. So, when we will have sold our 800 bottles, there won’t be any left, we will do another one and it will be different. And that’s perfect this way.
You seem to be focusing your development around cocktails and gastronomy, are these your field of predilection when it comes to growth?
Yes, I think we must offer people a beautiful tasting experience. When the bartender says “I will use this cognac instead of this one for your cognac tonic” or when the sommelier at a restaurant will present you a specific cognac, it will bring a questioning, an interest, a difference: why this one? Differentiation is very important, even more so in the gastronomy sector.
What are your main markets today?
As of today, distribution remains at its early stage. It is still developing, growing and there is much to build. Anyway, it will be selective and therefore a poor match for the mass distribution sector. We need someone that knows and understand the concept behind the product, someone that can talk about it to sell it more efficiently. It has to be a place that can provide advice and recommendations. So, we are talking about places such as Relais et Châteaux for example. For the export, we are aiming at the same distribution focused on cocktail and mixology, principally focusing on the US market. Our cognacs are very fruity and are very easy to pair with, despite having lower levels of alcohol. I am myself a cognac consumer, and I do not want to drink something close to 60°. We produced cognacs that mirror our tastes, between two times and two eras. In a long-term perspective, I would like distribution to be focused on export so we can proudly carry on with this difference and offer new alternatives. So, a 70% export, 30% France would be pretty good.
What are your perspectives of growth or your developing projects? What is the future of Maison Coquard-Thomas?
The future for us is to stay strong and last, we did not do all of this for nothing! We are thinking about making special bottlings, maybe with different packaging with for example smaller bottles. Maybe also have more partnerships with other brands. In the end, we want to keep our focus on cognac and keep our independence and autonomy. It has to be worth it.
What about the Pineau-des-Charrentes?
We are making some for our own personal consumption, and we don’t have any plan to change that.
What are the trends and changes that you observed in the world of cognac and French spirits nowadays? Any particular movements?
Yes, absolutely. I observed the strong rise of no-alc or low-alc drinks, which are either low in alcohol or even alcohol free. It is the Covid effect where people could not go out and started thinking “alcohol is to be enjoyed moderately”. How can I treat myself with a drink that tastes like alcohol without the bad side effects of alcohol? I can sense a strong trend around the development of such drinks. That is also why we decided to stick to the 40° ABV which is very traditional, but it is a consumption that is really focused on cocktails. There is a genuine revival around that idea or maybe I’m just accessing that age range where I think “this could be nice” whereas before, we would not necessarily have access to it because of the lack of money or knowledge. I think we are finally catching up on the US and the Scandinavian countries.
Is there anything peculiar about being a woman in the cognac sector? Is it easier or harder for you? How do you see the situation?
I am very satisfied with my situation, and I wish not to make it a big deal. I have never received any negative comments and I believe that as long as I offer a legitimate product and remain bold without being arrogant as well as open to advice it is not a subject. I am quite knowledgeable when it comes to wine, but for spirits it was more of a discovery. So, for me there isn’t really any debate. However, what I find very cool is the network of female wine and spirits makers that are always ready to unite and help one another and are proud to help promote a product that, even if it is traditional and within the norm, is still special because it is produced by a woman.
Are there any brands or houses that you admire and would like to recommend?
Yes of course! There are some ladies that have some top-quality products such as Fanny Fougerat with her positioning on “cognac d’auteur”, it is very atypical and we need these kind of alternatives. In the tonic sector there is Artonic that just launched recently. I am mostly citing brands with women behind them because their personal and professional stories were touching. Some of them are in the production of spirits since they were born, some inherited the business and don’t know any other sectors. For these women, it is obviously easier, but they managed to carry on the weight of this heritage and history. I also really like what the Pasquet are doing, it is very authentic yet has this touch of modernity and dynamism. I also like ARS Spirits and their Madame Vodka and Monsieur Gin brands.
What are the music that you would associate with each of your cognacs?
For the VS, I would spontaneously say Amy Winehouse because Olivier and I had the opportunity to see her perform at Cognac Blues Passion and we were drinking a VS from a house I forgot the name. The VS has this very alternative nature. For the XO I would say something like Lully or Haendel because I am fond of baroque. For the VSOP, we are a bit in the middle, I could see something like Mika for example. In the end, I really associated these cognacs with moments of festivity and conviviality that you share with nice people with whom you want to be.
Your cognacs are neither sweet nor coloured?
The XO is a little bit sweet, and it was our decision. That is why it really is a personal cognac because I wanted something round even though I can also enjoy very bitter things. I don’t know why, but I thought there was something missing in that product and sugar filled that gap. The VS and VSOP are fully natural.
Technical specifications & Tasting notes
Samples were kindly provided in 8cl bottles by Maison Coquard-Thomas. Tastings have been done in two times: first a purely olfactory evaluation has been performed. Then, each glass has been set to rest for about 2 hours before a second olfactory evaluation and the tasting. The same tulip glass was used for the three tastings.
Information common to the three products:
- Terroir: Bons Bois
- Agriculture: HVE (High Environmental Value)
- Soils: Clay-limestone with a majority of limestone.
- Type of barrels: new/recycled.
- Type of warehouse: temperate
- Post-distillation ABV: 68°
You can find Maison Coquard-Thomas’s cognacs in the following places: la Cognathèque (in store and online), les Clés de la cave (Vallet, 44), Retour de vignes (La Rochelle, 17), Cash Vin (Libourne, 33), Gaya – Pierre Gagnaire (La Grande Terrasse hotel at Châtelaillon-Plage, 17), l’Insolite (Saint-Martin-de-Ré, 17), Chez Ré Monde (Rivedoux, 17), la Brasserie du Stade Toulousain (Toulouse, 31), Marylili cocktail bar (La Rochelle, 17)…
- Number of bottles: 1200
- Age: 2/4 years old
- ABV: 40°
- Sugar: no
- Colouring: no
- Suggested price: 30€
- Claire’s cocktail suggestion: 1 part of cognac for 4 parts of farmer’s apple juice with ice.
Colour: gold, acacia honey.
Nose: sharp, floral (dandelion), fruity (reines-claudes plums, yellow peaches, fresh grape). Then, notes of beewax and heather honey are completed by a touch of white pepper and honeysuckle. After a couple of hours, the nose gets spicier with aniseed notes.
Mouth: the attack is round but warming. Notes of soft spices (turmeric, nutmeg), pollen, chestnut honey and fruity (mirabelle plum).
Finish: dry and warm with a nice intensity. The empty glass releases nots of herbs (oregano).
- Number of bottles: 800
- Age: 5/8 years old
- ABV: 40,2°
- Sugar: no
- Colouring: no
- Suggested price: 45€
- Claire’s cocktail suggestion: VSOP + mango juice + tonic = massive success.
Nose: a thin curtain of woody notes comes first but quickly gives way to a very fresh wave of fruits (apricot, watermelon, white peach) and vegetal notes (freshly cut flowers, iris, linden). After a couple of hours, the nose gets spicier: white pepper, clove, and the woody notes from the beginning make their comeback along with touches of milk chocolate and plum.
Mouth: the attack is mild. There are notes of dried fruits (dried apricot, touch of walnuts), spices (nutmeg, clove again) and leans slightly towards bakery scents (pound cake, candied fruits).
Finish: fruity and spicy (less dry than the VS) and with a medium length. The empty glass releases notes of tarragon and Jamaica pepper.
- Number of bottles: 800
- Single cask!
- Age: 11 years old
- ABV: 40
- Sugar: yes
- Colouring: no
- Suggested price: 90€
Colour: ginger, mahogany.
Nose: this is a different dimension. Spices (cinnamon, ginger with a little gentle touch of saffron and cardamom), freshness (pine resin) and “gourmandise” (gingerbread, cacao, Christmas tea) all blend in a heady maelstrom. The second nose offers a different set of aromas: antics (old furniture, leather), dried fruits (pecan, warm pecan pie) and fruits (red plums, figs and a touch of almonds).
Mouth: the attack is soft and chocolaty with notes of sweat spices (cardamom, aniseed) and dried fruits.
Finish: quite mouthwatering, almost salty with a very decent length carried by a thin rancio. The empty glass releases some last notes of old books, plum jam, vanilla and incense.
In my opinion, the three products are perfectly in line with the positioning of the house: spirits that show some personality while remaining easy to drink. The VS is sharp, comprehensive, and persistent. The XO is rounder, sweater yet more complex whereas the VSOP, in the middle, is more discrete but shines by its surprising freshness. Connoisseurs may lack some extra ABV power but the casual cognac afficionados will get value for the money with these independent characterful spirits. As I see it, Maison Coquard-Thomas has succeeded in its mission!
In a nutshell
Maison Coquard-Thomas is a family-owned cognac brand founded in 2018. Their spirits stem from three grapes: ugni, folle blanche, and follignan grown on a unique terroir in the Bons Bois cru where the clay-limestone soils remind of Grande and Petite Champagne. The three bottlings have had medals at international competitions (Lyon, Frankfurt, San Francisco). The XO is the only product that has been applied some sweetening, the VS and VSOP are bottled in their purest form. The “low” ABV of 40° make these confidential cognacs (only 800 bottles for the XO) quite easy to drink. A middle ground between a relax drinking experience and the complexity of craft independent cognacs.