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Louis XIII on the Auction Block

A rare trio.

NUVO Autumn 2016: Louis XIII on the auction block, FYI Drink

Saving, savouring—for cognac house Rémy Martin, the two words have a lot more in common than etymology would say.

Since 1874, when Louis XIII cognac was created, ugni blanc grapes grown from the chalky soils of Cognac’s Grande Champagne district in southwestern France have yielded their juices to make the caramel-hued liquor. Each bottle represents a blend of 1,200 eaux-de-vie that have been cultivated by four generations of cellar masters and aged in oak barrels called tierçons. Overall, only 2 per cent of the annual eau-de-vie production is deemed worthy of Louis XIII. This alchemic process represents a solemn commitment to saving: there are eaux-de-vie blended into each bottle of Louis XIII that have been aged, and saved, between 40 and 100 years.

It could be said that each sip represents a moment of time travel, evoking tasting notes as varied as myrrh and honey, immortelle and plum, honeysuckle and wood bark, leather and passion fruit. (Each one-ounce pour of Louis XIII works out to about $125.) It is difficult to believe such a blend could be made more exclusive, but it has been.

Four years ago a quartet of bespoke French brands, including Rémy Martin, had an idea: to collaborate on three works of art that would unite as L’Odyssée d’un Roi (Journey of a King), be part of a travelling exhibition, and culminate in three special auctions. This year, the project reached completion. The three objets d’art are all crafted in France and nothing but exceptionnelle: from Hermès, three hand-stitched grey trunks (to encase the set); from royal cristallerie Saint-Louis, a trio of hand-engraved mouth-blown decanters and set of tasting glasses; and from the silver brand Puiforcat, three white-gold pipettes (to siphon the spirit out of the decanters). And within each decanter rests a very special Louis XIII.

“With this project, we are reaching out to people that are connoisseurs. We are speaking with people that can understand what craftsmanship means, what time means.”

“The blend I have created for these three [bottles] is different from the classic one,” explains Rémy Martin’s Baptiste Loiseau, seated in a corner of the Two E Bar/Lounge in New York’s Pierre hotel. The 35-year-old—who joined the house in 2007 and became cellar master in 2014—speaks candidly about the bespoke sets. “Each of them required 50 artisans and took 1,000 hours of labour to craft. I mean, there are only a few men now in Europe who can use this [wheel engraving] technique, and one of them works with Saint-Louis,” explains Loiseau. It took one full year for this artisan to engrave three crystal decanters and 12 glasses for the sets; each decanter took 278 hours of work. The final bottles are emblazoned with three different maps that date back to the 19th century, set alight by the golden cognac within.

This fall, Sotheby’s will auction off the sets in New York (September 10), Hong Kong (October 1), and London (November 16); the bottles’ map engravings of North America, Asia, and Europe will correspond with each auction location. The future owners will each be required to ante up at least $100,000 (U.S.)—the New York starting bid lot price—for each set, inclusive of pipette, glasses, trunk, and decanter. All proceeds will benefit Martin Scorsese’s non-profit film restoration organization, the Film Foundation.

“These are icons of luxury,” explains Loiseau. “With this project, we are reaching out to people that are connoisseurs. We are speaking with people that can understand what craftsmanship means, what time means.” The trunks, and the exhibition name L’Odyssée d’un Roi, are a tip of the hat to Louis XIII’s place among the milestones of luxury travel. “On the Orient Express. Across the Atlantic Ocean. In 1984, [Louis XIII] was served on the supersonic plane across the Atlantic Ocean: the Concorde,” says Loiseau, reeling off a list of occasions when the cognac was sipped and served, counting along on his fingertips. “In 1938, it was the only cognac that was served in the Château de Versailles—for the Queen of Great Britain in La galerie des Glaces. Winston Churchill also appreciated Louis XIII. And Charles de Gaulle, after the Second World War, celebrated with a decanter of it. So really, it has the longest history, since 1874. And it is linked with the know-how and the craftsmanship of the tiny, small town of Cognac that shines all over the world.”

The spirit fit for royals a century ago is also consumed by the pop culture royalty of today: Rihanna sings about it; Karl Lagerfeld is rumoured to serve it to guests after meals. John Malkovitch and Robert Rodriguez made a film about it. It even showed up onscreen alongside Tom Cruise in 1988’s Cocktail. In the homes of cognac connoisseurs aplenty, Louis XIII sits pointedly on the top shelf. Once sold, each L’Odyssée d’un Roi set may well be kept under lock and key.

As Loiseau explains it, Louis XIII is like “time encapsulated in the decanter,” and one way to respect that lengthy cultivation is to fully savour each sip, completely unrushed. The tasting experience doesn’t even have to end when the glass is empty; the heaviest notes are at the bottom. “What we recommend, when you have a glass of Louis XIII, is that when everything is over and your friends are gone, let the glasses sit in the room. The aromas are still deeply engraved in the glass because everything lies in that concentration,” he says. “The day after, in the morning, walk inside—you’ll see the room will be filled with all those beautiful aromas.”

The auctions will take place in New York, September 10, 2016; Hong Kong, October 1, 2016; and London, November 16, 2016. Find more details on the Sotheby’s website.