The world of cognac is romantic and mysterious. Its name calls forth a history of nocturnal grape harvests in the antique regions around the Charente river; centuries-old oak barrels amassed in a humid cellar, and visions of immaculate men in evening dress, cogitating together in crackling leather chairs. On reflection, of course, the greater part of these associations are little more than pretty anachronisms; but in the case of Godet, a four-hundred-year-old, family-owned cognac house, this mythos is alive and thriving.
Indeed, part of what Cape Town-based distributors Truman & Orange initially found arresting about the Godet brand was, as partner Rowan Leibbrandt recalls, its “stunning backstory”: “they’re on the fifteenth generation of family ownership. That part of it really enthralled us.” Godet is the only cognac distillery still operating out of the ancient coastal city of La Rochelle, which endows its various delineations with a signature, almost salty, minerality. Moreover, because it is a smaller, privately owned distillery, it boasts significantly older stock than its larger competitors are able to –one of the Godet family’s favourite legends pertains to the way in which Jacques Godet managed to hide and protect his best stock, when Godet was sequestered by German forces in 1942.
As Leibbrandt emphatically states, though, Godet’s sentimental mystique is by no means the exclusive source of its unique appeal. “More importantly, the cognac style that they do is a very different animal to the normal style of cognacs that one can find in South Africa.” Whereas most good cognacs are akin to single-malt whiskies, insofar as their exposure to oak imbues them with a honeyed, wooded character, Godet cognacs are comparatively floral and devoid of oak-drawn flavours. “They use extremely old barrels which don’t overpower the cognac,” Leibbrandt explains. “You get a kind of dryness that comes from the barrel, you don’t get this overwhelming honey and oak. You let the cognac stand on its own, and you get all these lovely floral flavours coming out. It’s a very old style of cognac-making, that predates whisky as an international category.”
Truman & Orange were also attracted to Godet’s reputation as something of a rule-bender within the culture of cognac. As South Africans’ interest in alternative iterations of spirits expands and evolves, so the demand for something different within familiar categories intensifies; and Godet’s proverbial finger is firmly attuned to the pulse in this respect.
As Leibbrandt proposes, “the Godet range isn’t quite conventional. They’ve got these things which, in modern terms, look quite weird, but actually, they’re such an old company that they’ve just been doing it that way forever and the world has changed.” Other “things”, like the Godet Antarctica, just look weird because, by conventional standards, they are. Released in 2012, the Antarctica is a totally colourless, or ‘white’, cognac –it is aged for seven years in a hundred-year-old barrel which, as Leibbrandt elucidates in layman’s terms, “has got no more colour to give –it’s a very dry experience for the cognac in the barrel.” The Antarctica is sweet, light and evocative of sweetmeats and orange blossom; Leibbrandt particularly recommends this delineation for seasoned cognac drinkers who are looking to try something out of the ordinary.
And for the venturesome neophyte? According to Leibbrandt, that depends on where you’ve grown up drinking. “We had this gigantic brandy industry for a time, so South Africans are quite comfortable drinking spirits. The (South African) palette is quite sophisticated, so people can handle bigger, bolder flavours – which typically means older stuff. So if you’d asked me that question in Brazil I would say, try the VS, which is a three-year-old VS, and that would be fine.”
For the South African tenderfoot, he endorses the Godet Gastronome, which, as its epithet suggests, is a fit match for bold South African menus. The Gastronome is a very dry, “floral-driven” fourteen-year-old cuvée, replete with intimations of violet, walnut and ginger.
Frankly, though, it little matters which iteration of Godet you elect to sample first. This small cognac house is widely lauded for its characteristic attention to detail, which renders each of its delineations reliably wonderful. You needn’t take my word for it, either – Godet is widely available, at Macros countrywide, and at most well-stocked liquor outlets.