The waterways of Venice are as busy as you can imagine. And while what you may have in mind is a flotilla of elegant gondolas, gliding along the canals, transporting lovers transfixed in the moment, heads swivelling left to right, taking in all the history around them, on your way in from the airport it’s the water taxis that dominate the landscape.
As we — in Venice for the global reveal of the LOUIS XIII Rare Cask 42.1 — make our way to our hotel, the captain of our magnificent boat goes slowly enough for us to stand up momentarily while furiously snapping away at our surrounds, as his colleagues fly past us at speeds not out of place in The Italian Job. This lot would be right at home on William Nicol Drive, cruising in the yellow lane, possibly in the wrong direction.
After dropping off media colleagues at the St Regis, we pull up to The Gritti Palace, a few buildings down the Grand Canal and one of the most charming of Venice’s heritage hotels. It is the first choice of everyone from royalty to THE queen, Naomi Campbell, as I’m told by her friend, the academically accomplished (King’s College, NYU, and Oxford) Nigerian influencer Florence Ifeoluwa Otedola, aka DJ Cuppy. Otedola is a friend of LOUIS XIII, in town for the same gig.
The 15th-century masterpiece across from the Basilica di Santa Maria della Salute is classic Venetian opulence, with antique furniture, artwork, and books in every conceivable space. The 82-room Luxury Collection hotel was built as a palace in 1475 by the Pisani family. About 50 years later, it became the residence of Andrea Gritti, the Doge (the most senior elected Venetian official at the time), which gives it its name. It became a hotel in 1895. I take ill just after checking in — dodgy seafood, a viral infection or just sea sickness, take your pick.
I forego the welcome cocktail party and drown in my kingsize bed with extra length after soaking in a bath softened by the complimentary Acqua Di Parma products. Whatever afflicted me the previous night is gone by breakfast as I hold down something continental but hearty. I’ll need my strength and constitution if I’m to get through a day of exploring Venice: four heritage sites, led by four “messengers”, uncovering Venetian wonders less explored.
First stop, a visit to the headquarters of the Reale Società Canottieri Bucintoro (Royal Bucintoro Rowing Society) at the 14th-century warehouses near San Marco Basin, a space it has occupied since its founding in 1882. The society is dedicated to the preservation of all things rowing, from an obsession with wood and crafting to excellence in the art of the oar. With the help of the first of the “messengers” tasked with unlocking hidden Venice, we experience an exclusive tour of the headquarters, viewing memorabilia and taking in the intricate work that goes into making both Venetian boats and architecture, with a crash course in Venetian rowing thrown in.
Next, the Gianni Basso Stampatore, a traditional stationery atelier in the Cannaregio neighbourhood. A meta dream for print addicts such as myself, it is steeped in history and holds irresistible charm for lovers of the tactility of print. Filled with greeting cards, invitations, bookmarks, and stamps, the small space is a delight for inky fingers, with letterpress equipment collected over multiple decades by owner Basso, who mastered the Gutenberg-era presses in an Armenian monastery as a young man and has been practising his craft on Calle Del Fumo for over 30 years.
The Tragicomica atelier — one of the oldest manufacturers of masks in Venice — presented our next curiosity. Although the first mention of mask, or “maschere”, in Venetian history came two centuries before this, it is 14th-century Venice’s early libertine partiality to excess that threw them into popularity. Masks allowed the wearers to pursue their passions in relative anonymity and were promptly banned, the only exception being at carnival time. And while carnival period is considerably shorter nowadays, the masks, in all their delicacy, humour, and horror, still make a spectacular appearance at this time.
At the obligatory Piazza San Marco visit, we conclude a tour of something not so run-of-the-mill — the Biblioteca Nazionale Marciana. The library boasts awe-inspiring wonders: delicate manuscripts, Marco Polo’s will, and a running ode to cartography, with various maps of the world, as imagined — accurately and less so — by the explorers of the day.
Enter Rare Cask 42.1
That evening, men on stilts welcome us outside the magnificent Scuola Grande della Misericordia, leading us to an area buzzing with global trade, media, and clients. More theatre is unleashed as acrobats swirl, tumble, fly, and eventually create a human archway for us to walk through as we head to dinner. Upstairs, the low-lit theme with dark accents continues, with a long table covered in dates, grapes, figs, crystal candelabra, and the personalised masks we chose at Tragicomica.
The reveal is slow and deliberate, with bursts of dramatic dinner service by the army of servers, and an appropriately dramatic soundtrack. “We wanted to transmit emotion [through an event that] was minimal but luxurious,” Jean-Philippe Hecquet, CEO of Rémy Martin LOUIS XIII, tells me the next day. By the time of the reveal, interest has been sufficiently heightened and we are ready for the black Baccarat decanter, and even more for the rare liquid inside.
In Baptiste Loiseau, LOUIS XIII has the youngest cellar master in the game — and his experience (passed on by masters before him), savoir-faire, nature, and time in those special tierçons (bigger than normal traditional wooden barrels, made from 100-year-old oak) have produced something special. “A year ago, I noticed something subtle and extraordinary about a singular tierçon,” he says. “Rare Cask 42.1 has very specific nose and palate sensations that create a perfect point of balance. In order to discover Rare Cask 42.1, I listened to my instincts and favoured emotion over science. I called upon my memories. It took me back to my childhood and my roots in Cognac.”
The Rare Cask 42.1 (the number indicating the alcohol by volume) came from a single tierçon, producing 775 black-crystal decanters, accompanied by “crystal glasses ornated with black quatrefoils and a serving pipette featuring a black medallion”. It is only the third of its kind and the first in a decade. It was also the first and last time I was tasting it. Notwithstanding the $50 000 price tag, all decanters were pre-sold, including just five in the AMEI region, I believe. The celebration, as the best of them always do, ends on the dance floor.
When the last water taxi leaves, a shade after 2.30am, the after-party finds itself in the lobby of the St Regis. I am safely in bed, with the full knowledge that the next day will be defined by mint tea and gentleness, before flying back home the next evening.
• From the May edition of Wanted, 2023.