Vive la différence: ABK6 profile

ABK6 stillMark Ludmon visits the home of ABK6 cognac which combines modernity with tradition

The vineyards stretching across the undulating hills of the Abécassis estate in Claix in south-west France look much like any other in the Cognac region. However, this is a producer with a difference, home to the modern cognac ABK6. Not only is the brand’s name inspired by mobile phone texting, but the cognacs are made solely using grapes and eaux-de-vie from Abécassis land.

Traditional cognacs are a blend of eaux-de-vie made by distilling wine from different growers, with each cognac house having a master blender who buys in wine or eaux-de-vie. At Domaine ABK6, the whole process from grape to bottling is carried out within the company’s own estates in the “grand cru” areas of Grande Champagne, Petite Champagne and Fins Bois.

The business dates back 10 years to when entrepreneur Francis Abécassis bought cognacs Le Réviseur and Leyrat and the Chez Maillard estate in Claix. After further acquisitions, the business now owns 250 hectares across four vineyards, with Claix as the headquarters. At three of the sites, traditional copper Charentais alembic stills turn the wine into eaux-de-vie for blending.

ABK6 was launched by Francis in 2006 to appeal to a younger audience than traditional cognacs. The name may be a baffling for non-French speakers but, if spoken in French, it sounds exactly like “Abécassis”. It was used by his young daughter Elodie as an abbreviated sign-off in text messages and seven years later, Elodie, now aged 25, heads the business with her father.

Last year, Christian Guérin joined as cellar master, taking over from Simon Palmer. Christian has an extensive background working at other cognac houses such as Ferrand and at Bordeaux wineries as well as running his own wine laboratory. Both his grandfather and great-grandfather were cellar masters in Cognac so the spirit is in his blood. “I have drunk cognac since I was five,” he recalls. “It was always served at Sunday lunch.”

ABK6 XOHe says the characteristic fruitiness of ABK6’s cognacs comes from the chalky soil and climate of the hilltop vineyards. Another difference is that the eaux-de-vie are aged for longer than other mainstream brands. The core range starts with the fresh and lightly spicy VS which is a combination of the Fins Bois and Petite Champagne eaux-de-vie, aged for four to five years – more than the minimum two years required for a VS.

The woodier VSOP has an average age of 10 to 12 years – more than VSOP’s minimum four years in cask. The XO has even more spice while retaining the smoothness and hints of fruitiness despite being a blend of eaux-de-vie with an average age of 20 to 25 years – double the minimum ageing period for XO. At the top of the range is the more complex, spicier Extra, a limited release with an ABV of 43 per cent compared to the core range’s 40 per cent.

“The leitmotif is to have a very smooth quality, round, without acidity,” Christian says. “We always want to keep the fruitiness and other characteristics of the single estate. I may experiment with oak in the future but I will not change the leitmotif. For the whole range, it is important that it is an easy-to-drink cognac that can be drunk by anyone. Leyrat and Le Réviseur are more for the connoisseurs.”

The most recent innovation is Ice Cognac, launched two years ago, which was created specifically for enjoying over ice, enhancing the smooth, subtle notes of fruit and fresh citrus aromas. Christian says it makes a perfect aperitif and pairs well with food such as smoked salmon. Although it could be used for cocktails, this is not an avenue that ABK6 has gone down, and Christian believes that even the VS is too complex for mixed drinks.

One tradition that ABK6 adheres to is ageing its eaux-de-vie in French limousin oak, buying its barrels from Tonnellerie Allary, a family-owned 60-year-old cooperage in the heart of Cognac. More than 3,000 barrels of eaux-de-vie for ABK6, Leyrat and Le Réviseur are spread across the cellars on Abécassis’s four sites. Two new cellars are being built at Claix because of increased demand for ABK6 which is now exported to 44 countries, including the UK where it is handled by premium drinks importer and distributor Drinks21. The trade as well as tourists are encouraged to visit the estate at Claix where they are taken round the vineyard, distillery and cellars, including a tasting. While ABK6 is all about challenging the norm, the picturesque setting demonstrates that the region’s craft and heritage remain at the cognac’s heart.

Originally published in the April 2013 issue of Bar magazine.

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