By Malkhaz Kharbedia
The history of strong spirits in Georgia begins in the 1830s. Following Iakob Zubalashvili and Jacob Marr, the practice of distilling spirits was increasingly refined over time and the first serious producers of spirits appeared in the 1870s. The Georgian entrepreneur Giorgi Bolkvadze was the first to lay the foundations of the production of Georgian cognac, and cognac began to be produced according to his method between 1865 and 1873. Bolkvadze was the pioneer, but the man who led the production of cognac in Georgia to perfection was Davit Sarajishvili.
Davit Sarajishvili – a romantic entrepreneur
Educated in Europe, Sarajishvili first attempted to distill cognac spirits from wine made from grapes harvested in his family estate in the village of Dighomi near Tbilisi at the end of the 1870s. Legend has it that his friendship with the Camus family (who have been producing cognac in France since the 1860s) also inspired him to begin to produce cognac. Sarajishvili invited the famous French specialist Antoine Jourde from the Cognac region of France to come to Georgia, bought barrels made of oak in France, and set himself up in business. The first factory was opened on the 1st of September 1884 in the Vera district of Tbilisi, and the first cognac was ready 4 years later. Over the following years, Sarajishvili opened factories in other cities of the Russian Empire such as Vladikavkaz, Erevan, Kizlyar, Baku and Kalarashi, and during a meeting of the Russian Imperial Technical Commission in Saint Petersburg in 1889 he was the first to suggest that the strength of cognac spirits should be reduced and that sugar syrup and distilled water should be added. His request was granted, and a year later the strength of Russian cognac was reduced from 55% to 45% and the drink became more refined and moved closer to French cognac.
The first high-quality Georgian cognac was produced in 1901, and was called "O.C." (from the Russian ochen stari, "very old"). Davit Sarajishvili's cognac won many important prizes over the years: between 1889 and 1913, his cognac won 11 gold medals at different exhibitions. In recognition of his important role in the development of alcoholic drinks, Sarajishvili was named commercial advisor to the Russian Emperor in 1902, and in 1913 his company was granted the title 'Purveyor to the Russian Imperial Court'.
Besides creating thousands of jobs for Georgian citizens and funding the studies of hundreds of young people abroad, Davit Sarajishvili also paved the way for Georgian products to be sold on foreign markets and was the first to define the best viticultural micro-zones for the production of cognac in Georgia. The Rkatsiteli grapes from the Eniseli and Gremi areas in the Shilda-Eniseli region were the best for the production of high-quality cognac, as were Tsolikouri grapes grown in the Vartsikhe area in the western Georgian region of Imereti. Sarajishvili also began to use barrels made of Georgian (and often Caucasian) oak in addition to those made of French oak for the ageing of his cognac, and the future of Georgian cognac was defined by the people who learnt the trade in his factories.
The creator of Eniseli and the taste of Churchill
Vakhtang Tsitsishvili began to work for the Sarajishvili Company in 1915 as assistant to a master distiller, and in 1924 became the Company's main specialist. Many legends are linked to his name, the most famous of which tells the story of Eniseli cognac at the Yalta Conference of 1945. During the drinks which punctuated working meetings, Churchill – an expert in all matters cognac – tried a French cognac and was disappointed. "And this one is the best French cognac," he exclaimed after trying a glass of Eniseli. "It's not French – it's Georgian," Stalin pointed out. Churchill assumed that French specialists were working in Georgia, and was very surprised to hear that not a single foreigner worked in Tbilisi's cognac distillery. (In those days i.e. during Stalin's rule, not a single foreigner could have lived and worked in Georgia anyway!)
The creator of Eniseli cognac was awarded the Stalin Prize, and the first batch of Eniseli cognac was put on sale in 1946. Many different Georgian cognacs were produced over the following years, and a great future awaited almost all of them: Vartsikhe (1954), made from wine produced in western Georgia; Gremi (1961); and Tbilisi (1958), considered by many to be the crowning achievement of Georgian cognac.
The tradition of producing Georgian brandy continues to this day, with production being based upon the French system of classification. Besides well-known local names, V.S., V.S.O.P. and X.O. cognac is also produced in Georgia.
The best producers of Georgian brandy
Sarajishvili, Askaneli, Tifilisi Wine Cellar, Vaziani, the Kindzmarauli Corporation, Teliani Valley, Telavi Wine Cellar.
*For a century, between the 1890s and the 1990s, this product was referred to in Georgian and in English as "Georgian cognac" (Russian коньяк), but since the 1990s the name has been changed to "Georgian brandy".
© Malkhaz Kharbedia, Wine Club, Georgian Wine Guide - 2014