Miniature cognac bottle collector

Man's Chan with his miniature bottles.

Man's Chan seems to like collecting titles as much as he likes collecting cognac. He has about 14,000 miniature bottles - about 90 per cent of which are cognac, with the rest armagnac and single malt whisky - and 1,020 larger ones he's accumulated since 1985. He's also the founder and chairman of the Hong Kong Miniature Liquor Club and a consultant to auctioneer Bonham's. He has been called the "king of cognac" by a hobbyist magazine and, as an exporter of glass (juvenile) eels, "the golden bridge of friendship" by the late North Korean dictator Kim Jong-il.

"But that's a different story," says Chan, who added the apostrophe and "s" at the end of his first name at the request of a former girlfriend.

Recently he was awarded a gold certificate as an educator in cognac by Le Bureau National Interprofessionnel du Cognac, the first Chinese person to achieve the distinction. As there is one other lower-ranked certified Chinese cognac educator, that leaves Chinese people somewhat under-represented - especially considering that Chan believes some 85 per cent of the drink ends up on the mainland.

The cognac association invited Chan to take an exam to demonstrate his knowledge of the spirit and all aspects of its production. After passing that, he spent four days in Cognac, France, for intensive instruction and then had to take a further test and give a presentation.

Chan says that in the past the cognac producers were "stupid" because, during cognac's heyday from the 1960s to the '80s, they were making so much money out of Asia that they didn't bother to nurture a culture that appreciated the spirit properly. Chinese people liked it, both to give as a gift and because of its high alcohol content. When the style of cognac ageing changed in the '80s, interest waned and it lost market share to whisky.

The cognac association has asked Chan to spend the next two years creating a culture to help people understand how the drink is made and how it should be consumed. He also wants to change cognac's image as "an old-school drink, something only old people drink".

Chan's interest in cognac was initially more the result of a desire to collect anything. When his first collection of antique camera equipment was stolen, he considered coins or stamps, but thought it would be too hard to find special items to build a unique collection. Cognac struck him as a potential investment.

His job buying young eels in Europe and North America to farm and sell in Asia took him to France for a month every year and his appreciation of cognac as a drink rather than a collectible grew from there. He prefers cognacs made before the '70s because, he says, "the quality is totally different".

The term VSOP signifies that a cognac has been aged for at least five years. A contemporary cognac will have received that, but distillers in the past were more generous. Chan has a bottle of Otard VSOP from 1960 that is blended from 30-year-old spirits.

In the late 19th century, a tiny insect, phylloxera, devastated the European wine industry, and vines had to be uprooted and replaced with American ones. Chan says the result produced differences in the cognac, which is distilled from grape wines.

His collection contains some bottles from before 1875. The oldest is from 1809, when Napoleon was leading France in wars against Austria, Prussia and Britain. He also has a bottle from 1848, a year of revolutions in Europe, and 1870, when France was embroiled in another war - with Prussia and Germany.

Chan also has a bottle of "space" cognac, one of a limited edition of specially designed bottles some of which went into space with European astronauts. His most expensive bottle is a Louis XIII miniature, one of only three made and worth US$10,000, says Chan.

Source: South China Morning Post on Mar 29, 2013