A CONVERSATION WITH LARRY SKOLLER
President and Co-Founder of Maison Artonic
So, Larry Skoller, what exactly is ARTONIC?
To be brief, ARTONIC is the first line of premium organic mixers created in France. Our mixers are conceived expressly to compliment the world’s finest premium spirits and are also a refreshing non-alcoholic alternative. Our mixers—three tonics and a soda— are created here in Cognac, France, the production center for many of the greatest spirits available today.
Start at the beginning. How did an American musician like you end up living in Cognac, France? And what inspired you to stay?
In the Summer of 2001, I was on a European tour with a Chicago blues band that had some gigs in France, one of which was at the Cognac Blues Festival. I was especially looking forward to this because I was already a major cognac enthusiast.
During those few days at the festival, I met my future wife, Nadège, who is from the Cognac region and was working for the festival. We fell in love and either she was going to live with me in Chicago, or I was going to move to Cognac. I ended up coming here; it’s been 18 years now.
Where did your initial interest in the production of cognac come from?
When I moved here, I was touring a lot, playing guitar for French and American blues groups. When I wasn’t on the road, I was out discovering the world of cognac. I was particularly interested in exploring family-made, vine-to-bottle, mono-cru cognac. Although there were plenty of big-house cognacs in the States, there was virtually no independent, artisanal “craft” cognac at that time. This was before the craft spirit craze had taken hold there.
During my cognac explorations, I met Jean-Luc Pasquet, an amazing cognac producer in the Grand Champagne cru. Jean-Luc was one of the pioneers of organic cognac production and, in addition to being a master cognac maker and a wonderful human being, he is a passionate blues and jazz fan. He has a record collection that includes Muddy Waters, Lightnin’ Hopkins, Howlin’ Wolf, and B.B. King! Suffice it to say, we had a lot to talk about and that was the beginning of a deep personal and professional relationship that continues today.
So your worlds intersected on a more artistic level…
Yes. Jean-Luc is also a storyteller and an actor so his artistic sensibilities, combined with his artisanal prowess, informed what he ultimately put in the bottle.
It was through Jean-Luc and his process of making a great cognac that I understood how much there is in common between artistic and artisanal commitment. Where craft—technique, science, mathematics…—intersects with the creative impulse, with the spiritual, with passion and human commitment, all the elements that make something truly original happen.
The processes of making great music and making great cognac are analogous. For example, in most cases a finished cognac is a blend of different cognac vintages, and the ultimate goal of a master cognac maker is to harmonize this blend, much in the same way a composer blends notes together to create musical harmony. In both cases, that harmony is accomplished through a combination of craft and artistic skill sets. Jean-Luc in particular really opened my eyes to all that and I started to feel a kinship with the cognac makers and their process through this connection with my own process as a musician and music producer.
Tell us about Family Tradition Cognac, and how this eventually led to creating the ARTONIC brand…
Family Tradition Cognac came directly out of my relationship with Jean-Luc. As I’ve already said, there were almost no mono-cru, vine-to-bottle cognacs in the US at that time. So we had the idea of creating a group of independent, artisanal cognac makers representing the principal crus and the wonderful, singular expression of each of their different terroirs. We would represent this collective of producers and export their mono-cru cognac to the United States.
With the generous help of Jean-Luc and over an 18-month period, we selected the cognacs we thought best expressed each terroir or cru. It was at that point that my wife Nadège, my brother Matthew and I created the company we called Family Tradition Cognac and soon after we began introducing these great cognacs to the US market.
How did the idea for ARTONIC come out of Family Tradition Cognac?
Actually, the seeds for ARTONIC were sowed that very first day in 2001 when I arrived in Cognac to play their festival. It was a really hot July day and someone from the festival kindly handed me a cold drink, saying it was the popular local cocktail called Cognac-Schweppes, which was cognac and tonic on ice.
I couldn’t believe it. For me, cognac always represented the height of refinement and elegance. How could these good people of Cognac dilute it with tonic? A sacrilege! But the answer came quickly when I took my first sip: it was absolutely delicious! I was sold immediately. Even in all its simplicity, it pretty much became my favorite cocktail. It’s like the greatest highball ever!
Flash forward fifteen years to 2016. Jean-Luc had recently retired and his son Jean had taken over their domain. Jean Pasquet is a very talented guy and has committed his talents to the making of his exceptional cognac. He’s also part of an innovative new generation of cognac makers who use organic and eco-friendly production methods.
Knowing that Jean is forward-thinking and adventurous, I called him one day to discuss something that had been nagging me for a number of years. I was wondering why there wasn’t a premium tonic made locally in Cognac, a tonic that was made on the same quality level as the fine cognac and other super premium spirits produced here in our region and that we’re so famous for. It bothered me that everyone here was so used to drinking industrial-made tonics that were filled with all sorts of chemicals and way too much sugar. The thing is, those tonics don’t allow the great character and the subtleties of refined spirits to express themselves. Jean more than agreed. Here is a cognac producer who is putting his heart and soul into making the purest cognac possible, and knowing it is being mixed with tonic that is chock full of chemicals made my issue particularly relevant to him. Then I asked him if he would be interested in partnering to develop a line of premium tonics that would be conceived and created with the same quality standards equal to those of his own cognac production. He said yes, and that’s exactly what we did.
After a year of research and rigorous sourcing of the highest quality ingredients possible, we started to create our recipes. We settled on three tonics and a soda: a classic Indian tonic, a cucumber tonic, a lemon tonic and a lemongrass soda—all organic, all natural and all made with unique blends of fruit and botanicals and a celebrated local spring water from Gensac.
We bottled 2,500 20 cl samples which I then took to Chicago and presented to Ken Fredrickson, our US importer and distributor for Family Tradition Cognac. Ken is a Master Sommelier with a world-class palette, a serious wine and spirits expert who also has a lot of experience distributing premium mixer brands in the US. He tasted the samples and he loved them. As you can imagine, we were thrilled. We then held a number of blind tastings both in the United States and in France. The tastings were with industry professionals and we asked people to choose between two tonics, Fever Tree and ARTONIC. The results? 39 out of 40 people chose ARTONIC. At that point, we knew we had something special so we went ahead with creating the company and going to production.
So you were perfectly positioned to establish the ARTONIC brand…
Yes. And as I said, we were kind of astonished that there were no premium tonics made in France at that time. This is even more surprising given that we are located in what is known as “Spirits Valley”. What most people don’t know is that more than 50% of the world’s super premium spirits are made right here. Cognac production is a large part of that, but there are globally known vodka and gin brands that are made here as well, like Grey Goose, Ciroc and G’vine… The production of super premium spirits here is the outgrowth of the “savoir-faire”—the know-how—that has existed throughout hundreds of years of cognac-making, so people wanting to make a really great spirit naturally gravitate to Cognac. In the same way Silicon Valley has become the tech hub, Cognac’s Spirits Valley has become a hub for super premium spirit production.
There was a bona fide need for a premium French tonic, and we realized we were perfectly positioned and uniquely qualified to develop our mixer line right here in Cognac. The “savoir faire” and resources we had at our disposal would allow us to create something really special.
And what makes ARTONIC so special?
If we were going to be the first line of premium French mixers with international aspirations, we had to set the bar as high as possible. But we had to be successful in Cognac before marketing ARTONIC elsewhere. The idea was, through our products’ exceptional qualities, to attract cognac and other spirit houses by making our creations a real asset to them. We also needed to win those houses over in order to be a legitimate player here.
To bring this about, we adhered to very specific criteria:
The first issue was that we wanted our mixers to be as pure and natural as any world-class spirit. So our mixers had to be organic, 100% natural and made with the purest local spring water.
The next criterion was that our mixers could not overpower the spirit they were mixed with; they had to act in concert with and bring out each spirit’s finest characteristics. They could not be too sweet; the balance of sugar and acidity had to be resistant and the structure of the mixers needed to maintain its integrity in a cocktail and not lose its focus. Additionally, we wanted our recipes to be on the drier side, enough to give the spirit more elbow room to express its own qualities.
The third criterion concerned the flavors: the fruit, botanicals and quinine. The blend of these ingredients had to have an overall symmetry. The botanicals should not blunt the fruit, but lift and complement it to create an aromatic complexity that would come through on the nose as well as the palette. We wanted the bitter notes of the natural quinine—which really defines a tonic water—to be friendly enough to please the casual drinker but robust enough to satisfy the needs of the professional bartender.
And lastly, the carbonation should possess fine, compact, elegant bubbles that would not be overly explosive and aggressive on the palate, with a kick but not so much that it would compete with the spirit it was meant to support.
With these criteria as our guide, we knew what we were up against. This speaks again to the importance of being in this expertise-rich region and to knowing the ins-and-outs of a great spirit and how it’s produced. In addition to Jean’s mastery and my twelve years in the spirits business, we were fortunate to be able to do blind taste tests with some of the region’s greatest palates.
You’ve positioned ARTONIC as a luxury artisanal brand—how have you connected “Art” and “Artisanal” with your brand concept?
France is the number one exporter of luxury artisanal goods in the world. Whether you are speaking about fashion, art or more specifically to our brand, gastronomy, wine and spirits, the artisan and artisanal production have been deeply valued in the French culture for a long time.
The rise of the Cognac region as the leading producer of super premium spirits does not begin with modern-day economics. From the 1500s on, France has tightly linked culture to its image of strength and leadership. French kings used their preeminence to impress their rivals with cultural richness as proof of their wealth and power. The greatest French artisans and artists armed the nobility with this rich cultural capital and even today these countrymen and women are deeply valued, supported and protected by the French government. They are recognized by the French political class, not only as an essential part of the French economy but as an important symbol of the country’s character and cultural identity.
In 1993, France got the EU to pass legislation called “The French Exception”, a law designed to protect France’s artisans and artists. The law considers cultural goods and services as “exceptions” in international treaties and agreements, especially with the World Trade Organization, specifying that States are sovereign as far as the limitation of cultural free trade is concerned. This law determines that everything “cultural”—including artisans and artists—must be protected from the control and laws of the world’s markets, and that it is the French state itself which regulates and, when necessary, sponsors cultural policies.
We wanted to ascribe to that cultural history. Our mixers had to be of high enough quality to be able to position ARTONIC within those exacting parameters that date back to when the nobility ruled; beyond just making a superior product, we wanted to participate, contribute, and live up to this legacy that IS France.
Our company’s mission was to create products that uphold this extraordinary French legacy of support and appreciation of her artists and artisans, with the understanding that without these talented people, France and the rest of the world would lose an essential part of their humanity. That’s where our name comes from: ART + ARTISANAL equals ARTONIC. That’s what we’re all about.
ARTONIC was a “start-up” that has now become a full-time team effort with the full support of Cognac’s professional community…
That’s right. I’ve talked a lot about Jean and myself, but there is a third co-founder of MAISON ARTONIC who is as equally responsible for making this all happen, Marion Duband [A/N: General Director of SAS Maison Artonic].
Marion was born and raised in the Cognac region and she has always been fascinated by the world of spirits and the processes that are intrinsic to it. She is really passionate about her roots in the region and is extremely knowledgeable about the area’s history, heritage and savoir-faire. So she knows not only how things get done but how to get things done! Marion came on board a year or so after Jean and I had created our first recipes and it’s safe to say that without Marion, ARTONIC would still be just a grandiose idea with 2000 test bottles sitting in Jean’s cognac cellar gathering dust.
Where is ARTONIC headed next?
We’re currently developing our next-generation mixer recipes with some innovative twists that are going to really surprise our audience. We’re very eager to introduce these new products. That’s all I can say for the moment!
I’ve heard there’s an interactive side to the ARTONIC brand. Can you share that with us?
Sure. As I’ve said, ARTONIC is all about how the worlds of the artist and the artisan intersect and complement each other. So another exciting component of the ARTONIC brand is what we are calling «The ARTONIC Community», facilitated through our website, which connects and gives visibility to all the artists and artisans we respect so much: the bartenders who create with our products; the chefs who are inspired to do food pairings; visual artists and musicians who are inspired by our image and what we represent. Artisans and artists who wish to engage in and contribute to our expanding ARTONIC community.
We are hoping to encourage inter-disciplinary exchange and collaboration among kindred spirits everywhere. ARTONIC is now connecting with people who are interested in pushing their creative bounderies—from the traditional to the unconventional—with inspiration, aesthetics, skills, technique, and especially innovation, being the key words here. The genesis of Maison Artonic was exactly that, the blending of my artistic community with Jean’s artisanal community. So our aspiration is to elaborate on our story—where art meets craft—share its success and be a network that brings together and promotes all creative people so we can flourish together in mutually satisfying ways.