The French shipment of 600 bottles of De Haartman & Co Cognac – plus 15 boxes of Bénédictine liqueur – is believed to have been destined for Tsar Nicholas II, but was intercepted in the Baltic Sea and sunk by a German submarine in May 1917.
Now Cognac house Birkedal Hartmann has refilled 300 of the recovered bottles with Cognac dating from the early 1900s, using packaging identical to the original, and is selling them for €9,000 each.
The wreck of the SS Kyros was discovered by Swedish explorer Peter Lindberg in 1999, but only in 2019 were salvage experts able to finish exploring it fully and recover its cargo, using a specialist salvage vessel, divers and unmanned underwater vehicles (ROVs).
Swedish company Ocean X Team AB and Icelandic business iXplorer used a specially equipped salvage vessel, Deepsea Worker, to explore the wreck in the Gulf of Bothnia, recovering the bottles in late 2019.
According to iXplorer, the salvage process was ‘probably the most complicated recovery work we have ever had to deal with’, thanks to the poor visibility around the wreck, which lies at a depth of 77 metres, and the hazards posed by fishing nets.
Four full bottles of De Haartmann Cognac, which were later auctioned to collectors for US$45,000 each, were recovered along with 300 empty bottles, which had had their corks pushed in by the pressure of the seawater.
‘When the press started calling me about this in 2019, I didn’t know what they were talking about,’ Birkedal Hartmann CEO Kim Birkedal Hartmann told Decanter.com. ‘It was such an incredible story.’
Company archives revealed that ‘De Haartmann’ was a brand name used by Kim Birkedal Hartmann’s great-grandfather, Halfdan Birkedal Hartmann, to ship Cognac to the Russian Imperial Court in St Petersburg via Finland, which was then a province of Russia.
The shipment left Bordeaux in December 1916, but was delayed until the spring due to ice in the Gulf of Bothnia. By the time it set out again, Tsar Nicholas II had stepped down as the Russian Revolution gripped the country.
On 19 May 1917, the SS Kyros was intercepted by German U-boat UC58, skippered by Karl Vesper, who judged that its cargo was military and sank it, after allowing the crew to transfer to another vessel.
Birkedal Hartmann painstakingly cleaned the bottles and removed the corks from inside them, filling them with Grande Champagne Cognac from 1910-15 and using company archives to reproduce the original corks, capsules and labels.
Each one-litre bottle of De Haartmann Cognac comes in a handmade gift box also containing its original cork and a photograph of the SS Kyros.
In January 2020, one of the surviving bottles of Bénédictine was opened and tasted at the Palais Bénédictine in Fécamp, northern France.
According to Bénédictine sales and marketing director Philippe Jouhaud, the liqueur was ‘pleasant’ to taste, with notes of cocoa, coffee and mocha. ‘We have an amazing transformation and evolution of aromas after 100 years, which leads to a pleasant liquor,’ he told Decanter.com.