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Cognac: Back on Track

Posted on  | September 23, 2014   Bookmark and Share
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Classic French brandies make strides via mixology and innovation

They may have been a little late to the dance, but the producers of French brandies have been working hard to include their spirits in the cocktail renaissance.

For example, at last summer’s Tales of the Cocktail event in New Orleans, the agency responsible for Cognac in the U.S. made sure cocktails with the spirit were widely available. And they were embraced with enthusiasm. Agnès Aubin, marketing director of the Bureau National Interprofessionnel du Cognac, says that consumption of VS Cognac has grown 7% in volume in 2013-’14 because of the cocktail industry. “VS is used to create very rich and aromatic cocktails that perfectly fit with the U.S. palate,” she notes.

“One of the challenges Cognac has as a whole is that it can be seen as slightly intimidating,” says Claire Richards, U.S. brand director for Courvoisier, the best-selling VS. “That’s why we focus on talking about mixing it in cocktails and not just sipping it by the fireplace in a snifter. You can enjoy it in a longer drink, which I think makes it more approachable.”

Some brands, especially smaller houses, have focused most of their efforts on mixability. Cognac Ferrand developed a 90 proof Pierre Ferrand Original Formula 1840 expressly for mixing, in concert with cocktail maestro David Wondrich. Louis Royer has continued to expand, now in 10 states, focusing on Louis Royer Force 53 in their “Show Me the Proof” cocktail competition.

Category leader Hennessy’s recent success has been a result of the flexibility in price and image of its broad portfolio and an aggressive advertising effort. Cocktails have helped. Hennessy has been beating the cocktail drum since the ’90s—remember the Hennessy Martini? “It’s still fundamentally intriguing to the consumers, the idea of Cognac in mixed drinks,” says Rodney Williams, senior vice president for Hennessy at Moët Hennessy USA.

Innovation Gets Attention

In what Williams calls a retreat to quality, young consumers are looking toward craftmanship and authenticity. “In the on-premise we’re finding that Millennials are really embracing brown spirits, and Cognac in particular,” he says. “The fact that a brand like Hennessy has the oldest and largest library of eau de vie has helped distinguish us.”

Clearly, the hope among suppliers is that the current growth can radiate among a fresh generation for Americans, one that is able to appreciate the spirit’s place in the sipping pantheon as well as its modern flexibility. Indeed, while the Cognaçais may be slow to change, they are not immune to contemporary influences. And the creativity goes well beyond than cocktails.

In the past few years,  the major houses have produced Cognacs incorporating new ideas in aging, taste and marketing, including Hennessy Black, Courvoisier C and Rémy V. And new brands are appearing as well, including some driven by interest from hip-hop culture. Bacardi’s newcomer D’ussé, an XO expression made from a blend of eaux-de-vie aged at least 10 years, has leveraged the fame of endorser rapper Jay-Z, who is featured in its marketing.

Other changes and introductions: Rémy Martin has unveiled a new look for its VSOP, featuring a richer red label and places focus on the brand’s Centaur symbol. Delamain, a family-owned house which only produces Grande Champagne Cognacs at XO range and above, repackaged its Delamain Vesper (a blend of 30-35 year Cognacs) and continued to introduce rare vintage bottlings, only recently allowed. And A. Hardy USA, introduced a new VSOP Organic Cognac (certified by Ecocert), featuring aromas of fresh pear, vanilla and roasted hazelnuts.

Armagnac’s Turn?

Meanwhile, Armagnac—Cognac’s brandy-making kin from Gascony, known if at all here for its more assertive style—has been seeing a growth spurt in the U.S. as well. While significantly smaller in output, Armagnac was up 34% in volume and 23% in value, according to figures from the agency overseeing the producers, with more than 76% of what is sold here at the pricier range of  VSOP and up.

Christine Cooney, whose Heavenly Spirits imports and distributes five labels of Armagnac, including the best-selling Marie Duffau Napoleon, and four Cognacs, says her business has been growing steadily over the last five years, but last year it surged by 30%. “We attribute that growth to a general interest among American consumers in artisanal spirits from all over,” she notes. “And even though that’s a term overused and misused, Armagnac is nothing if not artisanal.”

Armagnac, either double-distilled in pot stills or single-distilled in a small continuous still, comes by its rustic reputation honestly; in many cases, Armagnac stills used today would be considered antiques elsewhere. Some are still wood-fired, others that once rolled from farm to farm now sit atop brick pylons and are used only a few weeks a year.

Brandy cognoscenti know Armagnac as a traditional source of vintage offerings, and while many are still available, the Gascons have been developing multiple blended expressions. Château de Laubade offers seven different bottlings including unaged Blanche Armagnac and cask strength vintages. Older expressions from houses like Dartigalongue and Delord are frequently bargain-priced in big picture of brown spirits.

Consumers often need to be led from Cognac to Armagnac, but the explanation of differences in grapes used and distillation styles often causes more confusion than clarity. Perhaps the best way to explain the differences in what are two styles of grape brandy made less than 200 miles apart is to quote famed London barman and Cognac expert Salvatore Calabrese: “Imagine a length of velvet and another of a silk fabric. Stroke them. The velvet has a deep, rich texture. That is an Armagnac. The silk is pure finesse, and that, to me, is a Cognac.”


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