Cognac is changing its traditional ways
In the spirit world, probably nothing invokes associations with days gone by more than brandy. The house of brandy is decked out with a plush leather chair, wood-burning stone hearth, books by Dickens (perhaps), a smouldering pipe, a comfy robe and warm slippers. It’s a stoic, relaxed place, steeped in cosy tradition. The noble Lord and Lady of this fine residence are, respectively, Cognac and Armagnac — the former an internationally respected Old World gentleman. By his side, less flashy, though some would argue even more assertive (and still aristocratically French), is Madame Armagnac. Together, they represent the upper echelon of the brandy hierarchy.
How can these royal spirits survive in today’s world of fly-by-night fashion and flavour-of-the-moment fickleness? This isn’t to suggest that the duo’s international popularity is on the wane — the resurgence in the popularity of brown spirits (and China) — have kept them more-or-less as popular as ever. It’s a bit of a balancing act, when you are deftly trying to juggle tradition and modern tastes, but the “Royals” seem to be pulling it off. And they’re using some interesting strategies to do so.
”It’s incredible to see the extent to which the brand is beginning to take root in all of the third millennium communities, building bridges and pushing back ‘frontiers,’” enthuses Rodney Williams, CMO at Moët Hennessy USA. “Encouraging the development of new connections with consumers through its commitment to the worlds of music and the arts, but also sports.”
Maurice Richard Hennessy adds that, “Hennessy Very Special is the most consumed cognac in the world, and certainly the cognac I drink more often. It is wonderfully pleasing neat or as a cocktail. The world is full of imaginative mixologists, and I enjoy tasting their creations.”
So, a couple things stand out: Williams talks about sports and music. Sports and music typically don’t immediately come to mind when Cognac is mentioned (think of the incongruity of having Hennessy Very Special swapped with Bud Light in those slick, loud, commercials. Not exactly, right?). And if the “traditional” Cognac consumer is envisioned as rich, old and white, well … think again (at least about the old and white bit).
“The ‘traditional’ Cognac consumer does not really exist for Hennessy,” informs Veronique Gonneville, Communication Director at Moët Hennessy Portfolio, Canada. “Hennessy has adapted to local markets…. In America, for example, Hennessy Very Special has a very strong presence with the African American and hip hop communities. In China, Hennessy customers prefer Hennessy X.O. for its complex taste and maturity. This is not specific to age groups.”
Rory Crozier, Martell Cognac Brand Ambassador, notes that for his firm, the Cognac/music connection extends beyond narrow boundaries.
“Certain houses were well known to be associated directly to the hip hop community, although that’s only seen through a North American perspective. In France, for instance, Martell brought on Diane Kruger as its International Brand Ambassador to help celebrate its 300th anniversary year, a huge milestone that marked the House of Martell as the oldest of all the great cognac houses. That said, we have a big Martell supporter just south of the border, Questlove of The Roots, and he has done some amazing things with Martell. Personally, I feel if it’s the right connection in the right market, you go with it.”
As for the “old” bit, Erika Neudorf, Martell Cognac Brand Manager at Corby observes: “Younger drinkers are a growing consumer segment for cognac. The heritage and luxury of a brand like Martell is incredibly appealing. Cognac is also making its way back into many high-end, fashionable cocktail bars and restaurants where younger consumers frequent.”
Cognac in cocktails is “new but not really new, but let’s try to keep it new” sort of thing. (The last time I wrote about Cognac was over a decade ago — and the thrust of that story was Cognac as a cocktail base.) But big deal: if it’s still even a “kinda thing,” it’s a good thing.
“In the early 2000s, we realized that many bartenders in New York City or London were using our RARE VSOP as their cocktail base because of its floral and fruit-driven characteristics,” reports Marie-Emmanuelle Febvret, Marketing & Communication Manager at Thomas Hine & Co. “Some were asking for an even livelier version, like a VS, but at Hine we don’t do a VS version due to our terroir. So our Cellar Master, Eric Forget — a big fan of cocktails himself — decided to create a younger VSOP blend designed specifically for cocktails: H by Hine VSOP.”
Febvret confirms that H by Hine VSOP has become a favourite among bartenders (mixologists … whatever). And there’s the Instagram account: @hinecognacs, where the company “… [has] fun with H by Hine VSOP with our partners all around the world. We often joke about Hine being a 254-years-young Cognac house.”
Of course, there’s still a demand from connoisseurs of more, um, serious snifters. Hine is certainly not ignoring this call, marketing a range of single-vintage Cognacs, single-cask Cognacs and, most recently, the terroir-driven, single-estate Domaines Hine Bonneuil sourced entirely from its own Grande Champagne vineyard.
Of course the Lady of the Manor — Armagnac — hasn’t been sitting on her laurels as Lord Cognac continues to conquer new palates.
Jérôme Castledine, of the Armagnac House Bordeneuve Châteaux & Collections, notes that though European and Canadian sales volumes may have declined somewhat over the past little while, sales dollars remain robust, suggesting, he reasons, a leaning towards higher-end products. Things are different in the U.S..
“This market has exploded in recent times,” Castledine reveals. “It’s grown by 41 percent in volume and 84 percent in value over the five years ending in 2015.” This success, however, has not stopped Armagnac producers from experimenting with new creations designed to appeal to new markets and drinkers.
Blanche d’Armagnac (clear and without oak aging) was granted Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée (AOC) status in 2005. — so it’s hardly “new,” but it hasn’t really cracked the Canadian market (the silky textured Blanche de Montal with its fragrant fruity/floral aromas is the first I’ve seen in my market). Bordeneuve has not only released La Blanche de Bordeneuve white Armagnac, but also La Blanche au Citron (with natural lime extract) and La Grande Josiane, which combines Armagnac with bitter orange, vanilla, cocoa and coffee and targets a wide consumer base.
Finally, if combining brandy with flavouring elements to create a new line of drinks or creative cocktails doesn’t do it for you, you could always try using it as a flavouring agent. Born in the Cognac region using French Winter Wheat and crystalline water, Grey Goose VX combines the super-luxury vodka made in the Cognac region with just a hint of actual Cognac. The result is surprisingly sublime — pure and refined with traces of caramel and vanilla from its light Cognac “dosage.”
Cognac and Armagnac may be ancient spirits, but even in the modern world, they’re certainly not ghosts.