THE FRENCH REGION AND ITS NAMESAKE SPIRIT ARE MAKING A COMEBACK, THANKS TO A DELICATE BALANCE OF OLD AND NEW
I went to sun-drenched southwest France because I was confused by cognac. The spirit belongs, in popular culture, to American rappers and Chinese businessmen, the oddest of couples, and the sales numbers bear it out: the US and China in 2019 accounted for more than 70% of the global market (compare Scottish whisky, whose top two markets combined for barely 25% the previous year). I hoped an explanation would materialise after a few days of bouncing from distillery to distillery.
It turned out the more interesting perspective is: Why does the rest of the world drink so little cognac? It’s this question that producers across the region are asking themselves – and one that is pitting a new generation of innovative vignerons against the tradition-minded old guard in a battle for the future of both Cognac the place and cognac the spirit.
The spirit is the heart of the matter, a richly textured, delightfully nuanced liquid that is more approachable than gin or whisky. “So many people don’t realise cognac is wine – distilled wine – until they come here,” says Marie-Emmanuelle Febvret of Hine, one of the oldest houses. This knowledge, she says, often unlocks something for visitors, who are then able to discern familiar notes in this unfamiliar drink. Guillaume Le Dorner, who founded a cognac-focused bar in the town of Cognac in 2017 after years in top London cocktail bars, says something similar happens with whisky drinkers. “They already know ageing and vintages, so the concepts and tastes aren’t completely new,” he explains.
The main difficulty, producers told me again and again, is getting people round the globe to try the spirit. And here the discussion inevitably turns to the big four: Hennessy, Rémy Martin, Martell and Courvoisier. They comprise more than 80% of all cognac (Hennessy itself is nearly 50%), and though they make some wonderful elixirs, they are also responsible for most of the cheapest bottles as well. Frédéric Bourgoin, a bright-eyed thirtysomething who has quickly turned his eponymous firm into a rising star, puts the problem in simple terms: “The production cost of cognac is seven times higher than single malt whisky – and 14 times higher than premium vodka – so cognac will never be affordable. This is the price of excellence.”
It’s a brash perspective – and one shared by many other French luxury goods manufacturers – but it can only go so far as a marketing slogan. In fact, marketing to the general public is something entirely new to many of the traditional cognac houses. In contrast to whisky distilleries, which relish direct relationships with even the most casual customers, cognac houses “are more like the traditional wine chateaux of Bordeaux,” says Beanie Geraedts-Espey, co-director of The Last Drop, an independent bottler of whiskies, cognacs and ports. “The gatekeeper is the distributor, so they market to them, which often ignores the end consumers.” In other words, brands are just beginning to recognise that they have a story to tell.
It’s only in the past few years that some cognac producers have opened their doors to the general public, offering tastings and tours in their often grand headquarters. It is a way to, as Charles Braastad of Delamain says, “get a glass under their noses”. He continues: “For a number of cultural reasons Cognac has been guarded as to outside influence and slow to aggressively push tourism. That is changing… this year at Delamain we have large-scale renovations scheduled, which will result in the creation of a new visitor centre.” Braastad’s firm is directly next to Hine and a few steps down the river from Courvoisier in Jarnac – all that’s needed is a decent restaurant nearby to tick all the day-trip boxes.
The town of Cognac itself, meanwhile, welcomed Hôtel Chais Monnet in late 2018. Set in a handsome ex-distillery, with a panoramic rooftop space, a pair of excellent restaurants, a spa and a barn-like cognac bar that might be the most appealing spot in town, the hotel is charting a new course for the buttoned-up region. Along with Le Dorner’s Bar Luciole and the wonderful Poulpette restaurant (the prix-fixe lunch is unmissably good value), the town now has the credentials to appeal to discerning connoisseurs from across the globe. It remains true that a personal invitation to one of the grand cognac chateaux is the best hospitality experience in the region – and one available to individual clients who spend enough – but these new openings are catering to uninvited guests in a way that has simply never been done.
The other tack that producers are taking to attract customers is one they’ve been trying for centuries: they are refining what is in the bottle. Bourgoin, for instance, strives to use his academic learnings to “get a high organoleptic difference which is easily perceptible by everyone” – which is to say, he wants to make his cognacs taste entirely unique. Others like François Méry, who runs Méry Melrose with his wife, Janis Melrose, has chosen to adapt his process of creation. His vineyards, which were bought by his grandfather in 1946, are now entirely run on organic principles, and he was one of just two cognac producers at this year’s Millésime, the world’s largest organic wine fair. “We chose organic for the future of our children,” he says. “By not using any pesticide we work for the future – and I can pass on the land like it was passed to me.”
Even the most old-fashioned houses – like Jean Fillioux, André Petit, and Frapin, where cellar master Patrice Piveteau is quick to point out that “tradition matters a lot in Cognac” – are in favour of these sorts of changes. “There is a lot of variability available,” says Piveteau, pointing out the myriad possibilities that viticulture, distilling and ageing offer. In these respects, nearly all of Cognac is united – Febvret of Hine puts it best: “We are all friends. We see each other; we like each other; we send each other customers.”
Then there is Alexandre Gabriel, the undisputed enfant terrible of Cognac. He has created two globally respected craft spirit brands – Citadelle gin and Plantation rum – and now he is trying to stir up cognac. Having purchased the Pierre Ferrand cognac brand in 1989, age 23, he’s led the way in what many consider radical experiments.
“If you want to make enemies, try to change something,” he gleefully reads. “My wife texted me that quote this morning, and she said, ‘That’s you!’” The route to making enemies for Gabriel was through ageing the spirit in chestnut, rather than oak, barrels. “It’s illegal for cognac, but we’re doing it anyway because we think it’s delicious,” he enthuses. “We’re not allowed to call it ‘cognac’, but it is absolutely delicious.”
Gabriel named his creation Renegade, but he is not alone in his quest to forge new flavours: Martell produces a near-cognac spirit called Blue Swift, Philbert ages spirits in sauternes barrels and oloroso casks, Camus has tried port casks and Courvoisier has experimented with sherry casks. The BNIC, the organisation which sets the standards for the spirit, denied a proposition last year to broaden the definition of cognac to include these novelties – but a contingent of consumers and bartenders have embraced the innovations.
It’s still early days in this new age of cognac – but as if to guarantee its rise, American film director Wes Anderson made a film last year in Angoulême, the region’s largest city. He was drinking cognac with the A-list cast the whole shoot – one of the houses, in fact, brought over a whole case. And if there’s anything the past two decades have taught us, there may be no better oracle of trends than Anderson, so there’s likely a few bottles of craft cognac coming soon to a bar near you.
Centurion Magazine, 2020