Brandy is the most prestigious spirit on the shelf. Few products immediately conjure aspirational images of prosperity and sophistication, or so ably illustrate the concept of affordable luxury as do as these traditional heavyweights. Their appeal transcends age and demographics, and although belt-tightening has reduced our discretionary income, cognacs and brandies offer people a lot of indulgence for the buck.
The recent past has not always been so kind to these noble spirits. During the late 1990s, category sales of brandies and cognacs lost ground to popular favorites such as vodka, rum, tequila and the malts. But good times have returned to the category in the form of positive growth and upwardly tracking sales. Indeed, sales of brandy and cognac increased about 1% in 2007 nationally (according to the latest full-year-end statistics from the Liquor Handbook 2008) – in the control states, sale were up even more, by 1.9% compared to the previous year – led by Hennessy (+3.1% nationally; 2.0% in the control states), E & J Brandy (+5.4% nationally; 7.6% in the control states) and Remy Martin (+1.7% nationally; 8.4% in the control states).
“Cognac’s traditional after-dinner and cold weather orientation is unnecessarily limiting,” contended Steve Hissam, Remy Martin brand manager. “The hip-hop culture has contemporized cognac and expanded its usage occasions and introduced an entirely new and younger segment to the franchise. Hip-hop also promotes a capitalist lifestyle and the appreciation of high-end consumer products with cognac being a prime example.”
The dean of American brandy and co-founder of acclaimed Germain-Robin, Ansley Coale has for 25 years watched with interest this reversal of fortune. “The 21-to-35-year-old demographic – Millennial and Echo Boomers – are in particular responsible for reenergizing the category’s dynamic. Yet the most significant growth factor though, especially in a down economy, remains the widely held perception of brandies and cognacs as affordable luxuries.”
Another evolving sales driver is brandy’s extraordinary mixability. Many vintage cocktails recently reintroduced into the American mainstream are prepared on a foundation of brandy or cognac.
“Committing great brandy or cognac to a cocktail is a stroke of creative brilliance. Forget what the purists might say, they were made for mixing,” said Remy Martin’s Hissam. “Initially, some consumers find drinking brandy neat a bit daunting, so mixing it eases the rite of passage. Over time as their tastes mature, they’ll grow to appreciate the character of brandy straight.”
France’s Big Four
Ask most spirit aficionados to name a dozen brands of cognacs and the majority will fall short by half. Four of those names have become synonymous with cognac and dwarf the sales of all of the other brands combined.
Entrenched at the top of the category is Hennessy. The cognac house operates 27 distilleries and has the largest reserve of old cognacs with 250,000 barrels aging at all times. An unbroken succession of seven generations of master blenders from the Fillioux family has preserved a familial knowledge of the firm’s extensive cellars and a heritage of excellence blending eaux-de-vie.
Hennessy V.S. Cognac is among the most successful marques in the category and has a worldwide franchise on the V.S cognac market. Its assemblage is comprised of 40 different brandies from the Grande and Petite Champagne regions, each of which is aged a minimum of 3 years.
At the high-end of the portfolio is Richard Hennessy, a rare blend of more than 100 eaux-de-vie primarily from Grand and Petite Champagne regions. The youngest brandy in its blend is 50 years old, while a small percentage is more than 200 years in age. Richard Hennessy is packaged in a striking Baccarat decanter and retails between $1500-$1800.
Created in 1979, Hennessy Paradis Extra features an assemblage of Grande and Petite Champagne eaux-de-vie with a minimum age of 25 years, although some exceed 130 years old. Paradis Extra retails between $400 and $500.
The sales of Remy Martin Cognac in the U.S. also continue to outpace the category. The firm exclusively markets Fine Champagne cognacs, assemblages comprised only of eaux-de-vie from the Grande and Petite Champagne regions. The firm’s benchmark expression, Remy Martin V.S.O.P. Fine Champagne Cognac, dominates the American market at that grade with a 70% share. Introduced in 1927, its blend is comprised of 240 cognacs that are aged between 4 and 14 years.
The incomparable top-end of the Remy Martin portfolio features XO Spécial, an assemblage comprised of brandies aged a minimum of 25 years; Extra Perfection, a blend with a minimum age of 35 years; and the world’s most recognized ultra-premium spirit, Remy Martin Louis XIII Grande Champagne Cognac, whose youngest brandy registering a half-century in age is priced around $1,500.
Ranked third in U.S. cognac sales is the House of Courvoisier, imported by Beam Global Spirits & Wine. Its cellars have over 45,000 casks of brandy aging at any one point and about 3,000 new barrels are added each year. In 1869, Napoléon Bonaparte named the Chateau Courvoisier as the exclusive purveyor to his court, an honor commemorated by Courvoisier Napoléon Cognac, the firm’s trademark Fine Champagne cognac, comprised of brandies matured a minimum of 15 years in oak, with most being around 25 years in age.
The chateau’s extensive reserves lead to the creation of Courvoisier XO Imperial, a cognac assembled from Grande and Petite Champagne cognacs ranging in age between 20 and 35 years, and limited release L’Esprit de Courvoisier, an exclusive blend of eaux-de-vie from the Grande Champagne region that includes cognacs from Napoléon’s private cellar. L’Esprit is priced around $5,000.
New to the range is superpremium Courvoisier Exclusif, a distinctively flavorful V.S.O.P cognac intended for use in cocktails. Launched in 2007 and retailing for $50, its blend is aged between 6 and 12 years and contains brandies from the Borderies and Fin Bois for depth and complexity.
Martell is the oldest and second largest producer of the major cognac houses. The firm owns nearly 1000 acres of vineyards and operates 28 alembic stills. Martell’s reserves are so vast that the annual amount of brandy lost through evaporation – referred to as the “angel’s share” – is estimated at 2.5 million bottles.
Representative of the house style, Martell Cordon Bleu is an assemblage of Grande and Petite Champagne brandies aged 20-30 years. The addition of eaux-de-vie from the Borderies region lends the brandy its distinctive floral notes.
mported by Pernod-Ricard, the range also includes Martell V.S.O.P, a popular Fine Champagne Cognac aged a minimum of 12 years, and superpremium Martell Noblige, introduced in 2006. The acclaimed assemblage of eux-de-vie uses the nomenclature “Qualite Superieur,” which the company says is a rating designation a step above V.S.O.P.
Cognac’s World Cup
The brandy category’s return to prominence has had a significant impact on the viability of many smaller cognac houses hardest hit by the past downturn in demand. One such indomitable brand is Hine. Created in 1920, Hine Antique XO is comprised of an assemblage of more than 40 Grande and Petite Champagne cognacs, all of which have been aged over 20 years. Hine also offers “early landed” vintage Grande Champagne cognacs – 1953, 1957, 1960, 1975, 1976, 1981, 1982 and 1983 – that rank among the finest brandies from their private reserves.
Located in the heart of Grande Champagne, the House of Pierre Ferrand is a small, yet renowned, 1st crus producer of cognac that owns 67 acres of some of the most valuable vineyards in the world. The Sélection des Anges is an exceptional Grande Champagne cognac with an average age of 30-years. In addition to several vintage bottlings from the early 1970s, the range also includes Pierre Ferrand 1914 Memoire Vintage Edition, a 70-year old Grande Champagne cognac aged initially in small Limousin oak barrels before being transferred to glass demijohns. It retails for approximately $1000.
Also a family-operated concern located in the Grande Champagne region, Delamain has since 1759 purchased brandies from local vintners and matured them in their cellars for a minimum of 25 years. The range of handcrafted brandies includes Delamain Pale & Dry X.O., a Grande Champagne cognac with an average age of 25 years, and Delamain Vesper, a Grande Champagne blend matured an average of 35 years.
Headlining their signature collection is Delamain Très Vénérable, with an assemblage averaging 55 years in age, and limited-release Le Voyage de Delamain, a Grande Champagne cognac presented in Baccarat crystal along with a price tag of $7,000. Delamain Cognacs are imported by Kobrand.
The cognac house of A. Hardy was founded in 1863, yet only began bottling their brandies shortly after World War II. The firm’s incomparable top-end offerings includes A. Hardy Noces De Diamant, a 100% Grande Champagne comprised of brandies no less than 60 years in age, and Perfection, which contains pre-phylloxera, French Colombard brandies upwards of a 140 years old. The brand is imported by A. Hardy USA.
Imported by Craft Distillers of Ukiah, CA, family-owned Maison Surrenne markets small lot bottlings, such as Ancienne Distillerie, a vintage denominated, 100% Petite Champagne cognac. Because the region’s eaux-de-vie reach maturity relatively quickly, the cognac retains an alluring floral and fruit character often lost in extended aging. The Maison Surrenne collection also includes a vintage Grande Champagne XO cognac aged 26 years, and Maison Surrenne 1946, an unblended, barrel-strength Grande Champagne cognac distilled in 1946 and aged 52 years prior to bottling.
The Frapin estate, Chateau Fontpinot, is the largest single vineyard in Grande Champagne. The firm controls all levels of production on the estate and the result is evident in the finished cognac. The Frapin VSOP Cuvée Rare is the only internationally available VSOP made entirely from Grande Champagne brandies. The assemblage has an average barrel age of 10-12 years. Château Fontpinot XO Grande Champagne is comprised of Frapin family reserves aged in small barrels for 18-20 years. Frapin Cognacs are imported by Palm Bay Imports.
What’s in store for the aristocracy of the spirits world? A number of the experts interviewed for this piece think a likely direction for expansion is illustrated by products such as Pernod Ricard’s single estate cognac, Chateau de Ligneres, or Maison Surrenne’s Distillerie Galtaud, single distillery Borderies cognac.
Others point to specialty marques like de Fussigny Cigare Blend, a blend of first-growth Grande and Petite Champagne cognacs that’s created to enhance the enjoyment of a fine hand-rolled cigar. Anticipate more vintage offerings as well, products along the lines of Hine Early Landed Vintage 1953, and the 52-year-old Maison Surrenne 1946, which retails for around $2000.
Another viable direction for growth is flavor extensions. Several have already been released with varying success. Meukow launched a VS cognac infused with natural vanilla, and Jacques Cardin, from Sidney Frank Importong, introduced both an apple- and a jasmine-flavored VSOP cognac.
Although an adjunct to the category, cognac-based products such as Alizé, Hpnotiq and Remy Red have found a receptive audience in the U.S. market and are now frequently used ingredients in contemporary cocktails as well as consumed with rocks. Indeed, Remy Cointreau has just debuted a line extension to its fabled Cointreau Liqueur, called Cointreau Noir, which is made with Remy Martin Cognac. The new expression is a blend of the sweet and bitter orange taste of the liqueur with the traditional aromas and tastes (honey, vanilla and caramel with wood notes) of this cognac. Cointreau Noir has a suggested retail price of $60 for a 750 ml bottle, and the company suggests it be consumed neat or over ice.
Finally, look for Spanish and American brandies to mirror cognac’s recent success. Worldwide sales of Spanish brandy now outpace those of Armagnac and many industry prognosticators predict that Spanish will soon become the fastest growth segment of the category. As for the Americans, a handful of craft distillers – brands such as Germain-Robin, Domaine Charbay and St. George Spirits – have concentrated their efforts on creating brandies from premium grape varietals, most notably pinot noir. The results have largely proven world-class.
In short, regardless of whether the brandy comes from Cognac, Spain or Ukiah, CA, all of our futures should be so bright.
Korbel Launches New Package
Korbel has debuted a new tall, tapered bottle with a redesigned gold-and-black label for its popular California Brandy. A
silhouette of the historic Korbel Champagne Cellars in Sonoma County, founded in 1889, is included on the label. The new package launch is supported by a lineup of POS materials, including case cards, shelf talkers and bottle neckers, a range of on-premise materials, and targeted national print advertising and outdoor billboards. Korbel California Brandy is available in 50 ml, 200 ml, 375 ml, 750 ml 1.0 liter and 1.75 liter sizes, with the 750 ml carrying a suggested retail price of $12.99. Korbel also offers a V.S.O.P. Brandy and Korbel XS, which blends the brandy with Madagascar vanilla, natural orange essence, spices and pure cane sugar.
Artisan, Small Batch American Brandies
Extraordinary as they are, American handcrafted brandies remain somewhat an unknown commodity in the U.S. These artisan, small batch spirits are highly esteemed and guaranteed to satisfy the palate of any enthusiast or connoisseur. Guaranteed.
• Christian Brothers XO Rare Reserve – Made in the San Joaquin Valley, XO Rare Reserve is distilled using Thompson seedless grapes because of their high acidity, flavor and low alcohol output. Prior to blending, the brandies are aged in American white oak bourbon barrels a minimum of 4 to 6 years.
• Germain-Robin- Perched atop the category is Germain-Robin of Ukiah, CA. The firm handcrafts its brandies in a 19th century, copper alembic still and ages them in Limousin oak barrels. Among their highly acclaimed offerings is Germain-Robin Anno Domini, a brandy distilled entirely from California pinot noir and priced at about $350.
• Jepson Vineyards – Also located in Ukiah, Jepson Vineyard’s range of brandies are double-distilled entirely from French Colombard grapes and aged in Limousin oak. The line includes Jepson Old Stock, with an average age of 10 years, and the 15-year-old Signature Reserve.
• Laird’s Rare Apple Brandy – Crafted at the country’s oldest distillery, the brandy is double-distilled in small batches and aged in American white oak barrels for a minimum of 12 years.
Tips for Selling Cognac and Brandy
There are several keys to selling brandies. Begin by mentioning the brandy’s appellation, or place of origin. Just as with wine, the microclimate, soil composition and growing conditions under which grapes were cultivated have a pronounced impact on the finished spirit. As a result, a Grande Champagne cognac will be characteristically different than one blended with brandies from Petite Champagne, the Borderies or the Bons Bois. Identifying the origin of the species is a crucial opening gambit.
Next, tell the client something about the nature of its blend – called the assemblage. As an example, “this brandy contains a small amount of Borderies to soften and round out its blend.”
The final point entails offering a brief insight about the brand itself, an interesting bit of information that the person can relate later to friends or family.
A final piece of advice. Don’t overemphasize the significance of one particular designation over another. Stylistic differences make direct comparisons of dubious worth. What ultimately seals deal is the quality of the brandy inside the bottle, not what’s written on the label.
PHOTOGRAPHY BY DAN WAGNER
Robert Plotkin is a judge at the San Francisco World Spirits Competition and has recently authored his 16th book, Secrets Revealed of America’s Greatest Cocktails. He can be reached at www.BarMedia.com or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.