Cognac, which had boomed during the pandemic, appears to have hit a speed bump, as consumers facing inflationary pressures pull back on spending on luxury items.
Volume consumption for the Brandy and Cognac category declined 7% in 2022 to pre-Covid levels of 15.1 million 9-liter cases, according to the 2023 Liquor Handbook. The category contended with eco-nomic pressures, continuing supply-chain constraints and intense competition from tequila, American whiskey and the ready-to-drink (RTD) segments.
Hennessy is by far the leader in terms of Cognac consumption; number-two brand is Remy Martin. The number-three brand, D’Ussé, surpassed Courvoisier in 2021, and Martell rounds out the top five. E&J is the largest brandy producer, followed by Paul Masson, Christian Bros., Korbel and Presidente.
Despite the category’s headwinds, Cognac in particular is a staple on bar menus around the country. New generation of bartenders draw inspiration from the distilled wine spirit’s timelessness, versatility and range to create Cognac cocktails. Mixologists recognize Cognac’s value as a specific flavor component and play with its different expressions and ages.
A Changing Taste for Cognac
When choosing a Cognac, consumers seek a wide choice of expressions, says Guillaume Lamy, managing director of Maison Ferrand USA. “They do not want a standard Cognac or for all Cognacs to taste the same,” he says. “They want to be impressed by aging or blending techniques that offer taste profiles that seem new, but in reality are resurgences of the past.”
Maison Ferrand’s best-selling Cognac is its 1840 Original Formula, Lamy says. For many consumers and bar professionals, it offers an old, 19th-century style of Cognac that allows them to recreate classic drinks and showcase the aromatics of the prized Grande Champagne grapes in their cocktails.
For instance, Bar Bastion in New York offered a fall cocktail called Fallen Leaves, made with Ferrand Cognac as well as the French apple brandy Calvados, along with red and white vermouth plus a touch of rhubarb. The Bamboo Room in Chicago combines Cognac, Scotch, Drambuie, rum and coconut water plus a hint of local honey for a cocktail called The Sandy Nail.
Consumers want quality, authenticity, unique flavor experiences and innovation in their Cognac choices, concurs Aria Wright, U.S. brand ambassador for Camus Cognac. “As the younger Generation Z enters the realm of Cognac consumption, they bring more personalized and customized preferences, necessitating brands to establish strong identities and vitality.”
To appeal to these consumers, Camus has collaborated with multimedia artists such as Malik Roberts and Melissa Sutherland Moss. These partnerships help celebrate contemporary culture and unity through the brand’s VSOP Artistic Limited Editions.
Livio Lauro, director of product education at Southern Glazer’s Wine and Spirits Nevada, believes that brandy and Cognac consumers are looking more for status than anything else when choosing which brand to drink. “Brandy and Cognac consumers are a special breed; they often have a mature palate and are more experienced drinkers,” he says.
“While many consumers identify themselves in what they drink — such as tequila drinkers saying they love tequila — Cognac drinking is often seen as a status symbol, and drinking Cognac can signify ‘I have arrived.’”
A Diversifying Cognac Demographic
Cognac has traditionally appealed to mature and affluent consumers, often associated with older age groups and those with higher disposable incomes. But Cognac drinker demographics today are more diverse than they have ever been, Lamy says.
Brandon O’Daniel, head distiller at Copper & Kings agrees: The younger crowd, craving something new in their alcohol-curious lives, has driven sales at the company.
“The cocktail scene has been a major influence on our brandy sales,” says O’Daniel. “Watching an excited bartender do something with brandy always turns into something fun, and we try to lean into this as much as possible as a brand. I also encounter a lot of spirits-educated people looking for something new, especially at the distillery.”
Indeed, “there is a growing interest among the younger African-American hedonism group, characterized by an appreciation for refinement, a luxury social lifestyle and rising disposable incomes,” Wright notes.
With the increasing interest among younger generations, Camus’ clientele has embraced VS Intensity, serving as a starting point for those refining their Cognac palate. VS Intensity Cognac stands out by boasting a high concentration in esters, resulting in flavors of summer fruits and subtle spices, according to the producer.
Camus’ VS Intensity Cognac, distilled with lees and aged in fine-grain French oak small barrels, boasts a high concentration in esters, resulting in flavors of summer fruits and subtle spices, according to the producer.
Bringing Out the Best in Brandy and Cognac
Making a good brandy always starts with the grapes, says O’Daniel. “As a distiller, my job is to express the excitement I find in the vineyards and orchards. It’s all about the fruit.”
One of Copper & King’s bestsellers, American Apple Brandy, aims to capture those fruity notes. It’s finished in Kentucky bourbon and new American oak barrels; the apple flavor comes from real apples, with no added boisé, or wood flavor.
For Jennifer Pisciotta, global vice president of marketing at D’Ussé, the two most important qualities of a good Cognac are complexity and mouthfeel. These are determined by a range of factors in each step of the production process.
D’Ussé, a relatively new brand launched in 2012, stands out for its eaux de vie — the unaged brandy that will become Cognac — as well as the unique aging conditions of its dry and humid cellars, Pisciotta says. (Eaux-de-vie must be aged a minimum of two years in oak before they can be called Cognac.)
While brandy can be made anywhere, Cognac has to be produced in a specific geographic area of France, from certain types of white grapes and has different aging requirements depending on the classification. Brandies from other part of the world are finding their way to the U.S.
For instance, grappa, created by distilling the fermented or semi-fermented pomace from the grape-pressing stage of making wine, is a niche product that can only be made in Italy. Rakia, produced by the distillation of different types of fermented fruit, is popular throughout the Balkan countries.
Pisco is a type of brandy, typically unaged, that’s produced only in Peru and Chile, while singani is distilled from the Muscat of Alexandria grapes grown in high altitudes of the Andes. The Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau of the U.S. Department of the Treasury (TTB) in early 2023 officially recognized singani as a unique type of brandy and a distinctive product of Bolivia.
A Bright Future for Dark Spirits
More consumers have been crossing beverage alcohol categories in the past 20 years, with many coming to brandy and Cognac from rum and whiskey. Wright believes the focus on agave and whiskey will bring more opportunities and exposure to Cognac and other brandies.
“The continued popularity of brown spirits will strengthen Cognac’s position as a major player in the industry,” Wright notes. “It’s only a matter of time before a significant portion of the U.S. population discovers the allure of Cognac.”
As further evidence of the Cognac’s connection to whiskey, the popular bourbon brand Uncle Nearest this past October bought the Domaine Saint Martin Cognac house. The deal makes Shelbyville, TN-based Uncle Nearest the largest Grande Champagne vineyard owner in Cognac.
O’Daniel also sees a bright future for the category. As new producers enter the market and established houses continue to get creative with all types of barrel finishes, more consumers will likely want to explore brandy.
For example, Courvoisier in 2022 introduced Courvoisier Mizunara. The Grand Champagne expression begins aging in French oak barrels and then transfers to one of House of Suntory’s Mizunara casks made of Japanese Mizunara wood for a second maturation.
Even though Maison Ferrand sales have lagged for 2023, Lamy says Cognac has made significant progress in the past five years in the U.S. spirits market. “Cognac was always respected as one of the great world spirits. I see it now being in the forefront of spirits education for consumers, which will guarantee a very bright future for the category.” •