Image: Rémy Martin

Now I’m no authority on cognac, but as a curious onlooker from the world of wine, I find this tipple’s ability to bounce right back into popular culture downright fascinating. In fact, everyone in the business of booze is sitting up to take note of the cognac revolution.

Hennessy, Rémy Martin, and Martell are now some of the biggest selling luxury items in the world. That’s no small feat, considering the size of the market as well as the ever-stiffer competition at the top.

To make sense of the cognac phenomenon, let’s first take a step back and look at what makes this drink so special.

As one of France’s finest and oldest crafting traditions, cognac is essentially brandy whose production falls under French Appellation controls: made in a certain way and from a designated area of France. To qualify as cognac, specified grapes are used that must be twice distilled in copper pot stills and the liquid aged for at least two years in French oak barrels.

The designations on cognac labels inform how long the particular batch has been aged. VS (very special) indicates that the cognac has been aged for at least two years; VSOP (very special old pale), for at least four years; and XO (extra old), for at least six years. Most cognacs are aged for much longer though, becoming what the French describe as “eau de vie” or “water of life”, a clear, colourless spirit that can date back for decades.

The cognac market is dominated by the “big four”: Hennessy, Rèmy Martin, Martell, and Courvoisier. Even though these brands are closely associated with France, cognac is, surprisingly, not all that popular in France these days, with more than 97% of this now precious liquor being exported.

Cognac’s phoenix-like rise in the late 1990s and early 2000s can be attributed to savvy marketing and a celebrity-thirsty market. As with many modern success stories, it all started with celebrity campaigns. References to cognac began surfacing in rap lyrics, a phenomenon that peaked in 2001, with Busta Rhymes’ hit, Pass the Courvoisier, which featured P Diddy, causing sales of the brand to increase a staggering 30%.

This revival of cognac sales in the US echoed previous decades, when African-Americans soldiers stationed in France during both world wars were introduced to the exclusive drink. A close association between the drink and the African-American community was born, engendering a beachhead of loyal support upon which a luxury brand could emerge in the decades to come.

Over the past decade, cognac’s appeal has spread far and wide, thanks to the unquenchable thirst of new generation of party-goers for all things premium. From China to Nigeria, Russia to South Africa, cognac has profited enormously from the global trend of premiumisation. With its old roots, exclusive heritage, and modern appeal, cognac certainly hits the status spot.

Add to this the worldwide resurgence in cocktail culture, and cognac looks set to stay out of dusty libraries for a long time still. Cognac can be enjoyed neat, on the rocks, with lemonade, ginger ale, appletiser, or in classic cocktails such as the Sidecar: the versatility and all-out-acceptance of cognac culture makes it an easy win no matter the crowd or occasion.

Closer to home, the cognac market in South Africa is presently dominated by Hennessy, which makes up more than 70% of all cognac sold here. The grand amber bottle has done a clinical job of taking market share away from premium whisky and brandy brands, and it’s a trend I don’t expect will slow down anytime soon.

Typically, the VS variants are consumed in mixed drinks and cocktails at high-energy occasions, such as at night clubs and outdoor festivals. The more premium expressions of VSOP and XO are enjoyed in lounges, restaurants, and homes, either neat, over ice, or diluted with a little water. Indeed, there is still a lot of pleasure to be derived from savouring a good cognac in a way that embraces tradition.


Image: Martell

HOW TO DRINK IT

Here are the basic things to keep in mind when serving and tasting cognac. Firstly, it’s important to serve cognac in the correct glassware. A tulip glass or balloon glass, also know as a snifter, is recommended. Both are designed to concentrate the aromas of the drink.

Pour about 25ml of cognac into your glass. Next, hold the glass in the palm of your hand, allowing your body heat to slowly warm the cognac. This allows the delicate aromas of the spirit to be released, elevating the flavours at the same time. Now examine the colour: a lighter colour will suggest a younger cognac, while darker, layered colours hint towards an older and perhaps more interesting cognac.

Next, swirl the liquid in the glass to release the aromas before lifting the glass to your nose and breathing in deeply. Try to identify any floral, fruity, or spicy notes.

Finally, take a small sip. Hold it in your mouth for a moment, moving the liquid to all corners, identifying the flavours before swallowing. The more complex the flavours and the longer they remain on your palate, the better the quality of the product.

On that note, let’s raise our glass to a drink that’s fit for a king.

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