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%.