Despite challenging times, classic cocktails and new serve ideas are bringing cognac and brandy back onto bar menus, reports Mark Ludmon
While spirits such as vodka, rum, bourbon, gin and tequila have grown in popularity in the UK over the past five years, brandy continues to struggle. Despite the rediscovery of cognac as a classic cocktail ingredient, overall volumes of cognac and armagnac fell by 14 per cent in the UK between 2007 and 2012, according to figures published last month by the organisers of June’s wine and spirits exhibition Vinexpo. The data, compiled by International Wine and Spirit Research (IWSR), paints a gloomy picture, predicting the category will continue to decline by nearly eight per cent over the next five years. This does not stop the owners of the leading cognac brands planning fresh activity this year to promote the spirit in the bar trade.
The revival in the traditional punch serve has introduced cognac to more drinkers, which provides an alternative to “brandy and cola” and the “after dinner” snifter, says Chris Anderson, marketing controller for luxury brands at drinks company Maxxium UK. “While cognac is predominantly consumed neat or on ice, consumers are open to drinking the category mixed and so simple mixed drink serves can offer outlets incremental opportunities.”
Maxxium UK is continuing to promote Courvoisier for punches after several years of success with this strategy in the on-trade, especially focusing on the mixability of Courvoisier Exclusif. Last year, it organised a major consumer event, Cocktails on a Grand Scale, bringing to life the classic cognac serves of a Sazerac and a champagne cocktail as well as punch, working with leading bartenders Amanda Humphrey, Mickael Perron and Chris Lacey. The company’s Mixxit training team also carry out training for bartenders in the cognac category alongside education by UK brand ambassador Rebecca Asseline.
Another revived classic is the Cobbler, a simple drink with ice, fruit and sugar that was commonly made with sherry but also brandy. At Birmingham’s new bar, The Lost & Found, one of the signature drinks in the menu created with Shaker Consultancy is an Apple & Pear Cobbler, combining Courvoisier VS with Lillet Rouge, pear liqueur, lemon juice, house-made sugar syrup and apple juice. “Some great, classic drinks can be served with cognac as the main ingredient as a substitution,” adds Michael Stringer, mixologist with Hire The Barman.
For instance, he suggests swapping gin for cognac in Salvatore Calabrese’s modern classic, the Breakfast Martini, which is made with marmalade, orange liqueur and lemon juice. “By swapping the gin for a simple Courvoisier, not only does it change the light, floral flavours within the drink to something a bit heavier but it also changes it from being an ‘everyday cocktail’ to something you can imagine being for those more luxurious of events.” But Michael adds: “My favourite way for serving cognac has never changed: some boiling water in a rocks glass, with the balloon sat on the edge to warm the cognac just enough.”
Chris at Maxxium believes there are still opportunities to build on cognac’s place as a digestif after a meal. “Cognac can provide an alternative to malt whisky and can also be offered as a quality substitute for dessert wines, good ones of which are hard to find particularly at good value to the consumer.” Courvoisier XO is promoted for the “Gourmand” offering in restaurants: a plate of mini desserts accompanied by espresso and a measure of cognac. “Flavours such as crème brûlée found in Courvoisier XO perfectly complement the desserts,” Chris says. “If restaurants consider this, they have the ability to not only sell more cognac, but generate profit from a trio of deserts and coffee whilst enhancing the consumer’s dining experience.”
Mixability is also part of the strategy for Rémy Martin in the UK, with a programme of training and cocktail competitions for bartenders currently under way. After sessions in Edinburgh, Nottingham and Brighton, events are planned for Leeds and Manchester on April 8 and 9 respectively. They start with interactive training by one of Rémy Martin’s full-time UK brand ambassadors, Alex Quintin or Anne-Laure Pressat, followed by a challenge to bartenders to create an interesting, original cognac cocktail. The winner of each competition is invited to Cognac to continue learning about Rémy Martin and the category.
Senior brand manager Victoria Olivier promises more news from Rémy Martin on serves later this year alongside a new consumer positioning for the brand. While details are under wraps, she comments: “VSOP cognac has always been a classic cocktail ingredient, though as companies continue to invest in Asia and America, Europe has been forgotten. We currently have an exciting new serve strategy in development. This will capitalise on the cocktail trend and help drive trial.” Rémy Martin has continued to grow after last year’s launch of a new VSOP, Mature Cask Finish, with an extra finishing period to enhance the flavours. As well as being promoted for drinking neat or on the rocks, distributor First Drinks suggests it for cocktails such as a “French” twist on a Mojito, replacing the rum with cognac, or a Sour using fresh ginger.
Investment is also planned for Louis Royer cognacs after premium drinks specialist Mangrove added it to its portfolio earlier this year. While Louis Royer produces cognacs from all six “cru” areas in the region, the main focus for the UK market will be VS, VSOP, XO and the 53 per cent ABV Force 53.
However, bartenders are also exploring other brandies from outside the Cognac and Armagnac regions, such as calvados, as well as brandies from other countries such as Greece’s Metaxa – not strictly a brandy but using the same distillation and blending techniques before adding a small amount of rich muscat wine and Mediterranean herb and floral extracts.
German brandy Asbach has traditionally been drunk as an after-dinner drink, by itself or with coffee, with fine expressions such as the newly released special-edition 1952 Johann Wolfgang von Goethe Vintage Reserve. However, Andrea Baumgartner, international marketing director at the brand’s producer Underberg, says: “Recent studies carried out show that more and more usage for Asbach is through a long drink. The cocktail culture is trending through brandy too and we are seeing growth as the base spirit in cocktails.”
Asbach dates back to 1892 when Hugo Asbach brought experience of distilling wines from France to create what has become one of the three best-known spirit brands in Germany. Andrea says bars should not ignore brandies from outside the familiar French regions. “Brandies should be included on all professional back bars to offer the consumer a full repertoire of choice. The bottle should be presented in a premium way, visible within its category, situated with cognac. Bartenders should look to treat brandy like whisky and offer education and theatre.”
Tea and cognac
Cocktails made with cognac and fine tea have been created for Hennessy Fine de Cognac in a project involving its master blender, Yann Fillioux, and Guillaume Leleu, founder of tea supplier Maison Théodor. The serves are as simple as shaking the cognac with golden syrup and chilled green tea and straining it through a tea strainer into a Martini glass with a ginger-coated rim and a mint garnish. Another serve combines the cognac with Théodor’s Earl Grey Royal tea plus cherry liqueur, black cherries, cranberry juice, aromatic bitters and a twist of orange zest, again strained into a Martini glass.
Fillioux says he knew Fine de Cognac and the fine teas would be a good match. “The cognac’s plant notes would match the tea’s plant notes, while the spicy, full-flavoured notes of the tea would heighten the floral notes of the eaux-de-vie. This experiment brings out the delicate character of Fine de Cognac, redolent with fruit and citrus notes, whilst the tea’s woody aromas and hint of spice enhance its mellowness.”
Innovation has been added to the cognac category with the introduction of Ice Cognac by leading boutique brand ABK6. It has been blended specifically to be savoured on ice, developing progressively in the glass to highlight the distinct aromas from contact with the ice and water. With an ABV of 40 per cent, the cognac marries subtle notes of fruits and evolves towards fresh aromas such as zesty lemon sorbet and the coolness of mint.
Introduced last year by premium drinks importer and distributor Drinks21, it joins the range of single-estate cognacs from producer Domaines ABK6. Drinks21 director Gail Graham says: “Increasing numbers of consumers are embarking on a mission to seek out something new, something exciting and something with an interesting story behind it. We are able to meet this growing demand with our boutique brands such as Ice Cognac which has already proved extremely popular in other markets.”