In 2023, Cognac sales, along with other spirits categories, faced challenges as the economy continued to recover from inflationary woes. However, Cognac remains a stable category with a long-term track record of maintaining its position.
With more than 111 million bottles exported to the U.S. in 2022, Cognac is a staple on bar menus around the country. The new generation of bartenders draw inspiration from the spirit’s timelessness, versatility and range to create Cognac cocktails at their bars. Bartenders recognize Cognac’s value as a specific flavor component and play with different expressions and ages of Cognac, from VS to XO.
A Changing Taste for Cognac
When choosing a Cognac to drink, Guillaume Lamy, Managing Director, Maison Ferrand USA, mentions that consumers are looking for a wide choice of expressions.
“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 achieves this through their best-selling Cognac, 1840 Original Formula. For many consumers and bar professionals, it is a Cognac that has a true proposition of taste and intensity. For bar managers, it offers an old, 19th-century style of Cognac that allows them to recreate classic drinks and showcase the aromatics of Grande Champagne in their cocktails.
“However, this is also the perfect Cognac for any consumer that loves intense, higher proof, aged brown spirits,” Lamy explains. “We’ve seen a very strong growth of sales in stores since 2020 from whisky consumers that were looking for complexity and depth of aromas in a Cognac that they could consume on a solid ice cube, for the ultimate olfactive experience. Most modern Cognacs would not withstand any ice or dilution as well as the 1840 Original Formula.”
Aria Wright, CAMUS’ U.S. Brand Ambassador, agrees with Lamy when she says that consumers are seeking quality, authenticity, unique flavor experiences and innovation in their Cognac choices. “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.”
CAMUS has embraced this change by collaborating with multimedia artists like Malik Roberts and Melissa Sutherland Moss. These partnerships help celebrate contemporary culture and unity through the brand’s VSOP Artistic Limited Editions.
On the other hand, 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
In the last 20 years, many consumers have been crossing categories from rum and whiskey, giving a chance for smaller houses to develop more market presence. All in all, Cognac demographics today are more diverse than they have ever been, according to Lamy. And as it was an aging demographic 20 years ago, it is now reaching groups that are a lot younger and willing to learn about the origins and the history of Cognac.
Agreeing with Lamy is Copper & Kings Head Distiller Brandon O’Daniel. The younger crowd has driven sales at their distillery, craving something new in their alcohol-curious lives.
“The cocktail scene has been a major influence on our Brandy sales,” he says. “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.”
Traditionally, Cognac has appealed to mature and affluent consumers, often associated with older age groups and those with higher disposable incomes. According to Wright, these consumers typically reside in metropolitan areas, possess sophisticated palates and are introduced to Cognac through family, networks and peers.
“However, 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 as a best-seller, serving as an excellent starting point for those refining their flavor journey’s with Cognac.
Distilled with lees and aged only in fine grain French oak small barrels, CAMUS’ VS Intensity Cognac stands out by boasting an extremely high concentration in esters, resulting in flavors of summer fruits and subtle spices, according to the producer.
VS Intensity is a blend of eaux- de-vie reflecting the flavors of the Charente terroir, characterized by rich fruity aromas with hints of spices. The profile is the result of a distillation which aims at enhancing highly-aromatic components and of a careful tasting process by the cellar master along the maturation period to establish an ideal combination of barrels for the final assemblage of this aromatic Cognac, the distillery says.
Bringing Out the Best in Brandy and Cognac
There are many processes involved in making a good brandy, but O’Daniel says it always starts with the fruit. “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 best-sellers, American Apple Brandy, aims at capturing those fruity notes: Finished in Kentucky Bourbon and New American Oak barrels, the apple flavor comes from real apples, with no added boisé. It’s a great drink to warm up the soul during the cold winter months.
Just like brandy, and basically everything else, what makes a good Cognac also comes down to personal preference. For Jennifer Pisciotta, Global Vice President of Marketing at D’USSÉ, the two most important qualities of a good Cognac are complexity and mouthfeel, which are determined by a range of factors in each step of the production process.
“What makes D’USSÉ stand apart is our eaux de vie, which has long been established at our brand home the historic Château de Cognac, as well as the unique aging conditions of our dry and humid cellars, which are in close proximity to the Charente river,” Pisciotta says. “It requires years of experience and a perfect curation to achieve a well balanced Cognac, which was certainly the case for the first release of our VSOP. The detailed and meticulous dedication of our Cellar Master was well worth it, as our VSOP regularly receives high marks from leading industry award tasters and was called ‘a very well executed blend of aromas and flavors with a silky mouthfeel’ by the Beverage Tasting Institute earlier this year.”
Lauro views Cognac in three different ways: “For sipping, I’m looking for longevity. The lingering leather, chocolate, toffee and exotic spice flavors should stay in my mouth for a long time. For mixing, I would go with a younger Cognac that showcases floral notes, usually some peach and apricot flavors. For boozy cocktails, I want to go back to that chocolate, leather, port or cherry style flavors that show up well in an Old Fashioned.”
A Bright Future for Dark Spirits
In the coming years, Wright believes the focus on agave and whiskey will bring more opportunities and exposure to the world of Cognac and other brandies. Cognac’s rich history, demanding production process and satisfying end result will gain wider recognition.
“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.”
O’Daniel also sees a bright future for the brandy category. Brandy has an interesting story that can be easily shared. As new producers enter the market and old producers continue to get creative with all types of barrel finishes, more consumers will want to taste all that brandy has to offer.
Even though Maison Ferrand has seen a decline in store sales for 2023, Lamy says Cognac has made significant progress in the last five years within the U.S. spirits market. Several Cognac houses, including Ferrand, have released distinctive and appealing expressions that can help the category move forward in the near future.
“Cognac was always respected as one of the great world spirits,” says Lamy. “I see it now being in the forefront of spirits education for consumers, which will guarantee a very bright future for the category.”