Not Your Grandpa’s Drink

Cognac brands are on a spirited campaign to win over younger consumers. An intricate spirit made from patience and savoir-faire, cognac has always been marketed as a prestigious drink of the well-heeled – and still is. However, cognac brands across the board have been seeing younger imbibers fork out for their products, sometimes unexpectedly.

A bit of backstory: Brandy was accidentally invented when the Dutch tried to export French wine, but the sea voyage was too long and these barrels of wine aged too much inside hot cargo holds. Oddly, the ‘spoiled’ commodity smelled a lot more fragrant than the spirit that had been initially loaded onto the ships. The Dutch tasted it, decided to market it as brandt wijn (“burnt wine”) and the rest is history. The English coined it “brandy” and brandy that comes from the Cognac region of France is called cognac.

Cognac has high overheads because of its long ageing process and gradually gained the reputation as a prestigious beverage that only the deep-pocketed can enjoy. A V.S. (“very special”) cognac has been aged for at least two years in a cask; V.S.O.P.’s ("very superior old pale") have been aged for at least four years, X.O. ("extra old") indicates six years of ageing, and then there are even older cognacs that were barrelled by previous generations of distillers and cost an arm and a leg.

A Vivacious Revamp

However, brands like Martell have been trying to break this perception of exclusiveness and have been promoting cognac as the choice spirit of youthful celebrations.

Martell’s recent campaign images show young people enjoying their products and have also featured young musicians like Davido and Janelle Monáe. As part of its Noblige campaign, Martell offered offshore sails on private yachts recently, which included cocktails specially concocted by top bars across Singapore for these private sails. Martell currently produces more than 200 million bottles of cognac a year.

“It’s important to understand that just because our brand is 300 years old, it doesn’t mean it’s not a vibrant brand,” points out Jacques Menier, Heritage Director of Martell. “With Martell Noblige, we are appealing to a new generation of cognac lovers. The cognac market is changing rapidly. Up until the 1990s, cognac was my father’s drink and was perceived to be old-fashioned, but this has been changing since the mid-2000s. These days, you drink something because you like the taste, and younger people are discovering that they have a taste for cognac.”

An Uncanny Base Liquor

The proliferation of cocktail culture has played a pivotal role too in the revitalisation of cognac’s image. Younger drinkers have learned to appreciate cognac’s rich bottom notes, which are achieved by the long duration of barrel ageing and typically include hints of vanilla, figs, and caramel. These nuances come from organic compounds that mimic these flavors, which are either produced as by-products during fermentation or are infused from the wood of the barrel.

“Especially in this Covid-19 climate, younger drinkers are exploring different cocktails and home bars. I have met more knowledgeable customers asking for less-common cocktails and are able to recite concoctions to bartenders if they hesitate,” observes Andrew Pang, who is Beam Suntory’s regional brand ambassador. He is also head mixologist at Taylor Adam, a new speakeasy in Singapore that is hidden behind an actual tailor shop.

How else are cognac cocktails different? Mixologists like Pang love the long finish of cognac that gives cocktails a memorable backwash. Cognac clings to the palate longer than other liquors as it has a low surface tension. This phenomenon can be observed in cognac glasses when the liquid is swirled and forms ‘tears’ or ‘legs’ along the sides of the glass.

Bartenders have been reimagining classic whiskey cocktails like the Old-Fashioned and Whiskey Sour with cognac and also been contrasting cognac’s intense flavours with tropical ingredients like coconut and pandan.

“Cognac has seen a slow but steady rise in popularity in cocktail bars and being included into new recipes,” comments Adrian Besa, Bar Manager of MO Bar, Mandarin Oriental Singapore. Recently ranked number 36 among the World’s 50 Best Bars 2021, MO Bar currently offers a cognac cocktail called Nostalgia that pairs the rich notes of Rémy Martin cognac with banana salted caramel.

“Often, cognac cocktails are new versions of classics, combining the spirit with familiar sweet and bitter flavours. Examples can be seen in cocktails using cognac together with ingredients such as custard, coffee and chocolate,” he adds. “The continued rise of cognac will give a larger range of base spirits that diversify the cocktail list and bartenders will find new ways to make cognac more approachable to a bigger audience.”

Unintentionally Springboarded by Hip-Hop Culture

As rap and hip-hop culture saw a mainstream revival in the late 2010s, it gave cognac an unexpected leg-up. Many famous rappers often talk about “Henny” (Hennessy), Fetty Wap named his crew after the Rémy Martin 1738 Accord Royal, and Busta Rhymes’s single Pass the Courvoisier was so well received that he recorded another song called Pass the Courvoisier, Part II.

Jay-Z invested in D’Ussé in its infancy, leading to many other hip-hop artistes referencing the cognac in their songs, including Kendrick Lamar, who famously rapped in the first verse of number-one song Humble: “I’m downin' this D’Ussé with my boo bae tastes like Kool-Aid for the analysts.”

Humble was a single on Lamar’s DAMN. Album, which eventually won a Pulitzer Prize and made Lamar the first rapper to ever be awarded a Pulitzer.

A Foothold in Every Sector

“With the modern cocktail renaissance, we can see that cognac is still popular in modern establishments ranging from energetic music venues to Michelin-level restaurants, where it is consumed as a digestif, and many high-end cocktail bars where cognac is featured prominently in avant-garde modern cocktail recipes. The beauty of cognac lies in its versatility to match all occasions,” opines Tyrel Ball, Managing Director, South East Asia Pacific, Rémy Cointreau.

“Through education, people are becoming more discerning drinkers who now understand the versatility of the brown spirit and becoming keener to learn about its origin, terroir, taste profile and how it can be best consumed. Moving forward, we can expect bartenders and mixologists to get even more creative with cognac.”

A decade ago, one could tell if a bar or nightclub was meant for a young or mature drinker by their branding and table bottles – young, vibrant joints touted vodka, whiskey, and tequila, while images of cognac only furnished mellow lounges for older gents. Today, cognac is a staple among the world’s most trendy cocktail bars. Who says young people can’t appreciate complex things? Only time will tell if cognac can jostle its way onto nightclub tables and cement its place among mainstays like Belvedere and Patrón, or even displace them.