Cognac needs a "Gok Wan-style makeover"

Cognac needs a "Gok Wan-style makeover"

Cognac has caught the eye of high-profile bartenders around the world, but producers need to add a little more style to their substance if they are to win over new, cocktail-loving consumers, argues Richard Woodard following a visit to the International Cognac Summit.

Comedian Bob Monkhouse once told audiences that, when he said he wanted to be a professional comic, people laughed at him. “Well,” he quipped, “they’re not laughing now.”

You could say the same about Cognac’s often painful quest for reinvention through cocktails – although attempts by The World’s Most Traditional Spirit™ to embrace the age of mixology have, in the past, prompted not so much laughter from bartenders as bemused mystification.

I’m not sure recent efforts at “innovation” (in that word’s broadest possible sense) have helped here. It’s all very well touting a new launch as “our mixable Cognac”, but it rather implies that everything else in your range is about as much use to a bartender as a mackerel-flavoured vodka.

Anyway, all of this preconceptual baggage made January’s third International Cognac Summit something of a surprise to a cynical hack like myself. Say what you like about the BNIC, but they can pull in the talent: Sasha Petraske from New York’s Milk & Honey; Julie Reiner of Flatiron Lounge fame; Britalian legends Peter Dorelli and Salvatore Calabrese. And, as they say, many more.

Nor were these luminaries of the global bar scene stifling yawns during distillery visits or nodding off over their VSOP – genuine enthusiasm for the product was mixed with real respect for the history and culture of the region.

That’s not to say that the ICS was a scene of universal bliss: more than one attendee complained that they would have liked to see a few more distilleries and even a single vineyard, rather than spending half their time mixing cocktails in the BNIC offices (“I could have stayed home and done this,” complained one Stateside heavy hitter). But these were organisational quibbles, rather than criticisms of Cognac per se.

There are several reasons for this general mood of bonhomie. Many bartenders are, in the nicest possible way, a pretty geeky bunch, who know their drinks history and have a healthy (if sometimes obsessive) respect for Cognac’s place in it.

But, more importantly, the Cognaçais have realised that their local speciality is not, and shouldn’t pretend to be, a vodka wannabe. Put simply, a drink with such a defined flavour profile is delicious when combined with some flavours – and sucks when mixed with others.

Put these two factors together and the logical conclusion is the retro, Prohibition theme to this year’s ICS, focusing on classic Cognac mixes such as the Sidecar, Sour, Collins and Stinger. In their purest forms, relatively straightforward drinks combining simple flavours, and showing Cognac in combination off to its best effect.

Happily, Cognac’s realisation that it cannot be all things to all mixologists has coincided with a sea change in attitudes behind bars around the world. Ask top bar professionals what gets their juices flowing these days and the chances are that they’ll enthuse, in no particular order, about artisanal rums, 100% agave Tequilas, plus something a bit weird that you’ve never heard of, like a Genever from some dusty Dutch distillery. All, like Cognac, drinks with discernible flavour and character.

What they almost certainly will not mention is the spirit that kickstarted the modern cocktail boom and continues to bring home the bacon for the majority of bars the world over. Vodka may pay their wages, but it doesn’t light their creative fire.

There’s an obvious dislocation here: bartenders are getting all hot and bothered about one drink, while simultaneously pouring gallons of something entirely different down their customers’ throats. Or, put another way, the approval of the professionals is all very well, but it’s not much consolation if nobody wants to buy your product.

Part of this is down to the natural evolution of trends: it’s generally a few years at least before the influence of opinion-formers – whether they be bartenders, journalists or even bloggers – translates into increased sell-through of the product in question.

And even then, there’s no guarantee: wine writers have championed the merits of Riesling for yonks, but that hasn’t stopped the punters from buying vast amounts of semi-sweet Californian rosé instead.

But let’s get back to the original question of Cognac’s mixability – and here’s a question for you: why are they bothering? The most surprising revelation of the Cognac Summit for me was the following statistic from the BNIC: 70% of global Cognac consumption is over ice, mixed or in a cocktail. Doesn’t this mean that the argument over Cognac’s versatility has already been won?

Up to a point. The concern is partly to encourage different ways of consuming Cognac, and mostly about cultivating a new and more youthful and dynamic image for the category. For as long as the popular association with Cognac in mature Western markets remains after-dinner snifters in huge balloon glasses, the work will continue.

In the meantime, for all the effort, Cognac is continuing to miss an important trick: its packaging. There are honourable exceptions – Courvoisier Exclusif and almost anything by Hine spring to mind – but for the most part, Cognac bottles have remained stuck in a fusty time-warp or, even worse, have tried something so self-consciously “modern” as to be embarrassing.

At the VS end of the market, most of the packs out there are just plain dull, but the greatest fashion crimes are committed at XO level and above. These overgrown perfume bottles might work in the Chinese gifting market (as they did until the early 1990s in Japan), but they’re a massive turn-off for anyone with an aversion to bling.

So, if Cognac really wants to be a serious back-bar contender, it needs a Gok Wan-style makeover so that it looks the part. That doesn’t mean aping vodka with frosted bottles and stencilled graphics, but a thoughtful, slick and elegant updating of Cognac’s classic imagery.

Do that and the Cognaçais might not only win over the bartenders, but the punters too. Who knows? They might even sell more bottles in the most moribund of all Cognac’s mature Western markets: France itself.