"We are craft but we are not part of the craft movement" - Interview, Hine international sales director Per Even Allaire

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Best known as a vintage Cognac specialist, privately-owned Hine last month released Bonneuil 2006, an expression that does not carry one of the category's traditional VS, VSOP or XO descriptors. As China - the most important market for Cognac in recent years - moves away from the XO-and-above Cognac segment, and the idea of 'craft' drives interest in the category's smaller houses, Hine's new international sales director, Per Even Allaire, tells just-drinks how the company plans to make the most of the new world order.

Hine owns 120ha in Grande Champagne

Hine owns 120ha in Grande Champagne

just-drinks: What does an international sales director do?

Per Even Allaire: Despite our international presence, Hine is a tiny little house. Although we all have job descriptions, we are pretty much involved in anything and everything. My official tasks are taking care of all the importers around the world and also looking into prospects for markets where we are not yet represented - or not represented anymore.

j-d: Can you tell us about some of these prospects?

PEA: I recently attended Vinexpo in Hong Kong - the general feeling was much better than three years ago. The economy is growing in all of the neighbouring countries - all of South East Asia, for instance. We had one planned meeting with an importer from The Philippines - we got six meetings with companies from the Philippines. We saw a lot of people from everywhere - Cambodia, Vietnam, you name it. This is something relatively new, compared to last time.

j-d: Now that Cognac's mindset has moved away from the gifting channel in China, have consumers' tastes in Cognac changed?

PEA: Not that much yet, but the positive thing is that Cognac is now consumed more than what it was. The Cognac that gets depleted is more at the entry and medium level - VS, VSOP. The XOs-and-above - the more ostentatious Cognacs - are less asked for. These were the ones used as gifting. So, that's a positive trend.

The big brands used to be something obvious for everyone - a safe bet. Now consumers are looking into more niche products, even outside wine and spirits. That's a positive trend for a house like ours.

j-d: Both Courvoisier (Gala Club) and Remy Martin (Club) have Cognacs in Asia that do not carry a specific age statement. Is that something Hine would look to do?

PEA: One of the issues is price. The prices of Cognacs have lowered after the downturn in 2012-2013. You still have some people selling at a relatively low price, but Chinese buyers know a VSOP costs a certain price: If you take off the VSOP, then there is no comparison. 

You should never say no, I'm just trying to think why. That's the main question. Like with anything we do, everything has a purpose or a reason.

j-d: Which are Hine's largest markets?

PEA: The US accounts for roughly 50% of Cognac sales in the world. China is big, as is Asia in general. France is not too bad - while 98% of all Cognac is exported, we have 5% remaining in France. After the US, it's Russia, China, UK, France and Germany.

Per Even Allaire

j-d: How unstable is the Russian market?

PEA: Well, the whole world is pretty unstable right now. Surprisingly, it's not too bad in terms of depletions. In terms of shipments, Russia is not that great. We're recovering in 2016, compared to 2015. But, it's going to take time.

They like more mature styles. They are certainly very knowledgeable about what they drink, which is probably also one of the reasons why Hine has been so successful in Russia - we're probably in the top five in terms of volume. I'd say Russia makes up around 10% of our business.

j-d: Besides China and Russia, where else is exciting?

PEA: I'm looking forward to India at some point. I think we're going to get there. It's a market that I don't know well enough and we have been in discussions there for years. I think we might get somewhere with the new government. Even if we hear about anti-alcohol laws, they are developing the country and part of the development is tourism. Tourism is very helpful for the wine and spirits business.

j-d: What about import taxes in India?

PEA: They are outrageous. Most of the domestic sales are done through Duty Free.

j-d: Has the craft spirits movement helped Hine at all?

PEA: We are craft but we are not part of the craft movement. Craft is the essence of what we do. The craft movement has had an influence because it has also led to the quality cocktail wave, which is a good thing. So, in that sense, indirectly, yes.

j-d: Is it hard to innovate within Cognac, given all the rules around production?

PEA: Being progressive for the sake of it is an absolute nonsense. There have been lots of discussions within the region around what is Cognac today, what it was in the past and what it should be in the future. What innovation can we allow ourselves without jeopardising the essence of what Cognac is? If you talk about cask finishes, this is illegal in Cognac today. Would it be interesting to play around with casks? I'm sure it would be interesting. Does it fit with what Cognac is? I don't have the answer. What Cognac is, as far as Hine is concerned, is a product of the vineyards.

j-d: In mature markets, where consumers know Hine is a Cognac house, would it matter if the label didn't say 'Cognac', so that you could experiment?

PEA: I'm asking myself that question on a daily basis. I'd like to know because I'd be able to release something without Cognac on it, just for the fun of being allowed to test. I wouldn't necessarily say it's viable in the long-term, but the whole history of wines and spirits is about testing and evolution.

j-d: In Scotch and Japanese whiskies, we are seeing age statements appear much less frequently. How does this affect Cognac?

They are actually thinking the other way around here. People have been talking about upgrading XO from six years to ten years. That discussion has been around for a few years. I think it's less a point of discussion right now, as XO is less looked for and the demand is more for the younger Cognacs.

There is still this belief that if a Cognac is old, then it must be delicious. And, it can be absolutely great. With age comes complexity, but you can have a perfectly good conversation with a youngster as well!

I'm looking forward to how the approach to ageing is going to change, from the consumer side.

Also, VSOP is still very difficult to understand for most people in the market. The Bonneil, for instance, is easy to read - it says when it was harvested and when it was bottled, so you just do some quick maths and find out it's about nine years old. I'm not sure what might happen in terms of ageing for Cognac, but I believe Cognac drinkers might be interested in getting a bit more clear information.

j-d: Talk us through the new packaging for H by Hine.

PEA: The idea was to freshen up the look and feel of H by Hine, which we have had now for ten years - It's a recent innovation in the history of Hine! It does tremendously well, internationally-speaking, in quality cocktail bars, so it's a great communication channel to reach a younger, broader audience. It's important not to lose touch with established drinkers, but also to get in touch with the next generation of consumers. The idea is to find the balance and give an introduction to Hine through the bar, through the cocktail.

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