It was a global meeting of minds when 42 of the world’s leading drinks ‘experts’ converged in the tiny town of Cognac, France to attend the fifth annual International Cognac Summit, hosted by the Bureau National Interprofessionnel du Cognac (BNIC).
This year’s theme addressed the feminine side of Cognac, and how to make it more appealing to women – a concept most bartenders are no doubt already well-versed in.
Alongside leading drinks professionals from France, Germany, Austria and USA, the illustrious UK line-up included sommeliers Andrea Bricarello (Galvin Restaurants) and Laure Patry (Pollen Street Social) and bartenders Matt Armitage (London Cocktail Club) and Sophie Bratt (Harvey Nichols 4th Floor Leeds).
“The global meeting of minds in Cognac was extremely interesting to me as a bartender,” said Sophie. “It was inspiring to see how different countries view drinks, their customers and ultimately each other. I learnt a lot from the other bartenders, and sommeliers and will certainly be using/abusing some of their ideas, knowledge and stories.”
Day one for the UK crew saw a 4am wake-up call for the 7:10am to Bordeaux, a time when Cognac’s appeal exists only to those who have yet to get to bed. That all changed, however, when we landed in the rolling hills of South-West France and were immediately drawn in by the lush, green countryside and the fresh, unpolluted air, so distinct from the London environs we had just left behind.
It was lunchtime before we had our first taste of Cognac, a good thing as we would be tasting (and rating, for appearance, taste, colour, aroma and packaging) an awful lot of them over the next few days. For every VS you sample, there is also a VSOP and an XO. And we sampled more than 20 houses. And scored each one. That’s a lot of Cognac.
The evening saw us divided into three groups to be taken out to the house of one of three small producers, either Paul Giraud, Voyer or Ragnaud-Sabourin, before the first of many Cognac tastings and fine French food. BarLifeUK visited the house of Paul Giraud, a family-run business that has been in the wine industry for over 350 years, before shifting to the focus to Cognac in the 1960s. It was fascinating to see the scale and humble nature of a small producer before visiting the opulence of the big Houses like Hennessey, Rémy Martin and Courvoisier over the following days.
Sophie Bratt put it best when she said, “The history of each house no matter how big is integral to the drink itself and it was amazing to realise that the cellar masters will sometimes never get to see the finished results of their hard work and that that will be passed on to their children and grandchildren. The highlight of the Summit for me has to be hearing the passion in the cellar masters and people of Cognac’s voices as they speak of their spirit!”
Day two began with two seminars covering the olfactory senses, and how they appeal to women, followed by an interesting look at Cognac in a social context and its implications for female consumers. Next stop was a three-course lunch, tasting and visit at Courvoisier, before a three-course dinner, tasting and visit at Rémy Martin. All with matching Cognacs, of course. Interestingly, of all the Cognac produced, only five percent is sold locally, suggesting perhaps that some work needs to be done not just in increasing its female market appeal, but also in the local market, too.
A cocktail workshop on day three saw everyone divided into teams to see who could come up with a Cognac-based cocktail that would appeal to women. Our group was assigned ‘Classic’ as our theme, imminently preferable to some of the other categories doing the rounds, including ‘Dessert’ and ‘Tiki’ – hands up who wants a French Zombie? Anyone for an Apple of Mai Tai?
It should come as no surprise that BarLifeUK’s team – steered by larger-than-life US bar legend Willy Shine – came up trumps with the Lady Coeur – a heady mix of VSOP, orange and lemon juice, topped up with Champagne and lightly dusted with cinnamon. The Lady Coeur is now the official cocktail of the Summit, not bad for a morning’s work.
The final evening was a highlight for many, with dinner at Hennessy’s magnificent Château de Bagnolet. Very, very VIPs are able to stay in the house, but, as merely VIPs we had to settle for a three-course dinner, with matching Cognac and cigars for afters. For a group of few smokers, it is amazing how many people take up the habit when Cubans are around. Especially when matched with Hennessy Paradis Imperial. It would be rude not to, really.
So, after immersing ourselves in the world of Cognac and women for three days, what did this group of drinks experts conclude? According to the BNIC, the tasting sessions showed that in terms of packaging, women have a clear preference for a style that is luxurious and contemporary, and are particularly attracted to round bottles with creative and eye-catching labels. Interestingly, these are all characteristics that are reflected in women’s preferences in perfume packaging.
This parallel with perfume was also present when it came to taste and aroma, whereby the sweet, fresh-fruity notes found in Cognac like vanilla, cinnamon, ripe fruit, toffee and orange were judged across the board as more female-friendly.
According to Sophie, “Cognac, I think, is due a resurgence and it is important we get away from the historic social impression that it is simply an après dinner drink drunk in smoking jackets by the men! It certainly is not! Cognac is also a great cocktail base and has a spectrum of flavour which place fantastically at the heart of many great classics and drinks that I intend to make! It essentially has many feminine flavour profiles form the rich chocolate and coffee notes found in the Grande and Petit Champagne XOs to the lighter floral notes which can be found in the Borderies varietals. If anyone was to say to me they didn’t like Cognac now I would simply say they haven’t found the right cognac for their taste.”
45 ml Cognac VSOP
15 ml freshly squeezed orange juice
10 ml freshly squeezed lemon juice
15 ml simple syrup
20 ml sweet vermouth
Champagne, to top
Shake the Cognac, orange juice, lemon juice, simple syrup and sweet vermouth over ice. Strain into a martini glass and top with Champagne. Sprinkle very lightly with cinnamon and garnish with orange twist.
Brands Tasted: ABK6 – Paul Giraud – Voyer – Ragnaud-Sabourin – Château de Cognac – Delamain – Hine – Meukow – Louis Royer – Ferrand – SA La Gabare – Château Montifaud – Bache Gabrielsen – H. Mounier – Frapin – Camus – Guerbé – A. de Fussigny – Bisquit Dubouché – Martell – Hennessey – Rémy Martin – Courvoisier