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Brandy's dandy: sales of brandy & cognac benefit from their contemporary cultural image as well as their traditional appeal.

Sales of brandy & cognac have registered increases for 10 consecutive years, with the latest stats for 2003 showing a 2.6% gain to more than 9.9 million 9-liter cases nationally, according to Adams Liquor Handbook 2004. In the control states, the increase is slightly greater, with total brandy & cognac sales growing by 3.7% in 2003. The big three domestic brandies--E & J Gallo, Paul Masson and Christian Brothers--continue to lead the way with combined sales of almost 5 million 9-liter cases nationally, while the major cognac brands have maintained impressive growth. Indeed, the high-margin, highly profitable cognac segment has significantly outpaced domestic brandy growth, with 2003 sales up 5.8% nationally, to 3.4 million cases. In fact, cognac growth over the past five years has been stellar, with Hennessy increasing from 1.26 million to 1.88 million cases nationally, Remy Martin gaining from 345,000 to 620,000 cases nationally and Courvoisier growing from 425,000 to 535,000 cases nationally.

The reasons for these recent gains are several: Some industry analysts point to the improved economy and cultural return of small indulgences, while others see the category's resurgence as the ultimate indication of Americans' preference for ultra-premium spirits. Still others look at the hip-hop generation's ongoing affinity for brandy as the principal revitalizing factor.

"Cognac's traditional usage dynamics--formal presentation, after-dinner, cold weather orientation--are unnecessarily limiting," said Steve Hissam, Remy Martin brand manager. "The hip-hop culture has contemporized cognac and expanded its usage occasions and introduced an entirely new and younger segment to the franchise."

Madison Bedard knows first hand the impact the hip-hop culture has had on the surging popularity of cognac and brandy. As the brand manager of Courvoisier, she saw sales of her brand spike over 30% in 2002 when Busta Rhymes and Sean P. Diddy Combs released the song, "Pass the Courvoisier."

"One of the key drivers of cognac growth has been its multicultural appeal. Hip-hop and rap musicians sing about what is important in their lives and what they aspire to have. As a luxury item, cognac fits this image as easily as Mercedes and Gucci," Bedard observed.

The mixability of cognac and brandy has also been an evolving sales driver. "The growth of the category can also be attributed to consumers lured from other brown spirits by the surprising mixability of cognac," noted Courvoisier's Bedard.

"Committing great brandy to a cocktail is a stroke of creative brilliance," added Mark Marcon, brand manager of Allied Domecq's portfolio of esteemed Spanish brandies. "The high proof of brandy makes it unapproachable for some consumers, so mixing it eases the rite of passage. Over time, as their tastes mature, consumers begin to enjoy the extraordinary character of brandy straight."

"Forget what the purists might say, cognac and brandy were made for mixing," stated Remy Martin's Hissam. "Many of the earliest cocktail recipes required the use of brandy or cognac. From the classic Sidecar to hot, contemporary drinks like the Incredible Hulk (Remy Martin VSOP & Hpnotiq) and Grape Sex (Remy Red Grape Berry & Vodka) cognac has always been a part of the cocktail culture."

FRANCE'S BIG FOUR

Entrenched at the top of the cognac segment is Hennessy (Schieffelin & Co.), the most successful cognac house in the world. Its sales rose 7.4% nationally in 2003 (up 8.6% in the control states) and this year the brand will eclipse the 2 million case mark in the U.S. The firm has 2,600 vintners under contract, operates 27 distilleries, and is owner of the largest reserve of old cognacs with 250,000 barrels aging at all times. Among their chief assets is an unbroken lineage of seven generations of master blenders from the Fillioux family.

Hennessy VS Cognac is assembled from more than 40 different Grande and Petite Champagne brandies, along with some from the Borderies and Fins and Bons Bois. The constituent cognacs are aged a minimum of three years. It is a worldwide franchise, among the most successful marks in the category.

Recent excitement within their portfolio is focused on two ultra-premium expressions. Richard Hennessy Cognac is a rare assemblage of more than 100 eaux-de-vie primarily from Grand and Petite Champagne regions. Because of its extreme age the brandy actually contains some Folle Blanche. The youngest brandy in its blend is 50 years old, while a percentage is more than two centuries in age. It is packaged in a striking Baccarat decanter and retails at between $1,500-$1,800.

Hennessy Paradis Extra is comprised of predominantly Grande and Petite Champagne eaux-de-vie with a minimum age of 25 years and there are many that exceed 100 years old. Created in 1979 and recently renamed, Paradis Extra retails for around $300.

For its part, Remy Martin (Remy Amerique) exclusively features Fine Champagne cognacs, assemblages comprised of brandies flora the Grande and Petite Champagne regions. Remy Martin is the only major cognac house to still distill all of its brandies on the lees, which some argue yields spirits with a greater range of complexity.

The firm's benchmark expression is Remy Martin VSOP Fine Champagne Cognac, which dominates the American market at that grade with a 70% share. Introduced in 1927, the blend used for Remy VSOP is comprised of 240 cognacs that are aged between 4 and 14 years. The mark recently underwent a packaging update, with a redesigned label and a modified bottle shape.

The top end of the Remy Martin portfolio features the likes of Remy Martin XO Special, comprised of brandies aged a minimum of 25 years; Extra Perfection de Remy Martin, with a blend of a minimum age of 35 years; and the world's most recognized ultra-premium spirit, Remy Martin Louis XIII Grande Champagne Cognac. With its youngest brandy registering a half-century in age, the famous cognac is priced around $1,300 per 750 ml and is appropriately packaged in Baccarat crystal.

Cognacs from the House of Courvoisier (Allied Domecq Spirits USA) are ranked third in cognac sales in the U.S. The firm owns no vineyards, rather they purchase brandies from over 400 private distillers and then oversee their cellaring and blending. The Limousin and Tronqais oak staves are seasoned in the open air for three years before they are assembled into finished barrels. At any one point, the chateau has over 45,000 casks of brandy aging and adds about 3,000 new barrels each year.

In 1869, Napoleon Bonaparte honored the Chateau Courvoisier as the exclusive purveyor to his court. That achievement was eventually commemorated in the release of Courvoisier Napoleon Cognac, the trademark Fine Champagne cognac comprised of brandies aged for a minimum of 15 years in oak, though most are matured in the neighborhood of 25 years.

The chateau also offers Courvoisier XO Imperial, a cognac assembled from Grande and Petite Champagne cognacs aged a minimum of 20 years, with the majority being about 35 years of age.

"In cognac, it is all about making the blend more extravagant, more exclusive," said Allied Domecq's Bedard. "You accomplish that by blending with reserves that are so rare that they can be found nowhere else. We're finding that consumers are willing to pay a premium for a blend featuring cognac from Napoleon's private reserve, as is in L'Esprit de Courvoisier, which retails for $5,000 per bottle. Soon we will also release Conrvoisier Succession JS, another blend featuring cognac from Napoleon's time. It will retail for $3,000."

Martell (Pernod Ricard USA) is the oldest of the major cognac houses. The venerable firm now owns nearly 1,000 acres of prime vineyards, 28 alembic stills and expansive cellar and warehouse capacity, but to meet its growing demand, it also purchases brandies from over 2,500 smaller vintners.

The famed cognac concern markets three expressions, including Martell Cordon Bleu, likely the most famous. Representative of the house style, Cordon Bleu is an assemblage of Grande and Petite Champagne brandies aged 20-30 years. Its floral qualities are the result of the addition of brandies from the Borderies region.

Martell VSOP Medallion is a popular Fine Champagne Cognac that contains a significant portion of Borderies. The blend is aged a minimum of 12 years. Also in the mix is Martell Noblige, introduced in 1994. This prestige assemblage contains brandies more than 50 years old.

SMALLER, NICHE COGNACS

As tremendous as the big four cognac houses are, there is a broader sampling of smaller but excellent cognacs available on the market. For example, Hine Rare VSOP (Todhunter International) features a blend of more than 25 Grande and Petite Champagne cognacs with none less than six years old. Another, Hine Antique Tres Rare, is comprised of an assemblage of more than 40 Grande and Petite Champagne cognacs, all of which have been aged over 15 years. Hine also offers "early landed" vintage Grande Champagne cognacs--1953, 1957, 1960, 1975, 1976, 1981, 1982 and 1983.

In the heart of Grande Champagne, the House of Pierre Ferrand, 1st crus producer of cognac, culivates its own vineyards and distills on the lees. Its Selection des Agnes is a Grande Champagne cognac with an average age of 30years. The limited Reserve Ancestrale is comprised of Grande Champagne vintage cognacs dating back to more than 70 years. The firm also offers the 1914 Memoire Vintage Edition, a 70-year old Grande Champagne.

Delamain (Kobrand) is a family-operated firm located in the Grande Champagne region. Its handcrafted range includes Pale & Dry XO, a Grande Champagne cognac with an average age of 25 years, and Vesper, on old cellar Grande Champagne matured an average of 35 years. The oldest signature cognac of the house is Tres Venerable, aged on average of 55 years with a retail price of $300.

Camus (CIL US, Inc.), located in the Borderies region, relies on its own grapes and the brandies of some 250 smaller vintners to meet demand for its cognacs. It was the first to release a brandy aimed specifically at a female audience--Josephine de Camus. It also produced the limited quantity Camus Borderies XO, the only premium single-crus Borderies cognac, as well as Camus Cuvee, a signature blend of Grande Champagne and Borderies cognacs.

The cognac house of A. Hardy (A. Hardy USA), founded in 1863, features A. Hardy Perfection, which contains pre-phylloxera, French Colombard brandies upwards of 140 years old, and A. Hardy Noces de Dimont, a 100% Grande Champagne comprised of brandies a minimum of 60 years old. Introduced in 1946, Hardy Noces d'or Cognac is a Grande Champagne cognac comprised of vintage, barrel matured brandies averaging 50 years in age.

The Frapin estate, Chateau Fontpinot (Palm Bay Imports), is the largest single vineyard in Grande Champagne, where it controls all levels of production on the estate. The Frapin VSOP Cuvee Rare is the only internationally available VSOP made entirely from Grande Champagne brandies. The Chateu Fontpinot XO Grande Champagne is comprised of Frapin family reserves aged in small barrels for 18-20 years.

Maison Surrenne (Craft Distillers) markets rare, small lot bottlings, such as Ancienne Distillerie, a single distillery, vintage-denominated, 100% Petite Champagne cognac. The Maison Surrenne collection also includes Distillerie Galraud, 14-year old Borderies cognac, a 26-year old Grande Champagne XO cognac (1972 vintage), and Maison Surrenne 1946, an unblended, barrel-strength (83.8 proof) Grande Champagne cognac distilled in 1946 and bottled in 1998 at 52 years of age.

A. de Fussigny Cognac cellar master Main Royer has access to many of the older, privately owned lots of fine cognac, which he blends in small batches to create what has become an acclaimed line of cognacs. XO For Men by A. de Fussigny is an assemblage of 80% Grande Champagne and 20% Petite Champagne cognacs with an average barrel age of 35 years. Its attention-grabbing bottle resembles that used to market high-end cologne. The de Fussigny collection also includes a 12-year-old VSOP and the 100% Grande Champagne A. de Fussigny Tres Vielle Reserve Extra, which has an average age of 50 years, is bottled at cask strength.

Value hunters and connoisseurs alike will greatly appreciate Croizet Age Inconnu XO Cognac (A.V. Imports), an assemblage of reserve Grande Champagne and Fin Bois brandies, priced under $60. Indeed, all of the cognacs in their entire range, which also includes Croizet VSOP and Croizet XO Grande Champagne, are reasonably priced relative to their age, taste and delivered quality.

Another value-based brand new to the American market is Vendome Platinum VSOP (Charles Jacquin), a cognac with a blend comprised principally of three-year old brandies and 10% well-aged Imperial cognac. The brandy carries a price in the mid-teens.

MEDITERRANEAN BRANDIES GROWING

Many of the world's finest brandies are produced in Spain, and industry prognosticators are predicting that Spanish brandies will soon become the fastest-growing segment of the category.

The country's principal appellation, Brandy de Jerez, also happens to be the largest and most revered. It is located in the temperate south of Spain in the famous sherry-producing region.

Introduced in 1874 by the House of Domecq, Fundador was the first brand of Brandy de Jerez. It is solera aged in 500-liter oak barrels used previously to mature Xeres-Sherry. Domecq's top-end is ultra-premium Carlos I, a brandy aged in solera for more than 12 years, it has been granted the label of Solera Gran Reserva, the highest designation bestowed on a Brandy de Jerez. Carlos I is entirely alembic distilled from the Palomino grapes.

"Consumers are searching for taste differentiations and Spanish brandies offer a marvelous opportunity to discover many of the finest, most reasonably priced spirits available," noted Allied Domecq's Marcon.

The Domecq range also includes Don Pedro, one of the top five best-selling brandies in the world, and popular Terry Centenario, which is solera aged three years in 600-liter American oak, ex-sherry barrels.

Another Brandy de Jerez, priced under $30, is Gran Duque de Alba Solera Gran Reserva (William Grant & Sons). This highly rated, limited-quantity brandy is first matured in used sherry casks, then further aged by the traditional solera system.

Sales of Cardenal Mendoza Solera Gran Reserva (Shaw-Ross) have steadily increased, growing 9% last year alone. The limited production brandy by Sanchez Romate is a blend of up to 17 different braudies. The firm also now offers Uno en Mil Single Barrel Brandy de Jerez ($37). This rare brandy is alembic distilled and aged in American oak sherry casks for a minimum of 12 years.

Conde de Osborne brandies (W.J. Deutsch & Sons) and Salvador Dali have for years been linked together. On the anniversary of Dali's 100th birthday, the Osborne family released its exemplary Brandy de Jerez, Conde de Osborne Solera Gran Reserva ($50), in a beautifully sculpted porcelain decanter designed by Salvador Dali himself. The exceptionally light spirit is aged 10 years in former Pedro Ximenez sherry casks.

Considering the depth and breadth of Italy's wine industry, one would expect that some genuinely remarkable brandies would be produced there. Among the country's giants is Distillerie Stock (Distillerie Stock USA). Located in Trieste, the well-established firm produces a range of brandies that includes Stock '84, a VSOP aged a minimum of three years and Stock XO, which is matured in small barrels a mininmm of three years.

Crafted in Bologna, the brandies of Vecchia Romagna (A.V. Imports) are the best-selling spirits in Italy. The brandies are distilled entirely from Trebbiano di Romagna wines according to the "Charentes" method and aged in small Limousin oak casks. The Vecchia Romagna range includes the 3-year-old Etichctta Neta, a 10-year and 15-year Reserve, and Riserva Bacchus, a limited edition, 35-year-old brandy.

WHAT'S NEXT?

What is in store for the aristocracy of the spirits world? The experts we spoke to point to the likely expansion of single estate cognacs, such as Pernod Ricard's Chateau de Ligneres, or specialty cognacs, such as de Fussigny Cigare Blend, an asscmblage of 15-to 40-year-old first growth Grande and Pctite Champagne cognacs created to enhance the enjoyment of a fine hand-rolled cigar. Certainly there will be more vintage offerings.

Another tiny, but growing segment is the release of super-luxury, increasingly rare assemblages. For instance, an extremely limited edition of Remy Martin Louis XIII Grande Champagne retails for $10,000. Only 100 of the diamond-encrusted decanters are produced each year.

There are also a select few flavor extensions that work quite well with the multi-layered taste profile of cognac. Pear-flavored cognacs have appeared off and on in the market. And introduced this fall, Grand Marnier Navan (Schieffelin & Co.) is a blend of fine cognac and natural black vanilla from Madagascar. The dry, flavorful new 80-proof spirit carries a retail price of about $39.

Finally, the overall trends favor category expansion. According to Allied Domecq's Marcon, "Whether it's based on age, taste maturity of reasons of occasion, consumers typically trade up to cognac, which obviously helps the cognac category. We, like others, fully expect solid growth rates for brandy and cognac for minimally the next three to five years."
Leading Brands of Brandy & Cognac in the Control States

(Thousands of 9-liter cases)

Brand Origin Supplier 2002 2003 % Change

E & J USA E & J Gallo
 Winery 451,522 482,760 6.9%
Hennessy France Schieffelin &
Paul Masson Co. 328,566 356,949 8.6%
 Brandy USA Canandaigua
Christian Wine 320,097 326,023 1.9%
 Brothers Heaven Hill
 Brandy USA Distilleries 260,970 261,819 0.3%
Remy Martin France Remy Amerique 114,427 118,570 3.6%
Courvoisier France Allied Domecq
 Spirits USA 96,492 93,578 -3.0%
Martell France Pernod Ricard
 USA 61,667 60,404 -2.0%
Coronet VSQ USA Heaven Hill
 Distilleries 31,002 29,383 -5.2%
St. Remy France Remy Amerique 25,911 28,451 9.8%
Korbel Brandy USA Brown-Forman
 Beverages 20,235 20,304 0.3%
Total Leading
 Brands 1,710,889 1,778,241 3.9%
Others 161,865 163,731 1.2%
Total Brandy &
 Cognac 1,872,754 1,941,972 3.7%

Source: Adams Beverage Group from NABCA data.


Cognac-Based Aperitifs

Sometimes innovation can come to even the most venerable and aristocratic of products. The first on the scene was Alize (Kobrand), whose Red Passion is a blend of passion fruit juice, cranberry, natural flavors and Alize Cognac. The line also includes Alize Wild Passion, Alize Gold Passion and the latest release, Alize Bleu, which is a blend of French vodka, cognac and exotic fruit juices.

Remy Red (Remy Amerique) is another highly successful line and one that has resonated with younger consumers. Remy Red Berry Infusion is a blend of red berries, apricots and peaches. Naturally derived flavorings are added to the mix, which is then infused with aged, Remy Martin Fine Champagne cognac. The popular line has expanded to include Grape Berry Infusion, a blend of grapes, blueberries, apples and Fine Champagne cognac; and Strawberry Kiwi Infusion, the juice of strawberries and kiwis married with cognac.

The most phenomenal growth in the category belongs to Hpnotiq (Heaven Hill Distilleries), an aquamarine-hued liqueur from France made from an ultra-premium blend of triple-distilled vodka, aged cognac and a proprietary mix of natural While as versatile as a liqueur, the product is more like a skillfully crafted cocktail in a cork-finished bottle. The cognac used in its production is a blend of brandies from the Petite Champagne, Fins Bois and Borderies regions.

The category also includes XOteric and Envy, which recently introduced a mango version of its base product.

The latest entry in the category is the iridescent green Intrigue ($25, Skyy Spirits). The liqueur is a blend of French vodka, Louis Royer cognac and passion fruit.

The Best American Brandies You Might Not Have Heard Of

There exists a realm of award-winning, world-class brandies distilled in America that remains largely outside of the mainstream. These artisan spirits are crafted according to uncompromised standards from premium varietal grapes, and in one case, handpicked apples. Although they pay less attention than the glitzier brands, they are highly esteemed and guaranteed to satisfy the palate of any enthusiast or connoisseur.

* CHRISTIAN BROTHERS XO RARE RESERVE BRANDY--Made in the San Joaquin Valley, The Christian Brothers XO Rare Reserve is comprised of a high percentage of alembic distilled brandies. The Thompson Seedless grape is the principal variety because they possess the highly sought after qualities of high acidity, balanced flavor and low alcohol output. Prior to blending, the brandies are aged in American white oak bourbon barrels a minimum of four to six years.

* GERMAIN-ROBIN--The brandies crafted by Germain-Robin in Ukiah, CA are distilled in small batches in a 19th century, copper alembic still and aged in Limousin oak barrels. Included in their lofty repertoire is Anno Domini, a brandy distilled entirely from California pinot noir priced at about $350 per 750ml.

* JEPSON VINEYARDS--Also located in Ukiah, the Jepson Vineyard's range of superpremium brandies are double-distilled in the estate's alembic still, handmade entirely from French Colombard grapes and aged in Limousin oak. The line includes Jepson Rare, with an average age of 7 years; Old Stock, with an average age of 10 years and the 15-year-old Signature Reserve.

* LAIRD'S 12-YEAR-OLD RARE APPLE BRANDY--Crafted at the country's oldest distillery, Laird's 12-Year-Old Rare Apple Brandy is handcrafted in extremely limited quantity from a blend of five varieties of apples that are naturally fermented in large, 20,000-gallon oak vats. The impressively pure brandy is double-distilled in alembic stills and then aged in American white oak barrels for a minimum of 12 years.

* PAUL MASSON GRANDE AMBER VSOP--Paul Masson Grande Amber VSOP is priced for value, not competitive margins. Made in California, the Amber VSOP is a blend containing over 30% aged cognac, which is then further matured in oak barrels for a minimum of five years.--RP

Robert Plotkin is the past president of the National Bar & Restaurant Association and author of numerous books including the 5th edition of The Bartender's Companion: The Original Guide to American Cocktails and Drinks. He can be reached at BarMedia, 1-800-421-7179, of e-mail him at robert@barmedia.com.
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Author:Plotkin, Robert
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Date:Nov 1, 2004
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