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COGNAC, the luxury brandy named after the eponymous city where it is distilled, is seeing a major surge in popularity in the world.
At the top end of the market, unabashed opulence is the name of the game. For instance, in March, Ranjeeta Dutt McGroarty, the founder and director of Trinity Natural Gas in India, spent £10,014 (S$18,237) for a 40ml serving of Rome de Bellegarde, believed to be the very first blend created by cognac house Jean Fillioux in 1894.
Rappers, too, have gotten into the game, helping cognac to shed its rather stodgy image. These musicians are both drinking and investing in cognac. According to BBC, Jay-Z's investment in cognac is a major reason why he is now the richest rapper for the first time.
Even as its image is evolving, its popularity has grown by leaps and bounds.
According to industry association Bureau National Interprofessionnel du Cognac, the three top destinations for cognac shipments in 2016/2017 were the United States (78.7 million bottles), Singapore (23.6 million) and China (22.6 million). Shipments to the Far East scored the highest growth, rising 10.6 per cent to 53.7 million bottles.
Figures from the Fédération des Exportateurs de Vins & Spiritueux de France's also show that while France's wine and spirits exports had increased by 8.5 per cent to more than 12.9 billion euros (S$20.5 billion) in 2017, cognac exports registered the strongest growth at 10.8 per cent to over three billion euros.
Cognac makers are scrambling to satisfy this raging thirst for cognac. For instance, the world's biggest brandy producer Hennessy opened a new plant in south-west France in October last year to meet the bourgeoning demand in the US and Asia. According to an AFP report, Hennessy, which was bought by LVMH luxury goods group in 1987, will expand its production of the Very Special Old Pale (VSOP), which is aged for at least four years, and Extra Old (XO), aged for over 10 years. These two varieties are favoured by big-spending Chinese customers.
What is so alluring about cognac?
Perhaps it has something to do with the multi-layered warm flavours created from a precise and complex process. To make cognac, wine is distilled twice to highlight the desired flavours and remove impurities. The resulting liquid, eau-de-vie, then has to mature and age in oak barrels for at least two years. After this maturation, it is blended, bottled and becomes cognac.
Maurice Hennessy, an eighth generation member of the renowned cognac family, explains: "All cognacs are like a symphony orchestra for a very subtle and complex sort of music like Brahms. Cognac is always a harmonious blend of various vintages and estates from Cognac, and blended together by a master blender and his team."
For the Hennessy house, the master blender has always been the Fillioux family.
Mr Hennesy was in Singapore to launch Hennesy Paradis Imperial, which goes for around S$2,800 here. Because Paradis Imperial is such a superlative blend, he says that only 10 out of 10,000 eau-de-vie from any given harvest has the potential to be included in the blend. Identifying and nurturing such greatness in an eau-de-vie requires great expertise and talent. This is where the master blender comes in.
Paradis Imperial is a creation of seventh-generation master blender Jann Fillioux. Mr Fillioux's nephew, Renaud Fillioux de Gironde, became the eighth-generation master blender last year. This passing of the master blender title and responsibilities within a family has remained unbroken for more than two centuries.
The master blender's savoir faire is to define the right ageing conditions to raise a fine eau-de-vie to its peak elegance so that it may be worthy to be included in the Paradis Imperial blend. One element playing an important role in the ageing process is the barrels used.
Mr Hennesy says: "For the truly extraordinary cognacs, the ageing process would have been in very old oak barrels, which give much less tannin, and create more subtle flavours. Tannin is a good part of the cognac but it's important not to have too much. It's like having pepper. A little is good to add depth and subtlety."
Because the flavours of the various cognacs differ widely, there are a variety of ways to drink cognac. Mr Hennesy says: "The best way to drink cognac is the way you want it. Cognac is great on its own or with mixers. For VSOP and below, you can drink with fizzy water, ginger ale or tonic."
He points out that the original cocktails in the 19th century used cognac. Today, cognac cocktails are seeing a resurgence in popularity among the younger set.
For the higher-end drinks, such as Paradis Imperial, he recommends that they be drunk neat. He also likes to drink Hennessy XO on the rocks, with ice made in a freezer, not an ice machine. The water also has to have a neutral flavour, and not be heavily chlorinated.
"What we don't want is a foreign taste in the cognac." In Singapore, it should be kept indoors so that it would remain relatively cool.
Finally, says Mr Hennessy, heating cognac is a no-no. "Don't warm your glass then pour in the cognac. Warming is simply not good for the brandy." W