About 212.5 million bottles of Cognac were sold in 2022, according to the Bureau National Interprofessionnel du Cognac (BNIC), the spirit’s trade organization. Only 2.8 percent, or about 5.95 million of them, were sold in France, with the remaining 97.2 percent exported to leading markets such as the United States, China, and elsewhere in Europe.
How is it possible that the French don’t consume their own product, one with centuries of storied history?
Calling such disinterest an outlier doesn’t do it justice. Think about any other food or beverage that’s innately tied to a specific region and it’s likely consumed with love and viewed as a prized delicacy in its homeland. Imagine the Spanish not lining their plates with Jamón Ibérico, or the Italians having no interest in Parmigiano Reggiano. Every bar in Peru believes it makes the world’s best Pisco Sour, and every pub in Prague lays claim to the best pour of pilsner. While American tastes have been cyclical over the generations, there’s no denying bourbon’s current place among stateside drinkers. Certainly the French would concur with the theory, too, given their reverence for domestic wine, cheese, and Champagne. So why don’t they drink Cognac?
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Cognac’s Foreign-Focused History
Cognac is unique compared to the aforementioned products because while it hails from France, its conception wasn’t French. In the Cognac entry in “The Oxford Companion to Spirits & Cocktails,” the late Nicholas Faith wrote: “In the 16th century the Dutch, then masters of the seas, were looking for brandy as a less bulky alternative to the wine they carried to quench their sailors’ thirst. They soon found that the acidic white wines grown on the slopes above Cognac were ideal for distilling into ‘brandwijn,’ so they brought in their own stills and taught the locals how to use them.” The term brandwijn, or burnt wine, became brandy — and ipso facto, Cognac became yet another branch on the already-outsized genever family tree.
“That area has always been a trading hub due to its proximity to the sea through the Gironde estuary, with salt preceding wine and then brandwijn as a main source of trade with northern European countries,” explains Flavien Desoblin, owner of New York’s Brandy Library bar and a native of Burgundy. “The very origins of Cognac, the ‘burning of the wine’ through distillation was to stabilize a product that had to travel far and long up to these countries. In other words, Cognac was always for the ‘others.’”
According to BNIC, the first Cognac house was founded in 1643. “Foreigners invested in many of these early Cognac houses,” says Francois Thibault, a Cognac native who left a career with his region’s eponymous spirit to become Grey Goose’s cellar master. “In the minds of the French, it’s something made by foreigners for foreigners.” In 1715, Jean Martell, a British merchant from the Island of Jersey, founded his namesake brand, and in 1765, Hennessy got its start via Irishman Richard Hennessy.
“It was being traded, shipped, and sold from the earliest days,” says ms. franky marshall, a New York-based bartender and certified spirits educator.
And from those earliest days, Cognac thrived in the homelands of its major founders, including the U.K. and Irish markets.“Even our classifications such as VS, VSOP and XO were created mostly for English-speaking markets, so those consumers could understand what it means and the differences between them,” says Bastien Gardrat, a bartender and Cognac native who serves as the global spirits ambassador for the Forbes Travel Guide.
With Cognac shipped overseas, another French brandy won over the hearts and minds — or is it the livers and palates? — of the French. “Armagnac, in spite of a much longer history, was never given the chance of development through these trade routes and remained a local affair,” Desoblin says. “It’s also always been a bit rougher of a product, first satisfying farmers and local laborers, whereas the ‘fancy’ palates of London and Amsterdam preferred the smoother, more rounded and elegant, Cognac.”
If there’s no love for consuming the product, though, there is a clear regional pride in the production of Cognac. It’s the largest industry in the region, and employs 17,000 people and indirectly supports about 60,000 total jobs, according to the BNIC. Thibault says that when Grey Goose made Cognac its home, it wasn’t welcomed with a warm embrace, and he and the brand had to prove to the local populace that they were making a quality product with intention, earning their position and reputation in town. The locals might not be drinking much of the stuff — although I’d venture that the stats would show 90 percent of that 2.8 percent is within Cognac itself — but they care quite a bit about protecting how, where, and by whom it’s made.
Thibault says that Cognac was never made readily available to the masses in France, and therefore, there was never a culture for consuming and appreciating the spirit. Over the generations, perhaps the dynamic became flipped to an extent. If they’re taking our spirit and enjoying it over there, why should we bother to care about it here?
Even if Cognac’s image has evolved in places such as the U.S., in France, the stereotype is still a grandfather reaching for a dusty bottle after dinner, and sitting in his leather chair sipping from a snifter. “They don’t think we can use Cognac for other purposes than that,” Gardrat says. “The paradox is that many will take whiskey for an aperitif, and would never think that we can do the same with Cognac, as Cognac can’t get mixed.”
Of course, Cognac can get mixed. It’s almost always mixed. While the perception of Cognac for many is still of that fireside after-dinner drink, almost 80 percent of Cognac consumption is in mixed drinks. “Abroad the image and consumption methods are way different,” Gardrat says. “But in France, it has never been used in any way other than neat, particularly after dinner or with a cigar historically.”
Will Cognac Ever Find its French Footing?
On the snifter-is-half-full side, a 2.8 percent market share provides a lot of runway for future gains. “Sometimes we take the things closest to us for granted,” marshall says. “However, it’s not unlike what happened with American whiskey, rye in particular, that post-Prohibition was considered somewhat, ahem, ‘old fashioned’ due to changing tastes and perhaps being considered a drink for people of a certain age.”
As with a category such as rye whiskey, cocktails indeed may be the key. “The cocktail renaissance helped bring it back, and French bartenders are doing the same with Cognac by revisiting classic cocktails, and designing new ones with Cognac as a base, reintroducing the French to something that’s been there all along,” marshall says.
But there’s still the need to change the built-in bias in France against using Cognac for anything beyond that stereotypical, formal time and place. “We have to educate French people about what Cognac really is and show all the different ways you can enjoy it, its versatility and also its worldwide popularity,” Gardrat says. The BNIC concedes that in France, “general consumers are not usually familiar with Cognac,” but sees an appreciation for craft products, and the rise of cocktail culture, as hopeful signals for a potential growth spurt at home. “I think it’s already growing thanks to education, the trade, outreach by certain brands,” marshall says. “Savvy French bartenders know that Cognac is a de rigueur base for cocktails and have been incorporating it into their menus.”
Old habits die hard, though, and any major shift in France’s Cognac consumption patterns may occur on more of a generational scale. But there is a silver lining if you know where to search for it. “The French not drinking Cognac is a shame indeed, but at least it leaves the door open to Armagnac for them to consume,” Desoblin says.
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