When US hip-hop artist Busta Rhymes released a track earlier this year called Pass the Courvoisier, the boys in the marketing department at Allied Domecq could hardly contain themselves. They had been charting the rise of Cognac's success among urban Afro-Americans with glee - and this was the cherry on the cake. Hip-hop artists are highly influential among their fans, and if Mr Rhymes says Cognac is cool, it's cool, right?
Allied Domecq couldn't have failed to notice what has been happening with Champagne house Louis Roederer's top cuvée, Cristal. You might have seen the paparazzi's pictures yourselves - Puff Daddy and co, swigging straight from the gold-labelled bottle of bubbly. Then Courvoisier threw a party at the Mobo (Music of Black Origin) awards last month, with Cognac cocktails on tap. The party, aboard the Sunborn Yacht hotel moored in London's Docklands, was said to be the best-attended of the awards parties, with guests including music artists Ja Rule, Ms Dynamite and the SugaBabes. All of this has been manna from heaven for the marketing boys, as sales have since soared. Courvoisier is now the top-selling brand of Cognac in the UK, according to the latest AC Nielsen figures.
It must be a relief, too, for other Cognac producers, as the region has been having a difficult time of late. Global sales had been on a steady downward slide - until the US phenomenon. And sales in the UK were not exactly buoyant. "It's not that we want to change its image," explains Claire Coates, of the Bureau National Interprofessionnel du Cognac (BNIC), "we want to make Cognac more accessible. The problem is that it is seen as such a traditional drink, consumed by men - mainly older men - sitting in a leather armchair with a dog at their feet. We want to escape from all of this."
The bureau is doing a good job of it, too. It has targeted style bars across France, working closely with top mixologists, spreading the word that Cognac is cool, that it makes a great base for a cocktail, and even that it makes a partner for food.
The UK push started in October with the Cognac Vendange Day at the stylish London eatery and club, Embassy, where a dozen or so Cognac producers showed off their wares, all the while doing their best to jig about to the Cognac Groove. This was another new marketing tool, the result of the BNIC commissioning a top French DJ to mix a compilation CD especially for the BNIC's style bar and club market.
There was plenty of new packaging on show (Hine won my award for the Most Slick New Bottle), and even some new product launches, such as Hennessy Pure White - a "white" Cognac that's actually golden in colour - a simpler animal than Hennessy's other recent launch, new VSOP Fine de Cognac.
"Try this," says Cyrille Gautier-Auriol, Hennessy's Cognac-based PR man, shoving a Pure White and ginger ale on the rocks into my hand. "Good, no?" Actually, not bad. "It's a spice thing," he says. "The ginger ale works with the peppery finish of the Cognac."
Rémy Martin, meanwhile, is busy thrusting Sidecars into people's hands (4cl Rémy VS Grand Cru, 2cl Cointreau, dash of lemon juice). "Yes, cocktails are back in fashion, but now people want to taste what's in them," says Rémy's marketing man, Tim Banks. "The better the product you put in, the better the drink is. There's nothing wrong with the product on its own, mind. It's just how people perceive it - after dinner with a cigar, etc. It's about opening your mind - Cognac has not been fully exploited yet."
In fact, all the major Cognac houses have now developed a cocktail strategy, and the BNIC has dutifully responded with a new cocktail book. And from this month, Rémy has also got behind a series of special Cognac dinners. They've signed up more than 100 restaurants around the world (20 of them in France) for the events, which will take place over the next six months. Each course is paired with a specific Cognac - served in 2cl measures with plenty of water on the side. As an example: "Salmon tartare goes brilliantly with chilled or frozen Rémy VSOP," says Banks, enthusiastically. And, apparently, lamb chops are just great with Rémy's XO Special, which is also good with dark chocolate - and that I can vouch for.
by Fiona Sims