taxfreetravel.com - guide to duty-free Cognac
Duty-free and Cognac are much like an old married couple. They have been shacked up together for what seems like forever and, despite some rocky patches, they have both come to depend on each other to the extent that it would be difficult for either of them to go it alone.
For duty-free retailers, aisles of expensive Cognacs, packaged in their beautiful cut-crystal decanters and mahogany display cases, have always been an excellent hook for attracting wealthy businessmen in to their stores. Cognac’s aspirational status for social climbers makes it an excellent gift or luxury self indulgence, and its high price ticket offers retailers excellent profit margins.
As for the big four Cognac houses Hennessy, Rémy Martin, Martell and Courvoisier, international airport duty-free shops provide them with an excellent shop window for their brands. Nowhere else will you find such a concentrated source of ABC1 customers. Indeed, duty-free is still the Cognac industry’s third largest export market with sales of over 1.2 million cases in 2007.
Mind you, many duty-free shops are having a hard time in securing enough of this famous French tipple to fill their shelves at present. Since the turn of the Millennium the Cognac business has been enjoying an unprecedented period of growth thank to an unlikely new fan base comprising rap music-loving Afro-Americans, fat cats from China and Russia, and hip bartenders who love inventing new cocktails with this age-old drink.
Consequently, stocks of older Cognacs are increasingly in short supply. The problem boils down to one of supply and demand. Back in the late 1990s, Cognac was the George Bush of alcoholic spirits • derided for being old, unfashionable and out of touch. Sales dropped to record lows as demand dried up in hard-up Japan, the one remaining boom market for the drink. Grape production in Cognac was scaled down with many growers and smaller producers going out of business altogether.
So when Cognac sales suddenly started to lift in the early years of the new century, the industry was caught napping with only limited amounts of aged stock to draw on. To make matters worse, it was difficult for suppliers to scale up production because French law rules that Cognac has to be distilled from grapes grown from the small region surrounding the town of Cognac in south-west France and nowhere else.
As a result, travellers have found that the price of their favourite duty-free Cognac has rocketed in recent years and in some parts of the world such as Scandinavia many have switched to single malt Scotch whisky. That’s a big shame in my view since Cognac remains a wonderfully versatile spirit • a perfect after-dinner digestive savoured slowly in a brandy snifter beside the fire, or drunk as part of a stylish cocktail in a trendy city bar or club.
So if you are planning on buying a bottle, don’t baulk at the price just yet. Remember Cognac is expensive to produce• the basic process has changed little in over 300 years, and every step is strictly controlled by regulations, making modernisation difficult. For example, Cognac can only be made from three grape varieties (Ugni Blanc, Folle Blanche or Colombard), and it must be distilled twice in copper pot stills (other brandies are often only distilled once).
The finished spirit has to be matured in oak barrels for at least two years before it can be sold as Cognac. Most Cognacs sold are like blended Scotch whiskies in that they contain a mixture of many different spirits (or eaux-de-vie in the case of Cognac), blended together by the distillery’s master taster to produce a consistent brand flavour.
What makes it complicated for Cognac novices is that a lot of Cognacs are much older than the minimum two years the law requires. Moreover, the age-defining classification system the industry uses to aid consumers to make the right choice is about as clear as mud.
So here is our back-to-basics guide to Cognac labelling:
VS (Very Special)
Contains eaux-de-vie aged at least two years, but some maybe older. Great for mixing in cocktails.
VSOP (Very Special Old Pale)
Contains eaux-de-vie aged at least four years. Best savoured on its own, but can be mixed.
XO (Extra Old)
Contains eaux-de-vie aged at least six years, but the average age of the spirit used is nearer 20. Don’t reach for the mixer, and enjoy very slowly.
You may also see the term ‘Napoleon’
, which generally refers to Cognacs priced in between the VSOP and XO categories, and ‘Extra’, which are usually top-end products selling at a significant premium to XO varieties.
Three Great Airport Shops for Cognac
World Duty Free, London Heathrow Terminal Five
A great selection of Cognacs to be found in the terminal’s main liquor shop and don’t pass up the opportunity to taste whatever new product is being promoted at the excellent tasting bar. The shop staff really know their stuff.
Aelia Pure et Rare, Paris Charles De Gaulle
(CDG) (Terminals 1 and 2)
Shoppers will find a superb selection of rare vintage Cognacs at Aelia’s Pure et Rare shops at Paris CDG, many from smaller, less well-known Cognac houses. There are also some travel-retail exclusive products such as the recently released Hennessy Diptyque.
DFS, Singapore Changi
Arguably, the leading Asian airport shop for duty-free Cognac and the location for a string of exclusive launches in the region, most recently Hennessy Privé, a limited release packaged in Art Deco style leather gift box http://www.changiairport.com/changi/en/airport_guide/malls_changi.html