Regenerating French brandy

St-Rémy master blender Cécile Roudaut is on a mission to modernise a well-known but misunderstood category.

French brandy might have a bit of an image problem. Compared to its cousins – flashy, suave cognac and cultured, studious armagnac – the category could be seen as a bit of an amorphous relic. If that rings true, well, maybe you’ve not been paying attention to St-Rémy, which, under the leadership of master blender Cécile Roudaut, is helping to bring the category into modern drinking.

Roudaut’s approach to the category can be best encapsulated in Signature, a brandy contemporary in design and flavour that she began developing when still working under her predecessor, Martine Pain, in 2013.

“I was looking for something that would regenerate the brandy category. When I approached Signature, I was searching for fruitiness, roundness, something very gourmet and versatile.

“I wanted something with vanilla and coconut, like American whiskey. Our average consumer is 45 years old and male. I wanted to make something for women and younger people too, so I wanted to make something that was smooth and easy to drink. When I develop products, I always try to speak to as many people as I can.”

Roudaut succeeded Pain in 2016 as the creative force behind St-Rémy but her history with the Rémy Cointreau group goes back to the late 1990s, and the diversity in career this has afforded her directly informs her sensibility. With French brandy, she has a category where her creativity is unrestricted by the same strict production regulations that French AOP spirit makers must conform to.

“I started my career working with wine,” explains Roudaut. “But when I joined Rémy Cointreau [in 1997], I worked on liqueurs such as Passoã and Cointreau, but also spirits like cachaça, tequila, armagnac and rum, so I learned a lot from very different products.

“I’m very lucky with brandy. I can explore so many ways of innovating. I explore the raw materials with different varieties, I can play with monovarietals or different regions, to get to what I have in my mind. And I have options for the distillation process, I can use eaux-de-vie from pot still, column still, coffey still, and combine several to create a balanced product. I’m very lucky that I can explore so much.”

Having such a broad colour palette is a luxury for a painter but without limitations, it’s important to keep one hand firmly on the reins.

“I have to be careful not to lose the DNA of St-Rémy. I have so many possibilities that it’s easy to lose it. The first few trials I did for Signature were marvellous, they had that coconut and vanilla that I was looking for, but it wasn’t St-Rémy. I can never be impulsive. It’s not me alone, it’s all the people around me, I have [assistant blender] Adrien [Robichon], the marketing team, our consumers and bartenders. We have a community who help shape each product and make sure it has the St-Rémy identity.”

Showcase for versatility

The brand’s Cask Finish Collection, a range of collaborative finishes that has seen the spirit finished in Chardonnay, Sauternes and Cabernet Sauvignon wine casks, Barbados rum and Islay Scotch casks, and sherry and port casks, is a perfect showcase for this versatility. The series recently concluded with the release of Finished in Calvados Casks, which used oak casks that previously held calvados produced by Château du Breuil in Normandy.

But a lack of control can be as much of a curse as a blessing. French AOP products such as cognac and armagnac have rigorous regulations – it’s something the country has become famous for. Champagne’s tendency to launch into litigation to protect its brand is well-known beyond the confines of the drinks industry. Without strict guidelines, St-Rémy has been free to create its own identity, but it has allowed cheap, sub-quality brandy to flood the market and give the category a bad name.

“We need to regenerate the brandy category. We need to propose a more mixable product, a product that’s easy to drink, and to educate our consumer to explain what brandy is. The European regulation of just six months on wood isn’t enough. To have a quality product you need time and you need care.

“At the moment, it’s crazy what some people do. Sometimes the distillation process takes place in Spain, the maturation process in Spain, and the only thing done in France is the bottling, I can’t understand it. It’s a lie to tell the consumer that it’s a French brandy. We need to have regulation – for the consumer, for us, and for the competition – because it is unfair for people who want to make a beautiful product to have competitors with a lower price and a lower-quality product but to the consumer, they’re the same thing.”

Roudaut is creating for St-Rémy and the wider brandy category a blueprint to shake off any negative stigma of the past – Signature is her symbol of that change. But French brandy still has a fundamental problem, it fits into a dangerous bracket of well-known but misunderstood. If Roudaut’s St-Rémy can change that through regulation or education, that’ll be her legacy.