The Brandy Report (6/12): French brandy

In the latest instalment of the Brandy Report Hamish Smith looks at French brandies from outside of Cognac and Armagnac.


WORKING IN FRENCH BRANDY, BUT NOT IN COGNAC OR ARMAGNAC, IS A BIT LIKE WORKING IN FRENCH FASHION BUT NOT IN PARIS. No matter the cut of your cloth, some will never like the cut of your jib. Without these geographical credentials there is a perception that something is missing – or even quality is lacking.

Producers of these ‘other brandies’ have traditionally struggled to make a name for themselves, living in the shadow of cognac and, to a lesser extent, armagnac.  Mostly this is because producers of the Charente and the Gers specialised early. They decided their wine was for brandy production, whereas other regions made wine and a little brandy on the side – often marc, made from pomace. 

According to Sullivan Doh, proprietor of the French-spirits-only bar in Paris, Le Syndicat, regions that made wine concentrated their efforts on marketing wine, while the specialist brandy regions of Cognac and Armagnac forged ahead.  With cognac monopolising exports, other brandy producers were mostly forced into a parochial outlook. To this day a lot of brandy consumption is regional with, for example, Burgundians and Alsacians enjoy local marcs. 

As the brandy that flew the nest, cognac has something of an image problem in France. It’s said that the French drink more scotch than the British, who drink more cognac than the French. There are historical reasons for this, but let’s ask Matthew Long, a Londoner working in Paris bar Lulu White, which specialises in French spirits. 

“Cognac is a large commercial enterprise and my feeling is that has driven the French to abandon their most successful brandy. Cognac, and indeed armagnac, are viewed as products for the older generation. Our French clients view scotch or bourbon as far more exciting and innovative, which is, to some extent, the absolute antithesis of these traditional French brandies.” 

But cognac producers won’t be crying into the Charente. They don’t need France because they are needed everywhere else. 

But without the reputation of a category behind them, other French brandies must fly solo. One to have risen from its wine region and built international business under cognac’s shadow is the Bordeaux-based Bardinet which, together with its Beehive brand, is the largest non-cognac French brandy producer at 320,000 cases. 

Bardinet has a diversified approach, offering VSOP and XO on its eponymous mainstream brandy and VSOP and Honey flavour on the premium Beehive. The company has sniffed out opportunity in countries where it can trade off its Frenchness, such as the Middle East, Australian and UK off trade, India, Sri Lanka and Scandinavia, along with duty free. This strategy has seen compound two-year growth of 7.5% in volume and 9% in value. 

 Three Barrels and St Rémy are also international. As a brand of Rémy Cointreau, St Rémy benefits from global distribution and sits neatly below Rémy Martin, which is currently phasing out its VS. Terry Barker, sales and marketing director at St Rémy UK agent Cellar Trends, says there “has been a bit a switch from cognac” to other brandies in the UK off-trade, but more so to non-French brandies. 

He says cognac was down 6%, French brandy 5% and non-French brandy up 4% in the 12 months ending mid-November, according to Nielsen. Barker reports brandy “doesn’t have a role in the UK on-trade”, which is “90% cognac” and almost entirely made up of “three or four brands”. But he sees innovations such as St Rémy with French Honey as a route into the on-trade. For more on flavoured brandy, see page 23.  

St Rémy – as Three Barrels and Bardinet – does not offer VS level. This is no accident. For these French brandies, margin is slightly lower and without the ‘category brand’ (eg cognac or armagnac) it makes sense to skip straight to the quality descriptor of VSOP.

Punching above their weight is what these brandies do. If cognac or armagnac offer VS for more than £20, the likes of St Rémy, Bardinet and Three Barrels must offer VSOP for under £20. Until the conversation changes from price to quality and innovation, this will always be their lot. Diversification offers these French brandies a chance to flower. As cognac is tied up in its own regulations, French brandies are free to produce innovative styles. Scotch whisky-style cask finishes and exclusive limited editions could hold the key to the premium market – and on cue is the new Bardinet XO Limited Edition Grand Cru Wine Cask Finish. 

Currently travel retail has been targeted (see page 24), but to create a meaningful movement the best place is the on-trade. Lulu White’s Long says there is currently a “false image” that non-cognac and armagnac brandies are of lower quality among the trade but says he can also see a “movement towards using lesser-known French products”. 

If France’s other brandies from the likes of Bardinet down to smaller artisanal regional spirits are to grow,
they might look to French bartenders as their champions. “If we don’t, who will?” says Le Syndicat’s Doh. “I hope Le Syndicat will be a window on our French heritage.”

The Brandy Report comes in 12 parts. Folllow the links here Category introduction by Hamish Smith (1/12), Brandy in the Philipinnes by Hamish Smith (2/12)Cognac by Nicholas Faith (3/12)Premium brandies by Richard Woodard (4/12)Armagnac by Ian Buxton (5/12)French brandy by Hamish Smith (6/12)Spanish brandies by Dominic Roskrow (7/8)