If whiskey is for women, is Cognac for chicks?

Is Cognac for chicks? (This seems especially relevant today, as it’s International Women’s Day.) 

That was one of the assumptions at the International Cognac Summit I attended mid-January, in France’s Cognac region. In fact, the event, hosted by the BNIC, revolved around how to persuade more women to take up Cognac.

It’s taken me a while to organize my still-scattered thoughts about this trip, and it seems best to post them in three tranches — a few general ideas, then a look at the “big 3″ Cognac houses, and finally, some snaps from an independent Cognac maker.

A few takeaways:

The French don’t drink Cognac. “In France, this is a digestif for old men,” we were informed by Elise Gartio, a sociologist with LadyVin (yes, that’s the name of the research firm). When we met with reps from the Cognac houses, they underscored this point: most Cognac is exported to the United States, followed closely by the United Kingdom. Physician, heal thyself?? Considering how women around the world follow French fashion, perhaps it’s time for French women to become Cognac ambassadors.

The cocktail is regarded as the savior for Cognac, particularly to attract female drinkers. This makes sense; most spirits are consumed in this format. There was a lot of talk about how to do for Cognac what “Mad Men” did for whiskey and gin. I suggested resurrecting the Japanese Cocktail, but I don’t think I sold anyone on that idea.

We had a cocktail making “competition” – the winner was the Lady Coeur (team led by Willy Shine):  VSOP Cognac, Carpano Antica, lemon and orange juices, brut Champagne, dusting of cinnamon, orange zest). It’s a good cocktail, although I still can’t shake my misgivings about creating a cocktail “for the ladies.” This is a good cocktail. For human beings. Whatever (eye roll).

Packaging matters to Cognac drinkers. Frankly, I think this is true of all spirits categories. Lest you think this was just another cushy press trip, let me assure you that we had to sing for our supper:  for every Cognac tasted, we were expected to fill out a lengthy form evaluating the appearance and packaging, aroma and flavor profiles for each product. (Nearly 1,400 forms were collected from the group of about 30 people…you do the math!)

After the survey dust settled, the bottles that ranked highest among women (or among men who thought they were predicting for women) were generally XO Cognacs (the oldest and most delicious) housed in perfume-like bottles described as “luxury, rounded, original” and featuring soft/round aromas with “tasty” notes (the charming French translation for food-like aromas such as vanilla, spices, fruit or dried fruit, or pastry-like aromas). Sommelier Dominique LaPorte summarized that women “are looking for elegance, not power, in Cognac aromas.” I suspect that’s true of drinkers of any gender, though.

Take this quiz: is it perfume or hooch?

It’s no secret that aroma counts for a lot in enjoying spirits. And it’s no secret that many spirits bottles resemble perfume flagons. But the line between liquor and perfume is getting awfully blurry. Don’t believe me? Take this little quiz. Is it perfume or hooch?
 
Example 1:  Is it perfume or hooch?

Eau de Robideau

Answer:  HOOCH!  This pretty flask, full of Scotch, was passed around at a recent Women & Whiskey event, and we were encouraged to spray it on our wrists. It smelled sweet and Bourbon-like, with woodsy and fig-like notes.

Example 2:  Is it perfume or hooch?

Suntory spritzers

Answer:  HOOCH! This is whiskey again. These little perfume spritzers were given out to journalists at a Suntory whiskey launch. But we were asked to spray it into glasses for sniffing the aroma, not encouraged to spray it on ourselves. (Note – atomizers could be a great way to do an absinthe “rinse” for Sazeracs.)

Example 3:  Is it perfume or hooch?

Fresh Sake

Answer:  PERFUME!  Sold at Sephora, folks.

Want more proof? Jump over to the informative Cocktails & Cologne blog to read about the new arrangement between perfumer Roja Dove and Macallan whiskey.

So…how long before someone comes out with a truly potable perfume? Or a spirit meant to spritzed on without leaving you smelling like a sticky Manhattan? Gin seems to be taking on an increasingly floral cast — that gets my vote for most likely to cross the perfume/hooch frontier once and for all.