Results: Cognac Masters 2019 – Asia

Cognac is one of those drinks that is known for its high-end appeal. Our blind-tasting competition sought to put aside packaging and frills and concentrate on the liquid itself.

PRODUCTS FROM a few French regions are seemingly born with an innate superiority. One is Champagne, another is Cognac. Whenever discussing Cognac, it is often in relation to the world of prestige and luxury. Often housed in extravagant boxes and crystal decanters, Cognac is often related to gifting, especially in China, where it is one of the most common gifts for Chinese people to treat their acquittances to on special occasions. However, for ardent drinkers, it is one of the great spirits of note and, once the fancy packaging is removed from the equation, all that counts is the taste. The samples that we received for our Cognac Masters – Asia competition spanned various style and price ranges. Half of them were XO Cognacs, with price points starting at HK$870. Starting with the most affordable entry, the first XO premium in the competition was Prince Hubert de Polignac XO Royal, which earned a silver medal. “I like the beautiful nose,” said judge Terry Wong, retail manager & sommelier at Ginsberg + Chan. “It is filled with scents of plum and oakiness.”

Further up the price band were a couple of Silver winners in the XO premium range, including J. G. Monnet & Co. XO and Larsen Cognac XO Reserve. Louis Royer Cognac XO provided the first Gold medal. As Ken Man, buyer at Ginsberg+Chan, noted, it was, “very balanced and smooth. The strength builds up very gently and shows long length.” Compared with whisky, the age statement for Cognac is not as clear. The minimum ageing of XO used to be six years, and Man reckoned the lack of transparency is causing confusion in the market. He said: “The vast majority of quality distilleries are ageing their XO for more than six years, even up to 10 years [the new minimum age requirement since January 2018].”

He argued that clearer but more stringent regulations would shake out poorer-quality XO Cognacs and enhance the category’s overall reputation. Moving on to the VSOP category with a price band under HK$1,000, the performance of the entries was average. We had three Silver and one Gold Medal in this class.

All in all, the panel found them to be decent but a few of them showed a little harshness and imbalance of alcohol, losing some points from the judges. Yet, when taking into account the price, the judges agreed that the bottles were good value for money. The only no-age single-cru Cognac in the competition was Louis Royer Cognac Extra, and, somewhat befitting its price and ambition, became the only bottle to be awarded a Master. “With this price, the Cognac gets everything right, with a complete package that offers great intensity, silky texture and wonderful flavours like dark fruits, tobacco and so on. I can sit down and enjoy this Cognac with a cigar for an hour,” said John Rhodes, director of Caskells.

During the discussion, the judges were questioned about the positioning of Cognac in the market. Wong said: “Back in the days when I was still working in a fine dining restaurant, there were not many customers ordering Cognac, as the price could be the double that of whisky. For this reason, many would go for whisky instead.”

Man also agreed that Cognac is not a big seller at the retail level, and people would rather look for rare whiskies. He said: “The single-cask whisky is hitting the luxury market very well, and some brands have invited celebrities like David Beckham to endorse their products. This has revolutionised and refreshed the image of whisky. Nowadays, many young people are turning to whisky if they want a sophisticated drink. This is something Cognac producers might also want to consider.”

It is true that despite Cognacs usually coming in lavish packaging, the style is fairly old-fashioned, which does not always speak to the younger generation. Although Cognac was once the preeminent imported luxury spirit consumed in Asia, whisky has increasingly set a precedent for Cognac to follow. It is undeniable that the growth of Cognac in the market is still slow, especially in contrast with other spirit categories, namely whisky, gin and Tequila. The marketing and branding of Cognac has a lot of ground to make up.

To Rhodes, apart from giving a facelift to Cognac’s ancient image, anti-counterfeiting measures could and should be brushed up as well. He recalled his experiences in some wine and spirits tradeshows in China where he found a handful of XO brands of dubious quality. “I had tried an expensive-looking bottle that came with a plastic cork, and the drink was basically a mixture of alcohol and caramel colouring that I had to spit out at once,” he said. However, regardless of possible counterfeit problems, Rhodes also took the lack of variety as one of the major issues of Cognac industry, and that was because of the excessive control by the big houses in the region.

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