Charles Mazeau works for Fussigny Cognac and have been in the industry for years. Bag om Baren interviewed Charles to get an idea of the history behind cognac.
Could you please give a brief introduction of yourself and how you got to be in the industry?
I have always been a wine and spirit lover and most particularly I have always been attracted to this business. I like how much of a game this business is. The possibilities and the routes to market are so diverse. The global aspect of the category makes it all even broader and more interesting to me. I started working in the wine business in the national market and quickly shifted to spirits when the opportunity of working with A de Fussigny came along. I have now been responsible for the global distribution of the company’s portfolio for the last three and a half years.
Can you tell us a bit about the history of cognac?
Our wines have raised interest in Northern Europe, Holland, the UK and so forth for a very long time. I believe the first shipments date back to the 13th century. People initially imported still wines until the Dutch started distilling them to better preserve the product and cut shipment costs. Later, the double distillation method was brought in which made the product more consistent for shipments overseas. Rapidly, merchants, mostly from Great Britain, established companies in the region and the trade intensified. At the beginning of the 20th century after putting in a lot of hard work to rebuild the vineyard following the Phyloxera crisis, the production area was marked out and later on in 1936, cognac was recognized as an Appellation d’Origine Controlée (AOC). All in all and funny enough, cognac was partly created by foreigners and has historically been an exported product!
How did cognac end up as one of the most popular high end spirits often associated with class and style?
Cognac is a prestigious, natural, wine-based spirit which craft relies on the combination of an ancestral savoir faire passed through generations, a unique production process and the fruit of an exceptional Appellation area. The fact that production is limited to the Appellation capacity is an additional factor of uniqueness. Cognac has greatly contributed to the French worldwide reputation in regards with gastronomy, wine and spirits production as well as to the idea of the “French art de vivre”. But it has also benefited from it as it all reciprocates as a whole. Finally, unlike many other French spirits, cognac was imported right off in multiple countries throughout the world and goes without saying it greatly leveraged this international exposure.
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What is you view on this?
As aforementioned, cognac is a French prestigious and unique spirit. There is an environment that naturally builds on our values (savoir-faire, passion, craftsmanship, accuracy…) and on the French background when it comes to gastronomy and wine and spirits. I think it makes sense that cognac be associated to elegance and it certainly is a good thing. However, I see it as a positive consequence of what cognac actually is and what revolves around it, rather than an image we would like to harness.
Today it is seems as if cognac does not quite have the same position as it used to have or at least it is in a different way. What do you think has happen with the way cognac has developed throughout the years?
I don’t think the overall perception has changed among consumers. The truth is we have seen an explosion of new premium / craft brands across the categories and this has drawn consumers’ attention toward them. As consumers realized great products were being created, they just naturally opened up to them. This is why I am convinced one of our biggest growth opportunities is actually outside the category. I am particularly thinking about rum, scotch and bourbon. But for a boutique house, it takes time and education, particularly considering cognac is a more expensive category.
Where were cognac when the revival of the cocktail started in the late 90´s/early 2000?
Cognac has always been at the heart of mixology. Some even say that the famous Mint Julep was initially made with cognac before American civil war. Then, when imported products became hard to get in the south, bourbon was used instead. And there are so many cognac based cocktails (Sidecar, Summit, Cognac Sour…) not to mention those adapted (French Mojito, Horse’s Neck, Cognac Manhattan, French Coffee…! I see mixology as another huge growth opportunity and as a matter of fact, I am not the only one! Most houses have increasingly promoted cocktails as a great way to consume cognac. The BNIC (the cognac board) has also used it as a tool to promote cognac around the world and educate people about the fact that cognac is also great in cocktails. Our only barrier as far as cocktails, is the price of our product relative to the other categories.
Tour at Fussigny Destillery
How do you see the future for cognac when it comes to cocktails and as a spirit?
I see the cocktail scene as a tremendous growth opportunity. It will allow us to reach out to a larger cluster of consumers, including those who would not even think about the possibility of ordering cognac in the first place. Cocktails make cognac easier to drink for those who don’t drink spirits and this is certainly an asset. But they also expand the array of flavors and the tasting experience possibilities accordingly. It is again a crucial consumption way for cognac and we will keep pushing it going forward. From a broader perspective, we been going through a transition and have seen tremendous changes in other categories of the spirit arena. 30 years ago, there were probably not even half as many single malt distilleries as today. You look at a bourbon isle today and it is probably three times as big as what it was 15 years ago. Small house tequilas have been popping up all over etc… Demand has clearly drifted from mass produced items to more boutique, premium products. And it will happen in the cognac category. More and more consumers will start looking for different products, artisanal brands. And this is a significant opportunity for us (small premium brands). But most importantly, this pattern will also benefit the cognac category as a whole vs other spirits. Cognac is a natural prestigious grape based spirit that is produced in the Appellation area and pursuant to its strict specifications. And this is a sound token of quality. But again, we have to deliver the right message to educate people.
Thank you for taking the time to talk to us, Charles!