As the weather gets colder and the year winds down, retailers are looking to capitalize on the crucial shopping run-up to the New Year by heavily promoting Cognac. They’re doing so by constructing enclosed display cases for the spirit, along with holding tastings, sending out promotional emails, utilizing traditional advertising, and hand selling some of the higher marques. Seattle’s Downtown Spirits in particular is experiencing an early lift in Cognac sales this holiday season, with customers digging deeper into their pockets and trading up. “This is the time of year I get in more XOs,” says Terrence Tompkins, the store’s senior sales and purchasing manager. “The rest of the year is primarily focused on VS and VSOP.”
There’s also demand among Downtown’s customers for Rémy VSOP ($56 a 750-ml.) and Courvoisier VS ($39), and other popular Cognacs include Ferrand 1840 ($57), Ferrand Ambre 1er Cru du Cognac ($55), and Camus Borderies VSOP ($57). About 40% of Downtown Liquors’ total Cognac sales are made online and delivered locally, and the other 60% of the sales are made in store. “Online sales are dominated by Hennessy but also include Courvoisier VS ($39), Rémy VSOP, and Pierre Ferrand,” Tompkins observes.
Looking to increase Cognac’s momentum at Downtown Spirits this holiday season, Justin Baggett, the store’s digital marketing specialist, plans to promote Cognac with some purchasing suggestions for customers on the store’s online blog. Hennessy VS is the Seattle store’s top-selling brandy; the 750-ml. ($49) and 375-ml. ($23) sizes rank as the two biggest sellers, respectively accounting for 29% and 20% of overall brandy sales. “We make sure the Hennessy is in sight,” Tompkins explains. “It has to be behind the register.”
Cognac, a refined French spirit, was growing at double-digit rates in both sales (up 23.6% to $825 million) and volume (up 11.3% to 3.9 million 9-liter cases) in North America for the 12 months that ended in June 2019, according to the Bureau National Interprofessionnel du Cognac (BNIC). “Millennials and all other demographics are moving to quality now,” says Jonathan Blue, chairman and managing director of Blue Equity, the parent company of Louisville, Kentucky-based Liquor Barn, which has 15 units, and Liquor Barn Party Mart, which has two. “Hennessy is a very big flight to quality from lower level grades of other spirits. Since we are seeing more of that, we are trying to meet that need.”
Although the Liquor Barn beverage alcohol chain is based in Kentucky, the home state of Bourbon, Cognac holds its own at the store. “Cognac has been moving pretty well, especially this time of year,” Blue says. “Interestingly enough, it’s gotten very cold early, which is rare, so sales of Cognac have spiked since the temperature dropped, even though they are pretty strong year-round.”
Bourbon sales easily overshadow other spirits in Kentucky, but it’s also helped encourage consumers to try other brown spirits. “Bourbon is the main driver, especially because we get visitors from all over,” Blue says. “But consumers are starting to diversify palates, and they’re picking up a lot of Cognac.” Bourbon’s positive impact on Cognac sales is also being experienced at Downtown Spirits in Seattle. “People have a much higher price ceiling when they’re buying specialty Bourbons than other spirits,” Tompkins says. “The level of interest in Bourbon has helped other spirits like Cognac.”
In Louisville, the Liquor Mart Party Mart store on Gardiner Lane hosted a Hennessy Black ($43 a 750-ml.) and Hennessy Privilège VSOP ($65) tasting on November 22, and there were similar tastings in November at the Liquor Barns in Hurstbourne and Springhurst. The December 2019 calendar for Liquor Barn and Party Mart in-store tastings has not yet been finalized, but may include more Cognac tastings. Hennessy VS ($37) is the biggest selling Cognac at the Liquor Barn and Party Mart stores and Courvoisier VS ($34) and Martell ($22 a 375-ml.) are also popular sales items at the stores.
Seven Liquor Barn stores—three in Louisville, two in Lexington, and one each in Bowling Green and Danville—also have on-premise licenses and serve cocktails at the in-store bars. The most popular Cognac cocktails that Liquor Barn serves include a Champagne Cocktail, made with Hennessy V.S.O.P. Privilege or Hennessy V.S., Champagne, Angostura Bitters, a sugar cube, and garnished with a cherry, and a Sazerac, combining Cognac, Peychaud’s bitters, Absinthe, and simple syrup. “We’re seeing a lot of purchases go toward consumers recreating what they’ve seen somewhere on-premise, which has been a great partner for us,” Blue says. “There’s a myriad of cocktails out there. We wake up every day and you have these celebrity bartenders making these wonderful things, and consumers will add the ingredients to the mix. That’s what we’re seeing and it’s happening all over.”
Look for Cognac sales to continue heating up into 2020. “People are still getting into the cocktail movement with Cognac, and they’re putting it on the list of something they bring home to emulate the cocktails they see out at an on-premise location,” Blue says.