While Baijiu is the undisputed national spirit of China, cognac is the drink of choice for the country’s elite imbiber. This tradition started about 200 years ago when Shanghai became a treaty port and some of the first companies to take advantage, were cognac producers. In traditional China, drinking, eating, and socialising are all closely tied together and the tendency is for cognac to be consumed neat and in large quantities. There is frequent toasting during which everyone participating is expected to empty their glass or else they will lose face. Cognac isn’t served in snifters, but in small shot glasses or teacups and a Chinese saying directs that it should be drunk ‘as if it were water’. In general, it is the ‘old school’ Chinese who have made it such a popular drink. They are traditional in their habits and interests, taking long, slow lunchtimes and playing Mahjong. The Chinese also care as much about the packaging as they do the liquid inside the bottle. The revealing of a very elaborate and fancy-looking bottle shows respect for their relationships with a group. With cognac now ingrained into so many aspects of their culture, it is not surprising that this French product has become such a mainstay of Chinese life. However, if this enormous demand is to be sustained, the younger generations need to get as excited about the spirit as the old-school set, and that’s a problem that has yet to be solved.
History of Cognac
By the mid-20th century the ‘big two’ cognac houses had become the ‘big four’ with Courvoisier and Remy Martin selling substantial quantities to both the Asian and American markets. Demand from major cities such as Detroit and Cleveland really helped to boost sales. Remy focused their appeal on cognacs made in the Champagnes but across the board, the growers were not ready for the inevitable surge in demand. Vast new vineyards were planted and as viticulture techniques continued to improve, production levels increased dramatically. Even so, keeping up with the large volume demand from the big houses was challenging for the Cognaçaise. Eventually, it was the development of the Chinese markets that saved the day as demand moved towards smaller volumes of more expensive cognacs. Hennessy had pioneered this market before the Second World War with their XO cognacs but now other houses followed suit.
As a consequence of the growth of the larger houses some of the smaller growers and distillers chose to develop their own styles. This has enabled specialised houses, such as Hermitage Cognacs, to identify and sell the finest, single estate cognacs from the top cognac crus such as our Hermitage 1975.