Cognac is France distilled. It’s idolized in rap lyrics and American culture. It’s historic, tied to a specific region, and limited in availability. It’s not, however, loved by the French. Ninety-five percent of all of the Cognac produced every year is exported out of the country. French people, it turns out, simply don’t have a taste for the spirit.
France’s general apathy for Cognac was examined in a paper titled, “What Determines Exports of Luxury Products? The Case of Cognac,” presented at the International Agricultural Trade Research Consortium in 2015. Between 1967 and 2013, Cognac was exported to 120 countries.
“International trade has been a historical priority for the Cognac region for now 10 centuries,” the paper states. Cognac, which starts as a thin white wine made from the Ugni Blanc grape in the Cognac region of France, was a beloved commodity back in the day. It was so beloved that other countries wanted some for themselves — the only problem was that the wine couldn’t stay fresh on the journey from Cognac (around 300 miles southwest of Paris) to northern Europe.
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In the 1600s, Norwegian and German merchants were looking for an export solution. They boiled the wine down and distilled it, reducing the weight and the tax duties they had to pay. When it got to northern Europe, it was often mixed with water. By 1643, the first Cognac house was born and the distilled spirit took the place of the wine. The region developed production standards — pot distillation, aged in oak cases from the Limousin and Tronçais forests, and age statements — as well as a reputation for exported quality.
Today, more than 65 percent of the Cognac produced is made by three companies: Hennessy (42 percent), Rémy Martin (14 percent), and Courvoisier (10.9 percent). Those are also the brands that are most familiar to people outside France.
“Whisky is the drink of the Atlantic — Britain and the Eastern United States — and Cognac is the drink of the Pacific,” Francois Heriard-Dubreuil, the president of Remy & Associes, told the The New York Times in 1988. The statement is just as true today as it was three decades ago. Asia is the largest importer of Cognac in the world.
The French are just fine with sending 95 percent of Cognac outside the country. After all, the French drink nearly as much Scotch as all the Cognac they export.