How Cognac Became a Status Symbol in China
While baijiu is the undisputed national spirit of China, cognac is the drink of choice for the country’s elite imbiber.
In a pitch-black room, a spotlight beams over a crate. I’m at the Amanyangyun Hotel on the outskirts of Shanghai, surrounded by people in elegant evening clothes. The host is a handsome man who looks like a Chinese James Bond. He says it’s time for the crate to be opened, and everyone whips out their phones to capture the dramatic reveal.
Inside the wooden box is the Hennessy Paradis Impérial Trunk by Louis Vuitton. It’s a $273,000 piece of luggage stocked with four magnums of Paradis Impérial cognac, each of which would individually sell for $8,000. The crowd clamors to get closer to the trunk, photographing it from various angles.
It makes sense to debut such a statement piece in China. This is cognac country—far more so than France, where cognac is made. While baijiu is the undisputed national spirit of China, cognac is the drink of choice for the country’s elite imbiber, a tradition that started about 200 years ago. When Shanghai became a treaty port in the 1800s, the city soon welcomed foreign goods, one of them being alcohol. Some of the first companies to knock on the door of the Chinese market were cognac brands, says Andrew Khan, vice president of marketing for Moet Hennessy Diageo China. According to Khan, the spirit became popular in China starting in the late 18th century.
“Today, China constitutes the world's most valuable cognac market,” says Philip M. Dobard, director of the Museum of the American Cocktail and vice president of the National Food & Beverage Foundation. “I can tell you that Chinese demand for cognac has experienced dramatic growth since the turn of century,” he says, explaining that consumption of the spirit grew by 55% between 2007 and 2011.
Cognac’s image in China is different than it is around the world. In the West, Cognac is more of an after-dinner drink to be sipped slowly on its own. It's often mixed into cocktails. In China, cognac tends to be consumed neat and with food. “Cocktails are a waste of good Cognac,” says Sam Wang, food and beverage outlet manager for the Mandarin Oriental Pudong, Shanghai, where most customers drink cognac straight.
This method stems from Chinese drinking culture, not necessarily any hard and fast rules of cognac. “In traditional China, drinking, eating, and socializing are all closely tied together. Nobody drinks alone,” says Christopher Lowder, general manager of Proof & Company, China. "There is frequent toasting. There is frequent ‘bottoms up’ in 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 tea cups. It’s meant to go fast. “There is a saying in China: ‘to drink Cognac as if it were water,’” says Lowder. “I have seen VSOP Cognac popped in karaoke rooms, and the whole bottle is gone in 60 seconds, drained in two rounds of shots from very tiny shot glasses.” Nightlife settings are more welcoming to mixing cognac into cocktails. “In the context of a karaoke room or night club, the cognac is sometimes mixed in an iced pitcher of canned sweet tea, and then poured out into shot glasses or small rocks glasses,” Lowder says.
Who’s doing the drinking? “Chinese demand for [cognac] spans several age brackets and demographics,” Dobard says. “The list of consumer groups includes the Baofahu, or nouveau riche; the Fuerdais, or children of the rich and those older teenagers and 20-somethings who wish to appear cosmopolitan and project membership in the international community; and older businessmen and politicians.”
According to Lowder, it’s “old school” Chinese people who are responsible for the heavy lifting of cognac consumption. “Traditional in their habits and interests, this is the China of the three-hour dim sum lunch slowly spent talking across four separate bags of tea leaves,” he says. "It’s the China of long, cigarette-fueled sessions in the karaoke room. It’s the China that plays Mahjong with real tiles and not an iPad screen.”
This more traditional demographic is buying entire bottles of cognac for one sitting. They care as much about the packaging as they do the liquid inside the bottle. “There are tremendous social points to be scored by the unboxing and uncorking of a very elaborate and fancy-looking bottle,” Lowder says. “It’s a showing of your respect for the table and how much your value your relationships with the group.” Luxury cognac definitely excels at this purpose. Cognac bottles are some of the booze industry’s most ornate and extravagant. Rémy Martin’s Louis XIII decanters are made with Baccarat crystal. The latest Hennessy Paradis Impérial decanter, designed by Israeli artist Arik Levy, took thousands of trials and hundreds of people to create perfectly.
Cognac has emerged as a beverage of choice for particular cuisines. "There is also a belief that Cognac serves as an excellent pairing for seafood dishes,” Lowder says. “Especially in South China and in Macau, it’s not unusual to see two or three bottles go down over the course of a round of crawfish or a session of hotpot.” That doesn’t mean it’s not welcomed with other food, though—high end and low. “I have seen four old men sit down for late night street noodles, and each one had brought his own bottle of XO cognac to share with the group,” Lowder says. “All four bottles were opened, and all four bottles were finished.”
The challenge to keep cognac popular in China over the next two hundred years is to get younger generations as excited about the spirit as the old-school set. “The problem for cognac is that sits very clearly on the aging side of that cultural chasm,” Lowder says. “The question of how to make Cognac relevant to young Chinese people is one that the industry is yet to solve.”
At the Mandarin Oriental, Sam Wang notes that he’s seen advertising change in recent years to stir interest in cognac in younger consumers. “Some cognac brands are doing very good marketing, so you can see more and more [young] people are drink Cognac now,” he says. Brands are also pushing more for cognac cocktails. “In China, baijiu is rooted in gifting and pairing with Chinese meals. Cognac has the advantage of being much more diversified and adapts easier to everyday life,” Khan says. “The majority of younger consumers enjoy cognac on the rocks or in a mixed drink in a high-energy vibe with friends.” For now, if you’re planning on drinking cognac in China, be prepared to shoot it. Lots of it.