At a party in a private villa in Nairobi, a group of attendees in their late 20s to early 30s is chatting up the mixologists as they whip up cocktails. These are not the ordinary gin, vodka or rum, they are cognac cocktails.
The mixologists expertly pair the tasting notes in the drink with those highlighting the versatility of the cognac, which has been perceived as a drink for the older generation served neat.
Cognac in Kenya had a fine year in 2018, turning a 57.1 percent increase in volume consumed locally, compared to the previous year, data from International Wines and Spirits Register (IWSR) shows. Part of the growth is attributed to the strength of leading cognac brands that have elevated the appetite of Kenyan drinkers.
“In terms of forecasts, we’ll anticipate that the cognac category will grow by +8.8 percent by 2023,” said the IWSR drinks market analysis.
Cognac has been shaking off the stereotype that it is a reserve for the older wealthy gentleman as manufacturers recruit younger drinkers. Last month, Martell launched Blue Swift spirit in Kenya, targeted at the younger drinkers.
“Our drinkers are young, urban and fashionable. They are digital natives that exist in an era where you can make a living off your talent or craft. They know all the newest trends and are not afraid of being the odd ones out by being the first to try them out,” said Ugo Messi, the Martell brand ambassador East Africa, adding that Blue Swift is replacing Martell VSOP Cognac in its category.
Hennessy and Rémy Martin
Other international brands including Hennessy and Rémy Martin are also seeking to recruit a new class of cognac drinkers.
“We want to recruit younger consumers to the brand and we want to change the preconceived idea of what cognac is about,” said Patrick Madendjian, regional marketing and commercial director Africa and Middle East, Moët Hennessy.
“For some markets, cognac has been associated with an older drink, low energy occasion, introspective, in a snifter glass or after dinner which is one way to drink it. We are not fighting that, we are not saying this is not a good way, we are just saying cognac is so versatile,” he explains.
Kenya is deemed a tier-two market for cognac, making it smaller than South Africa and Nigeria which are the top spirit markets in Africa.
According to Messi, the industry produces more than 200 million bottles of cognac a year, and exports nearly 98 per cent out of France.
“Africa as a market is booming. South Africa is the biggest import country with about three million bottles sold in 2018 — followed very closely by Nigeria,” he said.
“Consumers on the continent are more exposed today than ever before with what the world has to offer,” said Alvin Saal, Rémy Cointreau, marketing manager Africa.
Rémy Martin recently unveiled Kenyan artiste King Kaka as its brand ambassador, plugging into the youth demographic.
“Younger drinkers are no longer embracing cognac as just a status symbol. We see younger drinkers embracing our VSOP in cocktails or on the rocks and not just on special occasions but as part of their regular drinking culture,” said Saal.
Most cognac makers are seeking to connect their heritage stories with that of the drinkers, particularly the younger generation of 25 to 45 year olds.
“Our current Cellar Master, Baptiste Loiseau is the youngest Cellar Master in all of cognac and this very much reflects the mindset of the house to resonate and speak to a younger audience in a meaningful manner whilst still paying tribute to our traditions and processes,” he adds.
Loiseau became a cellar master in 2014 at the age of 34.
The perception of cognac as an old man’s drink is being shed off from the local and global stage with brand ambassadors who appeal to the more youthful consumer, as well, as how it is consumed.
Locally, artistes such as photographers, musicians, and DJs whose medium appeals to the youth are being used as brand ambassadors.
In addition to that, the old method of serving it in a snifter on the rocks is now shifting to sharing a serving platter with cognac cocktails.
“Nowadays it is more and more consumed in cocktails which appeals naturally to a younger audience,” said Messi.
Madendjian of Moët Hennessy indicates that each drinker can find an expression in each cognac category. “If you like a structured, stronger, more masculine drink go for VS. If you want a cocktail, VSOP, on ice or as a classic cocktail, XO,” he said.
Being a premium drink, cognac is viewed as a preserve for the wealthy. This, however, according to Madendjian is not the case.
“Everyone today is fighting for a piece of the consumer base. I don’t think any consumer can say I only drink this. Consumers have a repertoire, they work within that repertoire and then depending on how relevant or distinctive you are for that occasion they will go for you and if not, they will go for somebody else. I think we are all competing for that space. And then educating the younger consumer on higher quality is important as well,” he explains.
“We are asking our consumers to drink it how they enjoy it and even if it is ‘wrong’ to do drink it that way. We believe if we build a brand with such an equity to justify a price premium on some occasions the people who want to buy into that lifestyle will go the extra mile. Will they buy Hennessy every night? No! Are we looking to do that? No. We are a luxury brand we are still being selective about the right moment, the right environment as well. We want them to select Hennessy when it counts and by doing that, we are building a consumer base for the future and yes it will tick the box of our volume ambitions,” he adds.