As Benedicte Hardy likes to tell it, when she took the helm of Hardy Cognac nearly 30 years ago, Cognac was in a very different place compared to today. There was little international education around the spirit. A post-millennium cocktail revolution had yet to break the Cognac from its perception as an after-dinner drink for old guys. And there were startling few women drinking Cognac, let alone involved in its production.
In her time as a fifth-generation Cognac producer, Benedicte has spent decades focused on changing all of the above. And she believes the perception of Cognac is finally, albeit sometimes slowly, adapting to 21st century drinkers. Now, Benedicte and her team are going full speed on distributing new expressions and a relatively rare organic release, which took nearly a decade to be certified as such.
Drinkhacker caught up with Benedicte to talk about Cognac’s evolving role in spirits, along with the ecological challenges of organic certification.
Note: This interview has been edited for readability.
Drinkhacker: Since you have led the brand, what has changed the most about the world of Cognac?
Benedicte Hardy: What has changed the most is really people seeing Cognac as a category that is used in mixology. I think mixology has totally revolutionized the way people think about Cognac. Very strangely, Cognac was really one of the first brown spirits in major cocktails. Lots of the cocktails that people know today were made with Cognac at the beginning, but we’re talking before Prohibition. It was something that people were used to drinking in Highballs, French 75, and even Old Fashioneds when Prohibition. Then suddenly, bourbon, scotch, and rye came into place instead of Cognac.
What is really amazing for me is to see that Cognac is back in that place by way of young people, young mixologists. They have a very acute sense of authenticity, which is really something I value so much. They don’t want the byproduct, they want the real stuff, and this is what they use. The other change is that I see more and more women in Cognac. When I started 30 years ago, when I was having a masterclass or a tasting with customers, I don’t think there was one single other woman in the room. And it was really seen as a male drink. That’s started to change. And I think that’s really something that has changed tremendously drastically since I started.
Drinkhacker: Are there any other misconceptions or myths you have to battle today when it comes to educating people about Cognac?
Benedicte Hardy: The misconception is also that Cognac has been and remained for many people, very intimidating. They don’t always know it’s brandy. A lot of people still don’t know it’s made from grapes. It’s a distillation of grapes. As much as the knowledge on vodka and tequila is really high in the U.S., I think in Cognac, we probably haven’t brought enough education to people. People think that if they drink Cognac, it’s very special. It has to be special. No, it’s a very easy drink that can be consumed every day, as I said, in cocktails, or on ice, or whatever! And I think that misconception comes from us, by the way. From the producers, from not putting enough information out there. And now we have to start doing that to educate people.
We are responsible for people thinking we are a drink of snobs. Cognac has so much more to offer than to be the very last consumed in the evening. So I think we need to battle the old image of Cognac.
Drinkhacker: What are some of the target demographics you see as future Cognac drinkers in North America?
Benedicte Hardy: I strongly believe women are that, as far as Hardy is concerned. It’s definitely my next target. I think we have a lot of work to do to make this brown spirit more approachable. I can see that more women are drinking bourbon today. We can do something similar for Cognac, and it’s something I’m focused on with Hardy.
Drinkhacker: Are there any particular expressions you see gaining market share in the next five to 10 years?
Benedicte Hardy: We want to promote an expression called Hardy Legend, which is amazing. It is wonderful neat, or on ice, or in a Sidecar. We need a Cognac that is very versatile, that can really be consumed neat or in cocktails with the same pleasure. In addition, our organic VSOP, which we’re very lucky to have been promoting for nine years. The limitation there comes from the fact that only 1% of the total vineyards in Cognac are organic, and we’re very lucky to have our share. At the same time, it’s not something that’s going to fade anytime soon. I think people are looking for cleaner products, are looking for products they can drink without thinking twice about herbicides, pesticides, and all that.
Drinkhacker: Let’s talk a little bit about the process of organic Cognac and that certification. What was that process like for you and the timeline that it took for Hardy to actually release that expression?
Benedicte Hardy: It’s a 10 year conversion in France, so it doesn’t happen overnight. Very few people are organic. First of all, no herbicides or pesticides can be used in the grape cultivation. You start from scratch, and 10 years later, you get the authorization to put organic on your labels. Our organic VSOP is a blend of three different districts, so we had to find the right people who would be able to sell us their Cognacs, which we would age in our sellers. You have also to find the right wood in which you’re going to age the product, and you have to differentiate completely from the rest. Even the hoses for filling have to be different. Every part of the process is differentiated. And when you bottle the product, and in order to get the certification, you need inspectors that are here and checking that you don’t make anything the wrong way.
I strongly believe in the values that our organic product represents. And at the same time, I’m very proud of our blender who makes an amazing product. So it cannot be organic and bad. That doesn’t work for us. It has to be organic and good Cognac!