As the numbers were crunched from the 1,380 completed tasting and assessment sheets filled in by the 34 invited bartenders, sommeliers, retailers and journalists, early conclusions after the four days of the fifth annual International Cognac Summit, held at the end of January, included the perhaps surprising view that packaging was broadly considered not to be important to women buying Cognac by the bottle.
However sommelier consultant Dominique Laporte, overseeing the data collection, also revealed that "rounded and original" packaging was judged to be most appealing to women, while in the aroma department, dry and herbal flavours were generally rejected in favour of the fruity and floral, with a "slight trend" towards sweetness and vanilla. Patisserie and spice aromas were approved of, in conjunction with softness and roundness, however there was no suggestion that women were looking for a "light" drink.
Freshness and complexity were said to be important in appealing to women's palates, while bitterness and iodized characters were not. And overall, the taste itself was thought to be the most important factor, followed by aroma.
With the theme - potentially fraught with controversy - of ‘Cognac au féminin', the task of the 2012 ICS was to discuss and consider, in the words of Bureau National Interprofessionnel du Cognac (BNIC) director Catherine Le Page: "How to make Cognac the favourite drink of women".
The invited group was not, mercifully, expected to come up with a definitive solution to this challenge, but rather to provide some hard data for analysis by the BNIC, via the sensorial assessment of individual Cognacs in a process that included the design and look of the bottle; the liquid's colour and viscosity; the complexities of its aroma and taste; and, vitally, how appealing to women (on a scale of 1 to 4) all of these elements were judged to be.
Clearly such a process would leave a lot of room for subjective interpretation - not to mention the eyebrows raised among the male (19, by my count) participants especially, at the prospect of having to define what in their opinion women (in general, all of them) might think of anything - let alone the attractions or otherwise of a beverage with the complex and elusive nature of Cognac.
Apart from the detailed assessment of more than 40 top quality Cognacs each over the ensuing days, the ICS panel - from the USA, UK, Germany, Switzerland, Austria and France - participated in some revealing seminars, including ‘Perfume and feminine olfactive tendencies', led by Sylvie Béry of perfume industry consultancy Cinquième Sens.
Like it or not, she revealed that there are certain groups of aromas to which women respond to differently to men. Of the world's top 10 fragrances, Sylvie showed, the three most popular (Chanel Coco Mademoiselle, Chanel No.5 and Dior J'Adore) are all based around floral notes. It's not as simple as that, of course, and the picture changes when you break the world down into regions, bringing cultural influences into the equation. In the USA, for example, the market is driven much more by the family of sweeter and fruity aromas.
Why is it relevant to Cognac? Well, the perfume companies' huge profits depend upon knowing what makes people tick in terms of aroma. The range of aromas used in perfumes (floral, spicy, citrus, organic, exotic...) can broadly be compared to those found in the Cognac "Aroma Wheel" - a pictorial breakdown of the principal aromatic notes found in Cognac, which was set down at the ICS in 2009. "You can find a lot of similarities between them both," said Sylvie.
Question of balance
In order to appeal to women in the producion of Cognac, François Voyer cellar master Pierre Vaudon suggested: "I would focus my flavour on the fruit - passion fruit, orange peel. Not aggressive, with a little sweetness at the beginning, and the power coming in at the end on the palate. I know exactly what my wife likes - and she has never made any mistakes!"
Grande Champagne producer Paul Giraud said: "For me it's a Vieille Réserve, because it's the fruitiest and sweet style, with many fruit flavours. A lot of feminine perfumes are fruity and rich. But one lady at my table [at the tasting] said her preferred one was my [full-bodied and mature] Très Rare - it depends on who you are and where you are drinking."
Andrea Briccarello, sommelier and wine buyer for Galvin Restaurants in London, said: "From my experience I knew that Cognac was a spirit mainly enjoyed by males rather than women, and often associated with career success in the big cities. On the other hand I've always had a more feminine image of Cognac, in my mind: the array of elegant aromas like orange peel, vanilla and spices have always been associated with luscious perfumes."
He told Harpers later that he had: "Found more ways for women to enjoy this amazing drink. Cocktails are a good way to introduce this spirit, and then on a second occasion a match with a dessert could be a great way to show the flexible side of Cognac."
Andrea has already changed his pouring Cognac and, he said, found an easy-mixing Cognac for summer cocktails: "I'll be able to find the perfect style to suit all kinds of mood and character."
From the world of online retail, Richard Ellis, head of beers & spirits at www.slurp.co.uk said that prior to his ICS 2012 experience: "My ideas have changed to a certain extent. I still think that women are more likely to drink Cognac in a cocktail, but that we have now seen some evidence that they are interested (and have more confidence) in also looking to enjoy Cognac in its pure form."
Since his return, Richard has already moved to add two new houses' products to slurp.co.uk's Cognac range: "I have been surprised by the extent of the variation in style, the consistency of quality and the way in which each house has been trying hard to carve out their place in an increasingly competitive market."
In relation to the theme of women and Cognac, Richard concludes: "Perhaps if more information about Cognac and its array of different styles and serving suggestions (including straight from the freezer!) was more freely available, Cognac would be more likely to engage with its targeted female audience.
From the USA, Master of Wine Sandy Block, VP beverage operations at the Boston, Massachusetts-based Legal Sea Foods company, said: "Young women in the US are disproportionately wine drinkers, so in educating, it's important to focus on the appellation and wine origins of Cognac.
"I was uncomfortable with the whole idea that there is a ‘female palate' that amounts to anything more than a clichéd, discredited notion about what women like. I think there may be marketing differences, where a particular subset of the population believes that a drink is targeted towards them, or not, based on packaging and other brand attributes, but not in terms of organoleptic differences."
With a little time "to digest" his experiences at ICS 2012, Sandy says he is likely to refresh the restaurants' range of Cognacs, and feels better equipped to "do a better job with training on it".
And from Germany, Lidwina Weh, head sommelier at the Louis C Jacob hotel in Hamburg (currently setting up her own consultancy) said: "After the Summit experience I will more easily be able to recommend Cognac to women after dinner; or why not in fact with the dessert, as it can match perfectly, as we saw, with all those flavours of nuts, orange, caramel.
"I will review our choice of Cognac. I don't think that we will offer more, as we already have a good choice, but I will definitely offer different Cognacs. I now have more product knowledge, so we can do a lot of training with colleagues. Everyone in the restaurant will profit from the new experience and will be more convinced to sell Cognac."
And on the ICS theme of ‘Cognac au féminin', Lidwina added: "In general I think sprits are more attractive to men. But above all spirits, Cognac definitely has a feminine side, with the beautiful colour and the elegant taste profile.
"For me the important thing is how to change the image of Cognac-drinking women, or how to make them feel special while enjoying cognac. Cocktails are a good entry ticket, but I would love also to have an elegant glass for enjoying Cognac on its own."
Last word goes to BNIC's Catherine Le Page, who summed up her own thoughts by saying: "Cognac is a deluxe product; a product of elegance. And that elegance, in itself, means Cognac is a product that concerns women.
"Cognac is all about aromas, and you can say that women naturally understand all the subtleties of aroma."