The Art of Distillation

The art of creating a fine Cognac is not dissimilar to the way we create a fine brand, says Ashgrove Marketing’s Terry van Rhyn

The world’s finest Cognacs are made with not so fine grapes.  In fact, it’s better if the grape variety is boring, totally clean, highly acidic and pure, such as the Ugni Blanc variety.

Normally, white wines made with such grapes would be characterised as “undistinguished” or even “undrinkable” but Cognac producers know there is a way of turning them from something truly unremarkable into something remarkably good.

There are over 4,500 small family-owned wine producers in the Cognac region, which nestles in the area between the south west of Paris and north of Bordeaux. These families either produce their own aged Cognac in small batches or sell to merchants or large brands. Each will differentiate their brands by blending different grapes from the six specified areas within this region and, most importantly, distilling them twice.

The distilling process is quite simple – the grapes are gathered and placed in a boiler and heated.  The liquid will start evaporating and, once the vapours make contact with the colder surface, they will condense.  These vapours are high in alcohol and, as they make their way through the pot still’s cooling tubes, condense into Cognac, also known affectionately as “Eau de vie”. 

After distillation, Cognacs are stored in French Oak barrels sourced from the Limousin and Tronçais regions for a minimum of two years, although often up to six or even longer.  During this stage, the barrel will influence certain tasting notes depending on whether or not the barrels have been toasted and to what degree, if they were stored in humid or dry cellars, and even how the barrels are placed, standing up or laying down.

Every growing season will produce slightly different results due to the unique weather conditions of that year. When the Cognac is ready, tasting committees are employed by brands to make sure their high-quality standards and unique tasting profiles are upheld.  Often, up to 10,000 Eaux de vie are tasted by these prestigious committees every year to ensure the characteristics of each blend is accurate and deserving to be bottled with their brand’s label. 

Now I’m sure you’ll have realised I would bring this story around to marketing and branding eventually. It seems to me that the distilling of a fine Cognac is similar to the process we follow in developing a brand’s positioning and proposition statements.

We start with our “soak and scope” stage where, rather than gathering grapes, we gather information. This is a necessary process for us as we get to know the business and market environment subtleties our clients operate within.

We then allow this to percolate through our collective brains, much as Cognac producers start to distil their fruit. Slowly the initial distillation process clarifies our thinking and it starts to bring the strategic vision for the brand into focus.  The second distillation process will then pinpoint the brand’s core proposition and allows for clear alignment with the business objectives.

There is also a clear analogy with the barrel ageing process and our creative concept development, as this is the part of the process that cannot be rushed.  This is the one area in my profession that is often misunderstood and dismissed by many as the “colouring in” phase.

A creative concept is not a design process.  It is finding the relevant and appropriate platform on which to build your brand’s proposition in a way that it will resonate with your target audience.  It is also finding that one thing that separates your brand from your competitors – something unique, memorable and relevant which you can encapsulate succinctly in your proposition statement.

Once you have figured out what is your Vorsprung durch Technik, Just do it, Think Different or I’m Lovin’ it, only then can you start to build the architecture of your communication campaigns to support that proposition.  It is at this stage where creative direction comes into play by finding the appropriate and powerful headlines with visual art direction that will reinforce your brand’s proposition. 

So, when you sit back in your leather Chesterfield with your smoking jacket, enjoying a fine Arturo Fuente from the Dominican Republic while swirling a fine Cognac’s amber liquid around a balloon glass – or even if you drink it on the rocks in a less salubrious environment – think of the care and time it took to create the brand image and reputation of that Hennessey, Rémy Martin or Courvoisier XO in your hand.

Your own brand is just as precious and deserves just as much attention and care.