Heritage spirits drive cocktail revolution in France

19th September, 2016 by admin

A transformation is taking place in the French spirits market, as a burgeoning cocktail culture encourages brands to refocus on a thirsty new generation of drinks consumers, writes Claire Dodd.

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A a spirits revolution is starting to take place in France

*This article was originally published in the June 2016 edition of The Spirits Business magazine

“The French market, we’re always a couple of years behind, shall we say,” opens Miko Abouaf, co-founder of Audemus Spirits. “But we had a vision. We’re based in the Cognac region and have strong traditions in making spirits. The question was, how do we take this forward? Using and drawing from that, but not being stuck in the past, as is often the case here.”

It’s this very question that has been central to much activity in the French market over the past year. Quietly, but steadily and surely, something of a spirits revolution is starting to take place. High-end, innovative French cocktail bars – a concept that really did not exist before the Experimental Cocktail Club opened its doors in 2007 – are now flourishing.

While several Parisian bars, such as Candelaria and Little Red Door, have made their way onto lists of the world’s best bars in recent years, cocktail culture has spread to other cities too. Establishments such as Le Parfum in Montpellier are now making a name for themselves. That’s not to mention the opening of what is reputedly Paris’ first new distillery in a century, La Distillerie de Paris.

A thriving scene

“In the past year in Paris, probably 20 or 30 different very high standard cocktail bars opened,” says Mathieu Sabbagh, external communication director for Pernod Ricard. “Now in every major city in France you have one or two serious cocktail bars. We at first questioned how they would all survive, but all have a different theme, or different lead product – a gin bar, rum bar, tiki bar – and consumers seem more and more curious to discover new things. The model is working well.”

Why is all this important? Can we credit bartenders with leading new trends in spirits consumption, overthrowing decades – in some case centuries – of consumption habits? To a certain extent, yes.

Traditionally France has been a dark spirits stronghold. The latest figures from Euromonitor bear out that this looks set to remain the case, with whisky by far the biggest category in volume terms in France, lingering at around a third of total spirits by volume (see table), with further growth forecast. Though a much smaller category, rum too is set to continue the steady, fast-paced growth it has established over the past five years.

But cocktails are helping to bring some other products into the mix too, notably, gin. “Gin is having a good time off the back of cocktail culture,” says Sabbagh. “But it’s also doing well in the south-west of France because of the Spanish influence.”

While leading global gin brands are doing well, with the gin and tonic serve a predictable champion, smaller French producers are starting to emerge. Alongside established brands such as Citadelle and G’Vine, recent launches include the Distillerie des Terres Rouges Le Gin 1 & 9, and the premium, and alluringly packed, Generous Gin by Ôdevie Creative Spirits, aimed at cocktail newbies as well as premium spirit fans. Syrup maker Monin also tips the G&T serve as the current cocktail star on the market.

Audemus Spirits’ own offerings were intentionally designed to tap into cocktail culture, says Miko Abouaf. Umami, designed as a gin or vodka replacement, was developed to excite bartenders looking for savoury flavours, while the Pink Pepper Gin offers a complex taste profile, and is suited to serves such as the Negroni.

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Traditional French spirits are forging cocktail culture

“They’re proud of their French heritage and provenance that comes with it,” says Abouaf of French drinkers. “Gin was not really understood until recently. But people are now interested to try new products and perceptions are just starting to change.” Interestingly, cocktail culture is also helping French drinkers reconnect with more traditional spirits too, with little or no marketing spend from brands.

“Cocktail culture has made bartenders rediscover some hidden gems when it comes to traditional French heritage spirits, and one that is really going out strongly is Suze,” says Sabbagh. “Every serious bar has a Suze cocktail on the menu.” Though Suze and tonic seems the most popular serve, he adds. Byrrh, a quinine and wine-based aperitif that last had a heyday in the 1950s, is also steadily regaining popularity.

But that’s not to say the steady decline of other traditional French spirits – pastis for example – has ceased. Pernod has been working to revive the fortunes of Pastis 51 with several new launches over recent years all designed to change perceptions of the drink, including Pastis 51 Rosé, and anise and mint-led expression Glacial.

Euro goal

In time for the UEFA Euro 2016 football tournament, the brand has just launched new glassware mimicking the traditional half-pint used for beer in France in order to tap into the beer occasion and suggest to consumers that 51 can be enjoyed during a much wider array of occasions than established thought dictates.

“The classics and anis category in France – one of our biggest categories – is struggling, but Pastis 51 is emerging pretty well,” says Sabbagh. “With this activity, this new serving ritual, what we are showing too is that when you dilute this drink, with water, the proper way, it’s actually lighter than a beer, which is something that really matters to consumers. “We’re trying to show that there is no hard alcohol and soft alcohol. Pastis is not a hard liquor. It’s not stronger than a glass of beer.”

Another big player looking to offer light, but bitter refreshment is, of course, Gruppo Campari. Bob Kunze-Concewitz, Gruppo Campari CEO, says: “Aperol Spritz and also Glen Grant are growing nicely,” adding their focus on the Italian aperitif trend, is their main priority. “France is an important market for us, even if it’s not as big as other countries at the moment.”

But let’s not forget, big changes are afoot for Campari in the French market. In March, Gruppo Campari launched a €684m ($760m) takeover of Grand Marnier owner, Société des Produits Marnier Lapostolle (SPML), acquiring 17.19% of the group, plus a further 2.6% from controlling family shareholders.

Campari, which expects to fully acquire SPML from the controlling family by 2021, will also be appointed the exclusive global distributor of the Grand Marnier spirits portfolio upon completion of the initial deal.

Kunze-Concewitz, says: “Our growth strategy is based on geographies rather than categories. Having said that, it is true that with Grand Marnier we add a premium and distinctive brand to our Global Priorities portfolio, thus driving richer product mix, and we further consolidate our position as the leading purveyor of premium liqueurs and bitter specialties worldwide.”

Brand challenge

But even with so much change afoot, brown spirits remain the main focus in France, with brands working doggedly to grab the attention of new consumers. Ballantine’s Brasil – a spirit drink made by ageing Scotch whisky in casks with lime peels – launched in 2014, aimed at new whisky drinkers.

In February, Pernod followed it up with Ballantine’s Hard Fired, aimed at intermediate drinkers. Made using a “bespoke” charring process, the Scotch offers an accessible, rounded liquid with notes of vanilla, smoke and spice, that’s tellingly more akin to a Bourbon. It’s the next step on the ladder for consumers who are looking to trade up from flavours, but are not quite ready for more premium expressions.

And let’s not forget rum. Though premium mainstream brands such as Havana Club – which is still in double-digit growth, something which Pernod in part credits to the increased media attention given to Cuba in recent times – continue to rule the roost, as with other categories, premium, niche and craft expressions look set to emerge as French consumers seek out an ever-wider range of new products – albeit, at a slow but steady pace.

After all, drinking culture revolutions don’t just happen overnight.

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