Changing tastes at home and hard times in the United States and Europe are prompting Cognac to export its version of the French good life to where the money is--Japan.
The brandy distillers in this town of 20,000 people in southwestern France are turning to Asia's booming economies to weather a recession that is squeezing more-established clients.
"Cognac is an economic barometer," said Gilles Hennessy, scion of a renown cognac clan. "Right now, the golden boys on Wall Street are gone, and nobody's drinking it in the U.S. Asia is the place to concentrate."
Hennessy spoke in an interview shortly after his firm opened a $50-million bottling plant that will handle, in part, increased Asian demand.
Declining domestic taste for alcohol fuels the export drive. More French people now drink water with meals than wine, and fewer indulge in after-dinner brandies.
As a result, producers are exploiting Asian demand for a product symbolizing leisured wealth and royal tradition--Western-style.
Cognac sales to Japan have skyrocketed in the past two years, the National Interprofessional Office of Cognac says.
Japan surpassed the United States as the largest single importer in 1990, taking 26.9 million bottles--three times the consumption in France, industry figures show.
Prices are high. A bottle of VSOP, a medium-grade cognac selling for perhaps $30 in Paris, fetches upward of $80 in Tokyo.
"In Japan, we use a French wine waiter in our ads," Hennessy said. "It has an image of authority that the Japanese respect."
The good life has been associated with Cognac since 1492, when King Francois I was born there. His chateau is now owned by the Otard cognac firm.
But Coganc's history as a trade center goes back to the 12th Century, when the region came under English rule upon Henry II's marriage to Eleanor of Aquitaine.
Ships carried local produce, then salt and wine, up the Charente River to the seaport of La Rochelle and then to England, according to British historian Nicholas Faith.
Dutch merchant ships of the 17th Century calling at La Rochelle brought a demand for distilled beverages called "brandywijn," or burned wine.
Prices were six times higher than ordinary wine, and Cognac started producing it almost exclusively. The chalky soil and gentle climate made for excellent brandy.
Cognac brandy quickly became popular at Louis XIV's court. English nobles prized it. In times of war, the brandy was shipped to London through neutral ports, or smuggled via the Channel Islands.
By the 18th Century, according to Faith, the town had set the world standard for brandy. Though seldom aged for more than a year, cognac was considered refined and taken without water.
By the mid-1700s, businessmen active on both sides of the Channel began settling in Cognac. They gave the industry its current shape and many of its best-known names.
They included Jean Martell, a native of Jersey; Richard Hennessy, an Irishman who served in Louis XV's army, and James Otard, a Scottish exile loyal to Bonnie Prince Charlie.
Their clans established operations on the Charente that still dominate the local waterfront. Their descendants eventually opened export markets to Europe, the Americas, and now, Asia.
The 60-odd firms now in operation make brandy from white wine produced from 200,000 acres of vines around Cognac. The closer to town, the more prized the grapes.