the president of france’s camus cognac grape grower and distillery, on the magic of soil, vine, and family ties
by Gena Ansell-Lande
Often called the “champagne of brandy,” technically speaking, cognac is a type of brandy, made by distilling wine and then aging the resulting spirit. The key difference is that a capital-C “Cognac” label can only be applied if it was produced in the Cognac region of western France, though there’s also a great deal of lower-case “cognac” produced around the world.
Part of the allure of French Cognac is the strict laws surrounding its production. For example, it must be made from a combination of three types of grapes and aged for at least two years. It must also be double distilled in copper pot stills of a particular shape, and its grapes must be harvested only in October, with distillation from November through March.
Although cognac does not continue to age in the same way wine does, if stored in a cool, dark place, it will stay just as enjoyable as the day it was bottled. The spirit’s categorizing most often refers to age and quality, with the three most common classifications VS (Very Special, aged at least two years), VSOP (Very Superior Old Pale, aged at least four years), and XO (Extra Old, aged at least six years). A “VS” can be mixed with water or a mixer, but some would say it’s a crime to drink an XO any other way than in its pure form…neat (a term meaning not chilled and without water, ice, or other mixers).
This elixir has been on the rise in bars all across America thanks to its drinkability, of course, and versatility. Its intense, fruity flavor can certainly be enjoyed neat , but also has a starring role in cocktails like the Sidecar and Summit.
A conversation about French Cognac is not complete without mention of the Camus brand. As the fifth largest cognac house on the globe, with major markets in Asia and Eastern Europe, this family-owned business spans five generations. At the helm currently is 46-year-old Cyril Camus, who introduced the brand to the U.S. in 2010. His products are sold in just about every international airport and on board a large number of airlines. He became president of the company in 2004, and in that role developed the Camus Elegance range.
“Our products have stayed consistent over the years,” Camus said. “We are not trying to engineer a cognac to taste a certain way to please the greatest number of people; it is very representative of where it comes from.”
The company head’s passion for his operation is contagious. After completing a business degree in the U.S. before joining the family business as its trade relations director in Beijing, he became its marketing director in 1998, responsible for overseeing the creation of numerous new products for the duty-free market and later developed the company’s Borderies XO, a pure blend from the family’s own vineyards.
Describing his product as “approachable, aromatic, and sippable,” the president added that its versatility makes it appealing for the first-time cognac drinker. “It’s about having respect for the product, the consumers, and the people in the company, which is typical in a family owned business,” he explained. “Having a passion for the product is easy, but it’s our ambition that sets us apart.”
Growing up in the industry, it was hard for Camus to imagine doing anything else.
“I love the social aspect of this business,” he said, “but I don’t get to live anywhere for more than five days at a time. It’s a very international business. Though we are based in France, 98% of what we do is based outside of the country, and we have business in over 140 nations. Typically, in any given week, I can be in two different countries.” The company has over 360 employees and because it is well structured, it affords Camus the opportunity to go out in the field to get feedback about products, which is exactly the way he likes it. Alexandra Albu, its national sales and marketing director, has been with the company for over six years and offered that what sets the Camus brand apart from Remy Martin and Courvoisier, to name a few competitors, is an almost maniacal attention to detail. “We are much less industrialized and remain very close to craft,” she said.
The business’s primary focus at the moment is to grow its sales share in the United States, a newer market. “We have room to grow here, moving toward more premium products which is favorable to us,” Camus explained, adding that the brand has long had a strong presence in the duty-free market, which allows the consumer to purchase something a bit more premium than the norm. “That market has always been an ideal channel for us; the price point is fair and it’s given us a high level of visibility. We built our image and awareness in duty-free and then leveraged it in the domestic market.”
For the first timer, or someone not accustomed to drinking hard spirits, the president advised trying cognac on the rocks or neat in a snifter glass (preferably by a fireplace). Those large glasses—crafted from thin, fine crystal, with a stoutly-set, bottom-heavy bell, narrow mouth (to trap aromas), and stumpy stem—are also designed to channel heat from the grip of your hands to the spirit. at said, drinking from a rocks glass is also perfectly acceptable.
Besides growing and distilling, Camus’s passion is his family. His sons, aged 14 and 18, grew up in France and China. “I have traveled to so many beautiful places for my work,” he said. “I look forward to revisiting them, this time with my family.”
When asked what he enjoys most in his spare time, the president replied, “I enjoy a good view, a great meal, and of course a nice glass of Camus.”