The tables are turning

This all-essential guide is just what retailers need when it comes to selling digestifs - the category that is rising in popularity - says Laura Clark

Unless you've been living in a bubble for the past decade, wilfully blind to all trends in the spirits market, you'll know the traditional digestif is no longer relegated to the realm of toffs and cigars.

Gone are the days when the likes of Tia Maria, Drambuie and Chambord were routinely offered to guests after dinner, and Armagnac, Cognac and Calvados are no longer elitist tipples drunk by the privileged few.

Instead, after years of trying to hang out with the cool kids, the digestif has finally become the talk of the bar scene - the trendy drink that everyone wants to be seen with. Cognac has found a new gang of hip-hop playmates, port is in with a food-matching crowd and Armagnac is the heart-throb of cocktail luvvies.

Although the after-dinner drink might have come back into fashion in the on-trade, retailers are still struggling to shift bottles of digestifs in their unadulterated state - as a spirit that's habitually drunk at the end of a meal to aid digestion. But never fear, help is at hand in the form of OLN's definitive digestif bible.

What makes a certain drink a digestif?

Post-meal tipples are generally sweeter and higher in alcohol than the average aperitif and most are served at room temperature.

Cognac, brandy and Armagnac are well-known digestifs and Calvados, the famous apple brandy, is generally considered to be the ultimate palate cleanser, according to drinks entertainment website

Eaux-de-vie - dry brandies made of fruits such as pear, cherry and raspberry - have traditionally fallen into the digestif category, along with malt whisky and fortified wines like vintage port and barrel-aged tawny. Some liqueurs, like the herbal Benedictine or the Scotch-based Glayva, are classic digestifs, along with grappa, the Italian digestif made of grape skins and seeds.

Imaginative promotions will help boost sales

The reason retailers often struggle to sell digestifs is because the occasion for drinking spirits after a meal is disappearing, according to the Bureau National Interprofessionnel de l'Armagnac.

Sébastien Lacroix, director of the BNIA, says: "In 2007, life is moving at a rapid pace in the fast lane, people work hard and play hard. Time is of the essence, family get-togethers around the table at the end of the day are more of a rarity and food is eaten on the hoof - not really the most conducive environment to drinking a digestif."

Restaurants have contributed to th e drop in popularity of the after-dinner drink, says Lacroix: "A key player in the digestif market is the restaurant - a lot of them do not even think to offer a digestif. At most, one is offered coffee and sometimes liqueur-type coffees."

Lacroix believes that the off-trade needs to be more imaginative with its presentation of digestifs. In Gascony, people drink Armagnac as a pousse-café - "a wonderfully warming and different way to drink Armagnac after a meal ", Lacroix says.

Jeanette Edwards, Beam Global's marketing controller, suggests retailers merchandise Cognac with classic and more unusual mixers to encourage eager mixologists to experiment with cocktails at home. "While Cognac is wonderful as a digestif, Courvoisier is increasingly being served in cocktails or with simple mixers such as tonic or ginger ale," she says.

Chris Seale, head of marketing for Champagne and Cognac at Pernod Ricard UK, agrees that Cognac must expand its appeal beyond traditional drinking methods: "For years, Cognac has been seen as exclusive for those with a more experienced palate, perhaps savoured as a digestif after a rich meal. Whil e this is a great combination, especially at Christmas time when consumers often enjoy Cognac with family and friends, it neglects the fact that Cognac is an eminently versatile spirit."

In the Meantime, how about a coffee beer?

Why stick to an espresso after a meal when you can get a caffeine hit from coffee-flavoured beer, asks London-based Meantime Brewery - the creator of a coffee porter-style ale.

Made with dark malts and Fairtrade coffee beans, it makes an ideal digestif, a spokesman says. "Coffee bitterness is balanced by a vanilla sweetness to create a lingering espresso cum mocha experience that fills the mouth in a way that coffee alone rarely manages," he says.

The initial version of the beer - which uses Fairtrade Araba Bourbon beans from Rwanda's Ab ahuzamugambi Bakawa co-operative - was the first UK-brewed beer to carry the Fairtrade logo. But a recent reformulation of the malt and roast coffee flavours means Meantime can no longer get enough coffee in each bottle to qualify for Fairtrade status.

Meantime's chocolate-flavoured ale also rounds off dinner , according to the brewery. "Chocolate and beer, are we mad? We'd rather say passionate. This is a beer for your more self-indulgent moments. Great for long evenings, it is best served chilled with your feet up, watching the sun go down," a spokesman says.

Meantime Brewery 020 8293 1111

Port's new image

A digestif is traditionally served after dessert, but retailers should be tapping into the growing movement to push spirits in the direction of wine and beer, and sell them as food matches.

Digestifs are incredibly suited to food matching because they are capable of supporting the strong personality and high complexity of foods with intense aromas, and strong flavours. Use shelf-edge barkers to describe classic pairings like an aged-tawny with crème brûlée, Cognac with a rich chocolate dessert or Armagnac with seasonal berries.

Diageo is pushing its Classic Malts selection as accompaniments to food. This month the spices of north Indian food will be matched to single malt Scotches at the Benares Indian restaurant in Berkeley Square on Sept 25. Among the combinations on taste will be the smoky Islay malt Lagavulin 16 Year Old with galawati kebab samosas, and the sweeter Speyside malt Cardhu 12 Year Old, served with aloo chaat and acchi chaat.

The interprofessional committee of the Port & Douro Wine Institute (IVDP) is determined to broaden the appeal of port by linking it with food. "Port is seen, especially in the UK, as a digestif, but we want to be much more than that by showing its versatility and how it can be enjoyed with food," says IVDP marketing boss Paulo Russell-Pinto. By hosting port and food-matching events, and interactive seminars, the IVDP hopes port can shake off its stuffy image, Pinto says.

The heart of it

The Cognac category is commonly regarded by shoppers as "unapproachable and overpowering", according to Linda Sooprayen, brand manager for Rémy Martin. "While the industry as a whole is seeing educated consumers looking to upgrade and purchase higher-quality drinks, few are actually considering the Cognac category," she says.

In a move to reverse this trend, Rémy Martin is targeting its latest release - Coeur de Cognac - at younger consumers, and will omit all references to age and appellation from packaging. "Coeur de Cognac offers an ideal entry point for non-Cognac drinkers who are looking for a premium product ," a spokesman says. It's described as having a "uniquely smooth and fresh fruity taste", which is a dramatic departure from the spicy, leathery notes of the category.

The drink is a blend of spirits from Rémy Martin's top vineyards in Petite Champagne and Grande Champagne and will hit shelves in early October (rrp £34.99 for a 70cl bottle).

Educating consumers

Telling customers about the differences betweeen VS, VSOP and XO is vital if retailers want to sell Cognac as a digestif, according to the Bureau National Interprofessionnel du Cognac.

"The growth of Cognac is down to the fact that it can be enjoyed in a variety of ways," says BNIC marketing and communications director Jérôme Durand.

Durand believes that younger Cognacs - VS and VSOP - should be enjoyed on ice, in long drinks or cocktails, whereas older XO Cognac should be served neat as a digestif. "Older Cognacs have a huge length in the mouth, you don't put ice in it because you wouldn't feel this length and the aromas," he says.

"Today 70 to 80 per cent of the world-wide consumption of Cognac is done in the aperitif way," Durand adds. " Fifty per cent of sales are VS, 39 per cent are VSOP and only 11 per cent are XO."

By explaining to shoppers that a Cognac aged for a minimum of six years should be sipped as a digestif, VS sales will grow above 11 per cent, Durand asserts.

The more unusual digestifs

Most people think a digestif is something to dip in cup of tea, according to the BNIA's Lacroix. "The Latin countries have aperitifs and digestifs in their blood and yet, if one was to do a bit of market research on the British streets, I think we would be staggered at the amount of people who didn't know what a digestif is and how many people would say it's a biscuit," he says.

So here are some suggestions of more unusual digestifs from across the globe that retailers can sell to draw in that apparently clueless UK punter:

At up to 50 per cent abv, grappa packs quite an alcoholic punch and is definitely for sipping after a meal. Sainsbury's decision to stock Nardini Riserva Grappa in 175 of its top stores might have raised some eyebrows in the trade, but many have seen it as a move which could change the drink's fortunes around. (Nardini Grappa 01483 458700)

Pisco is a Peruvian native word for "bird" and the name of a port famous for its trade in the spirit. It is light bodied, clear or greenish-tinged, and is made from the Spanish Moscatel grape, which is known for its perfumed intensity. It's usually aged for months rather than years in casks made from a local evergreen beech.

Shochu is a distilled rice beverage from Japan and its rich and sweet aromas make it an ideal digestif. Malcolm Cowen is rolling out the UK's first Shochu. Tokiwa is produced by the 140-year-old Akashi Sake Brewery and will be available from October (Malcolm Cowen 020 8965 1937).

Christmas is coming

If you're struggling to decide what digestifs to stock over the festive season, here are some suggestions:

Beam Global UK has produced a luxury Courvoisier selection pack . The gift pack contains a selection of expressions in 5cl bottles (rrp £15).

Pernod Ricard UK is offering six Martell gift packs including a 70cl bottle of Martell VS in a suede gift box, and a Martell VS Christmas pack .

Hine Vintage Cognacs is rolling out a gift box at £40. Shaped like a book , it contains a bottle of Hine Rare VSOP in a decanter-shaped bottle, two tulip-shaped tasting glasses and a 5cl replica miniature of Hine Antique XO Cognac.

The perfect match: Armagnac and cigars?

Cross-merchandising cigars and digestifs can add sales value to an off-licence. Cigars with a powerful flavour should be enjoyed with a full-bodied digestif, such as a Scotch with a port, Madeira or sherry finish, or a XO Cognac.

Smokers have spent £453 million on cigars in the past year, according to Imperial Tobacco . But this figure has dropped by 2.7 per cent since June 2006, showing that the smoking ban has played a significant part in reducing sales.

Independent off-licences have a 1.1 per cent share of total cigar sales, while multiple off-licences have a 1.6 per cent.

The generic body for Armagnac has been on a mission to discover the perfect match between cigars and France's famous brandy. Fourteen Armagnac houses participated in preliminary rounds of the Trofeo Habanos - a competition set up by the BNIA to find one blend and one vintage that stand out as the perfect partner for two mystery cigars.

Eight Armagnac houses then jetted off to Havana in February for the semi-final, and the winners were chosen by 300 members of the public. In the blended Armagnac category, Armagnac Hors d'Age, Jean Cavé was announced as the perfect partner to Punch Churchill, and in the vintage Armagnac category there were two winners - Bas-Armagnac 1978 Delord Armagnac and Bas-Armagnac 1987 Château de Briat matched to a Churchill De Luxe from Partagas.

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