I had the great pleasure to interview Richard Stoppard, Chief Executive Partner Businesses, and Group CMO, IWSC Group exclusively for Old Liquors Magazine. If you are passionate about Spirits, in particular about Cognacs, then keep reading…
Richard Stoppard joined the IWSC in early 2017 following an illustrious career of over 20 years experience in blue-chip FMCG at some of the world’s leading organizations, including Unilever, Procter & Gamble, and Microsoft. Stoppard has been leading the team from the organization’s Westbourne Park base in London as it rolls out its 49th annual IWSC to more than 80 countries.
Stoppard says of his appointment: “I am very much looking forward to the challenge of furthering the IWSC’s reputation as the global mark of quality in the drinks industry and encouraging, even more, businesses, producers, and people to enter.”
How was the International Wine & Spirits Competition born?
The IWSC began as ”Club Oenologique,” founded in 1969 by wine chemist Anton Massel.
Massel had the innovative idea to start a high hand-tasting competition based on organoleptic judgment of wine and spirits (as taste, color, odor, and feel of wine); the participants were subject to chemical analysis before each entry.
In 1978 the disciplines of the Competition were refined and the name changed to “International Wine & Spirit Competition.” The Competition recognizes high-quality products and excellence to wines and spirits worldwide.
Can you explain a little more about the judging process? What are the parameters used by the judges to determine the winners?
The IWSC has a unique and extremely dedicated judging process. Nearly 400 industry experts from 30 different countries are carefully handpicked to sit on judging panels for 7 months of the year, to ensure a considered approach to the tasting is adhered to for each and every product.
The Competition runs a two-stage judging process. The first stage involves a “double-blind” judging method, meaning samples are tasted in pre-poured numbered glasses. This blind tasting process allows the judges to focus more on the taste without being influenced by the “visual appearance” of a particular bottle or by the packaging.
Initially, the samples are evaluated in silence by the judges, discreetly and without any comment which may affect the decisions of others, then scores are collected by the panel chair and an open discussion is held. When judges are unable to reach a majority decision, flights will be referred to another panel.
The second stage is the detailed chemical and microbiological analysis which is undertaken by an independent third party. The goal is to focus on the quality and the aroma without being influenced by their packaging; they may be organoleptically attractive now but they may begin to change over time, e.g. oxidization or increased levels of volatile acid.
In your opinion, what are the six best-selling Cognac brands in the U.S. and why?
The IWSC do not wish to comment on particular brands as they do not follow every market.
However, the overall trends as mentioned by the BNIC (Bureau National Interprofessionnel du Cognac) are that Cognac is on the rise, with sales of VS and XO Cognacs both growing and North American Cognac sales growing at 14.2% from 2016 until March 2017.
U.S. sales were 41% of all Cognac sold from 2016 until June 2017.
The four major players (worldwide) are Rémy Martin, Hennessy, Martell, and Courvoisier who account for about half of all Cognacs sold.
Are there any particular characteristics of a successful Cognac brand?
Cognacs are not really brands so much as they are individual houses that produce a variety of different ages and styles of Cognac. Each house will have a variety of styles, ages, and price points. Cognacs are almost always a blend of differently aged eau-de-vie with the Master Blender (or Maitre de Chai) creating house styles and a range of variations and flavors.
In terms of brand reputation and publicity, how important is it to foster positive consumer relations through sustainable initiatives and a positive company image?
The IWSC is unable to comment on how they would perceive the brands’ consumer relations, however, from the testimonials received, it would seem that achieving an accolade from the IWSC in the form of one of their medals has had a very positive impact on the growth of their brand. Examples below:
Harlen Wheatley, Master Distiller, Buffalo Trace Distillery
“We believe the IWSC provides a unique level of international expertise and competition. Consumers understand the value of our spirits being judged by the IWSC to be some of the best in the world, and we consistently see growth in our brands because of the IWSC honors awarded to them.”
Miika Lipiäinen, CEO, Kyrö Distillery
“With our Napue Rye Gin winning the IWSC Gin & Tonic competition and our Koskue Cask-Aged Rye Gin winning Gold in the same series, we have seen a large jump in both domestic and international sales for our products.”
Africa Romero, International Marketing & Sales, Bodegas Williams & Humbert, S.A.U.
“Entering our wines and spirits into the IWSC and winning awards is highly regarded in the eyes of consumers and wine writers. It offers exceptional value and maximum exposure to national and international media, supports our distributors and retailers and helps to increase our wine’s retail value. It is a great marketing and sales tool.”
Are there any strategies a brand can adopt in order to stay at the top?
Yes, of course, there are strategic steps that brands can take, but, ultimately, great wines and spirits are created with great passion and desire for excellence.
And finally…What’s the best way to appreciate a fully aged Cognac?
The term fully aged Cognac is misleading… Cognac has three different categories VS, VSOP, and XO.
A VS (Very Special) has to be aged for a minimum of two years and the resulting spirit is fresh and fruity, great for cocktail making or as a long drink with sparkling water.
A VSOP (Very Special Old Pale) is aged for at least four years. These will still retain some of the fruity characters of a VS, but still have some of the woody characters. Try sipping with coffee after a meal or chilling with a few ice cubes.
XOs (Extra Old) are the oldest with six years aging (this is due to increase to ten years minimum age in 2018). These are richer with more of the rancio (nutty, spice tastes from the wood). If you are drinking an XO cognac you need to take time to enjoy the drink. Most XOs are significantly older than the six (ten) years that they are required to be. Use a tulip-shaped glass (not a Brandy tumbler) and do not hold it and warm the glass and swirl it heavily—all this will do is warm the alcohol and release volatile flavor. Instead, gently swirl the liquid in the glass while holding the stem. Sniff and lightly sip the Cognac, allowing the flavors to permeate around the mouth.