What you will learn from this post:
- Cognac Expert’s evolution from blog to business-to-business bulk cognac projects
- A typical business-to-business project
- What does “bulk” actually mean in the context of Cognac
- A business case: A private Cognac bottling
- The inquiry and early communication
- Search for good-fitting Cognac
- Dry goods and labels
- The import/export process and documentation
- The Cognac is on the water
- Follow-up and project closure
- Challenges and solutions
- Wrapping up
How we ended up shipping containers full with Cognac
Just over ten years ago, Cognac Expert started as a blog. Since then it has developed into a full-fledged business whose aim is to tell the story of small production Cognac. At the core of the Cognac Expert DNA is to discover, promote and sell Cognac from these smaller, more artisanal producers. While Cognac Expert is and always will be a content-rich B2C online shop, our activities have expanded throughout the years, notably with business-to-business.
These past years during which we launched the B2B activity, have seen us take on different projects of all shapes and sizes, for business clients all around the world. While each project has been successful in its own way, plenty of opportunities for valuable learning have taken place.
The paragraphs to follow will explore the ins and outs of Cognac Expert B2B projects, in addition to what obstacles can present themselves and how best to navigate them. Needless to say, our experience has broadened from our earliest blogging days, and our projects have become more diverse. But, we remain steadfast in our mission to promote the great work being done by the small Cognac producers throughout the Cognac region.
What’s a typical business-to-business bulk Cognac project?
How can one best describe a typical B2B project? Generally speaking, B2B projects are considered bulk projects, so the volume of liquid in question can be assumed to be more than a few cases of bottles. Bulk can mean several different things when we’re talking about Cognac, or other French spirits.
For an example at one end of the spectrum, suppose a spirits club wants to have its own private label single cask Cognac. For that, it will need to find a single cask of Cognac that fits the specific criteria of the club – aromas, flavors, age, price, etc. But finding a single cask of Cognac when halfway around the world and coordinating bottles, labels, production, and transport is no easy task. Our B2B operations facilitate this type of project at every level.
For an example at the other end of the spectrum, suppose a spirits producer somewhere around the world wants to launch its own Cognac range. For this, they will need a significant quantity of Cognac of a certain quality. Here again, our B2B activity facilitates at every step, but this truly bulk style of project (1000-15000 liters) is primarily focused on finding the liquid, preparing samples, and organizing the transport and export documents from the source to the destination.
In short, bulk can mean 300 liters of mature vintage Cognac just as it could mean 15000 liters of VSOP quality Cognac, and anything in between.
The different types of B2B projects include but are not limited to the following:
- Single cask, or single dame jeanne, projects for clubs and other private organizations
- Corporate gift Cognacs – single cask, custom blend, or private label
- Bulk (1000+ liters) Cognac projects sent to client in IBCs or drums
- Sourcing of used Cognac casks for other spirits producers
- Curated Cognac tasting sets and guided tasting events
- All of the above but for Armagnac, Calvados, and other French spirits
- We’ve even done a custom Champagne bottling
To be clear, Cognac Expert is not a spirits broker (courtier in French); we do not possess a stock of barrels, tanks, or dame jeannes for use for B2B clients. Instead, we serve as a facilitator acting between the client and the producer. The client is somewhere around the world, and the producer is in France. Therefore, we connect the two sides and facilitate at every level so the client’s ultra precise projects can be realized as smoothly and as quickly as possible.
It goes without saying that our B2C activity has allowed us to have deep contacts in the region, and we tend to have a good understanding of each Cognac house’s style, their current stock situation, and if they are willing and able to participate in these bulk B2B types of projects.
Who we’d typically approach for a 15000 liter project is not the same as who we’d approach for a single cask vintage Cognac project. Thus, quantity plays an important role. This turns out to be quite valuable when the client is situated halfway around the world and does not necessarily know where to get started in the region.
A Cognac edition import business case: From Start to Finish
To make things more concrete, let’s run through one of the above examples from start to finish.
Example: Spirits club in Taiwan desires its own single cask Cognac bottling with private label
It all begins with an initial contact, whether it’d be via email, linkedin or instagram. The client makes an initial request about the feasibility of such a project and provides specific criteria concerning the Cognac itself. Let’s suppose the spirits club gives the following criteria:
- Single cask Cognac
- 25-30 years old
- Natural color, no additives
- Natural alcohol level (not reduced)
- Cognac to be bottled and labeled in France
- Cognac needed at destination in Q4, six month’s time
Questions that come up from our side will be:
Do you wish to be able to include an age statement, or will a Lot N° suffice? The distinction between a vintage Cognac and an unofficial vintage Cognac is important to make clear to the client.
Do you desire a custom bottle, or decanter? If so, which one? Or, can we use the producer’s standard bottle? Do you desire a wooden box, a cardboard box, or none?
Who handles the label design? Will the labels be printed in France or in Taiwan? Reminder that all necessary legal mentions must be included on front and/or back labels.
How will these bottles be imported into the destination country? Who handles the transport of the pallet(s)?
Is cru (growth area) important? Is there a desired aroma and flavor profile?
When and if the client responds to these questions, we can more easily gauge how serious the client is about the project. Note that the risk with prospective B2B projects is a time investment which does not materialize into a project. In other words, we try to do our best to filter out which requests are serious and which requests are purely explorative. It may be hard to believe, but the majority of prospective clients fall into this latter category. It’s the fault of no one; it’s just the reality, but there certainly is no harm in reaching out.
Assuming we have the responses to the above questions, we can then think about which producer is a good fit for the project. This implies that we know the producer will be willing for this type of project, and we know the producer is likely to have a single cask that he or she will be happy to offer for this project, and not keep for his or her own brand.
It is understandable that not all small producers will want to part ways with a 28 year old cask of Cognac. Of course, we do our best to respect the requested aroma and flavor profile, the cru, and importantly the price. Emails, calls and visits are made, and hopefully within a few short days the producer comes back to us with a few good-fitting options and pricing.
To these per bottle prices, we add our commission and then communicate the options to the client and simultaneously ask if samples are desired and in which size? Our commission is added to the liquid only (in the case of liquid only bulk orders) and per bottle prices (in the case of bottled bulk orders). We do not add a commission to any production, packing, or handling fees from the producer.
The client responds positively for the options and the samples. The producer sends samples to our warehouse, which we then forward to the client. The client then takes his or her time tasting through the samples. Sometimes the client is the only one tasting the samples and comes back with a decision relatively quickly. Other times, the client tastes the samples with a group of colleagues on multiple occasions; this can take longer.
Let’s say out of the three samples sent, the client wants to move forward with one of them. Great news! The liquid has been found. Next comes a deeper discussion about the dry goods – bottles, labels, corks, capsules/wax, and boxes. For the sake of an example, let’s suppose the client is happy to use a producer’s standard 70cl bottle called the Exception. A standard black plastic head cork stopper will suffice, and a black capsule is desired.
No wax. No cardboard box or wooden box is needed. Just the labeled bottles. This is ideal, especially right now as the dry goods situation is very tense and so stock issues prevent custom bottles, or other special bottles arriving on time. Of course, custom bottles and decanters are possible, but it is another layer of complexity to the project.
Regarding transport, the client wishes to handle transport themselves and will use an importer they have worked with before.
Concerning labels, the client wishes to design the labels themselves but have them printed in France with the producer’s local printer. All fine. We will just insist on being able to approve the label, in conjunction with the producer to ensure that all required legal mentions are included on the front and back labels, in addition to the label dimensions. Moreover, we make an effort to include the producer’s own logo on the label – either front or back – assuming the client accepts. In most cases, this is no cause for tension. In fact, in most cases, it is required to state who bottled the Cognac on the label. Ideally, the producer logo is included.
Now that the dry goods and label topics are handled with the client, we confirm everything with the producer. This involves seeing if there are any price changes due to the chosen dry goods, and if the designed label requires a special type of paper or printing procedure. It is made clear to the client that prices can vary ever so slightly based on these factors. Once everything is confirmed on the producer’s side, we confirm all final prices with the client. A proforma invoice and then an invoice is sent.The client arranges payment and production can begin once all dry goods and labels have been received.
When possible, videos and images of the production process will be sent to the client. Also, we insist that the producer produces one bottle first and sends an image to the client. This is to ensure that the client accepts the label positioning and can make any other final requests. In this case, the client decides at the last minute to have the bottles hand numbered. We communicate this to the producer, who agrees to this slight update.
The bottles are produced, packed on pallets, and filmed and are ready for pick up. Before arranging pick up, we inform the client of the exact pallet dimensions (length, width, height), weight, and total value. They will need this when arranging the pickup with their transporter. A pick up date is set, and when that day arrives, the pallet leaves the producer’s warehouse and begins the journey to the client’s address.
Under this example, since the client has chosen to handle all transport, Cognac Expert’s and the producer’s responsibility are clear once the pallet leaves the producer’s site. At this point, we then send the producer our commission invoice. All is settled and the project is closed, and new projects can begin.
Of course, we track the shipment and ensure that the customer is happy with the bottles upon arrival at their address. Follow-up calls and emails are made and the contact is kept open. It’s always a pleasure to see the finished bottles at the destination and in the client’s glasses. Occasionally, we see the bottles appear on social media.
Complexities & Obstacles with identifying, sourcing and exporting French liquor / spirits
As with many things in life, issues can happen and other speedbumps can arise which cause projects to slow down. Below a bullet point list of obstacles we’ve experienced is listed. Note that these points apply to all types of B2B projects, not just the project listed in detail above.
The table below highlights some potential challenges and their solutions. This list is certainly not exhaustive.
Requested custom decanter not in stock, can only be delivered to the producer two months after the stated deadline from client.
Orient client to another similar decanter that is in stock.Extend client deadline.
Ideally, only offer clients bottles and decanters that are in stock.
|Request for non-standard bottle size (35cl, 50cl).|
Challenge since not all producers use non-standard sizes in their range, only offer client 35cl and 50cl bottles that are in stock.If not possible, communicate early on.
Client designs and prints labels. Printing errors can happen with printers not accustomed to printing bottle labels. Also, the printer may not be able to print the labels on rolls with exact specifications, which then necessitates hand labeling from the producer.
Confirm and double confirm the exact label specifications as stated by the producer (roll specs, label dimensions, etc.)Ideally, the client designs the label but we arrange printing with a local printer to avoid these issues, faster too.
For bulk (non-bottled) projects, incoterm confusion.
Confirmation and double confirmation via email and/or calls. Easy to avoid this mix up.
Payment delays. Once agreed upon, prices themselves never really cause issues, but the timing in which payment occurs can take longer than expected.
Apply gentle pressure out of respect for the producer.
The client itself is acting on behalf of their own client. That is, there are two intermediaries between the actual client and the producer. This can drive up prices, makes the communication more tedious, increases time to close project.
Keep communication streamlined and as clear as possible. Be reactive, respond quickly. Call, not email, when topics do not need to be in writing.
Clients are slow to give feedback on samples. In the meantime, the producer has another request for the same Cognac.
Apply gentle pressure out of respect for the producer.
|Hazardous material documentation for large bulk projects.|
Confirm with the transport company what, if any, hazardous documentation is needed for all transport legs. International maritime transport has requirements that are different from domestic ground transport. Easy to double check and confirm via email.
Export documentation errors from shipping company.
Carefully read and consult all export documents sent from the transport company. Despite it being their responsibility, errors can and do happen.
Currency on invoices, language on invoices, and signature customs on invoices.
Before reaching the invoicing stage, ask the client if there are any specific requirements as to currency, language.
Note: It is common for signatures on French documents to have to write “Bon pour l’accord”. Some will not consider the invoice signed unless those words are also written.
For closer EU projects, ensuring that the alcohol taxes are paid in the destination country.
Clear communication early on in email exchanges and phone calls
If is safe to say that the B2B side of Cognac Expert and its mother company Super SARL is still in its early days, but in just a few short years, we’ve learned quite a lot about how each of the above project types are best handled, including what common obstacles can arise and how to avoid them, and how to swiftly move the projects along to respect client timelines.
While different in nature to our core B2C activity, the B2B side of the business still perfectly adheres to our aforementioned core mission. Whether through the sale of a few cases of bottles during a sale campaign on Cognac Expert or through the sale of a single cask private label Cognac for a B2B client, the goal is and always will be to promote the great work being done by the small Cognac producers throughout the region. When all is said and done, we take pleasure from seeing Cognac on more tables and in more glasses around the world.
We see the B2C and B2B activities as perfectly complementary. For more information, or project inquiries, please don’t hesitate to reach out. Cheers!