You can’t get a better representation of women empowerment than this: A 39-year-old ex-fragrance brand director partnering with a 36-year-old female sommelier to take on the 400-year-old, mega-masculine industry of cognac.
Though Sabrina Duong, founder and CEO of the new Exsto Cognac, doesn’t think it’s her anatomy that’s disrupting the industry; it’s her experience and past credentials. “What better way to disrupt [the cognac industry] than breaking into it with a background in luxury perfumes and cosmetics?” says the former Asia Brand Director for French perfume company Roger&Gallet, owned by L’Oréal.
To further set her new brand apart from the rest, Duong also made the strategic move to pair the World’s Best Female Sommelier 2016, Julie Dupouy, with a master blender, Géraud Vallantin-Dulac, to create the house’s first two distinctive cognac blends: The Exsto Cognac Elixir and the Exsto Cognac OR Impérial.
We speak to Duong to find out more about her new business and her age-old love for the aqua vitae.
Why open a cognac house specifically, and not specialise in other liquors?
There are so many similarities between cognac, luxury and the beauty industry. Even our OR Impérial bottle is a homage to the perfume industry. I love the art form and history of cognac-making. When someone drinks our cognac, they’re literally drinking a time capsule. 100 years ago, a cognac maker went to great lengths to produce and preserve the eaux de vie that we use, so that someone in the future [us] can drink it. How amazing is that? I see it as less of a jump and more of an opportunity to bring my different areas of expertise to the art of cognac making.
Cognac has been produced for more than 400 years and while there has been plenty of innovation within the industry, it still excludes a major demographic: Women. As an entrepreneur, I saw not only a business opportunity but also a chance to make some waves in the cognac world. While my business background is in luxury and beauty, the food and beverage industry has always been my passion. Cognac was able to bridge all of this together while empowering women. I couldn’t be more excited. At the end of the day, it’s about creating the most beautiful, timeless and alluring experience that reminds you how to live, laugh and love.
What drew you to Julie Dupouy, and what has she brought to your cognacs that a man can’t?
I believe that Julie has a thorough understanding of modern preferences, having worked with acclaimed chefs at Michelin-starred restaurants. Moreover, I felt her strong personality, along with her feminine perspective on such a traditional drink was core to creating a new and contemporary cognac.
I did a lot of research on Julie’s career. I was in constant awe of not just her vast knowledge, but also of her style and thought process when it came to the industry. Julie’s skills and experience make her the perfect choice to create a luxury drink that’s elegant and modern, yet respectful of its heritage. Like many of the women I used to work with in the perfume business, Julie is an inspiring woman, and we share a vision of adopting a more feminine approach to making what is often perceived as a masculine drink.
Is gender-equality one value that you personally hold dear to?
Exsto Cognac embraces both men and women who’re willing and dare to challenge the status quo. It’s a cognac created by two women; with the female perspective and sensibility, but it’s not created just for women.
I believe that both men and women should enjoy our cognac, and indeed, I believe that all kinds of equality are important. We’re lucky enough to live in a time where gender equality is being championed. There’s obviously a long way to go, but I feel like it’s moving in the right direction. Equality for all is a value that we hold very dearly.
Why did you choose to launch Exsto Cognac in Singapore?
Having lived and worked in different countries in Asia, I felt that Singapore was the right place to introduce Exsto Cognac. Singaporeans love innovation and quality; both being fundamental values that embody Exsto Cognac. Additionally, I felt that Singaporeans value gender equality highly and would readily embrace a cognac created by two women.
What’s your favourite way to drink cognac?
I like to enjoy my cognac before dinner, surrounded with friends, to unwind and kick off the evening. I particularly enjoy it with a drop of water as I like the smoothness and the explosion of aromas the water adds to the cognac.