HONGKONG has a long-established affinity with France in terms of cognac consumption. The territory is often said to be the biggest per capita consumer of the spirit in the world - an honour which in fact falls to Vatican City. But even if it is denied that statistical distinction it remains an enormously important cognac market. Actual cognac consumption in Hongkong is in fact declining but an XO, or at the very least a VSOP, remains an essential part of any Hongkong celebration. The reasons for this popularity are shrouded in myth. One theory has it that when the British colonisers first arrived in Hongkong cognac was the preferred drink of the senior naval officers and therefore acquired a special cachet. Certainly a mythology has been built around it since. In certain circles Cognac is deemed to be an aphrodisiac, notwithstanding all the evidence to the contrary, while whisky is considered to have the opposite effect. Drink either in sufficient quantities and the distinction becomes academic, but the belief still affects relative sales of the two spirits. Cognac has a long and distinguished history. It is made from distilled wine from a delimited area in the Charente region, and has been since the 17th century. The same technique was used in other regions, but brandy from the Charente district became known for its quality and in the 18th century the term ''cognac'' came into general use to describe it. Because it was transportable and much less volatile than wine, cognac was widely exported. In the 19th century it came to Asia, and Hongkong began its love affair with the spirit. Today it is possible to go to a village store in a remote spot in the New Territories or on the outlying islands and have a choice of half a dozen expensive XO cognac instantly available. Internationally most brandy sold, including cognac, is of three star quality. The XOs and the super XO grades are produced primarily for sale in Asia and at duty free outlets. In Hongkong the highly lucrative cognac market is dominated by five companies. The leader is Martell, followed by Hennessy, FOV, Remy Martin and Courvoisier. All the major brands offer a VSOP and an XO or its equivalent. The term XO was coined by Hennessy and has since been adopted by the other cognac marques. Hennessy XO remains the premium brand market leader. There has also been a steady growth in deluxe cognacs more highly priced than XOs, including Remy Martin's Louis XIII, Hennessy's Paradise, and a variety of other special grades in deluxe packaging. For most Hongkong consumers cognac is the only brandy. Armagnac from Gascony, which many connoisseurs consider more interesting, is less smooth and despite its headily perfumed aroma has never really caught on. Nevertheless, lovers of armagnac can find historic vintages of it in Hongkong on the liqueur trolleys of many of the top hotels. The other great French spirit is calvados, made by distilling cider. A speciality of Normandy, calvados dates back to the 16th century and is an ideal digestive for those looking for something a little out of the ordinary.