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Cognac has historically been recognised the premier artisan spirit in the world with well earned reputation for quality that is the envy of the distilling world. Cognac is typified by fruity, intense flavours, staggering balance and complexity, yet it is a spirit of enormous variety, with different distilleries offering very different products.
The term brandy is a corruption of the Dutch word “brandewijn” meaning “burned wine”, and is a spirit produced by distilling wine. Whilst the famous classifications are in English (despite the French origin of the spirit) due to the spirit’s popularity in English high society during the 18th and 19th centuries, a fact that demonstrates Cognac’s lasting and widespread fame.
Many brandies are produced around the world, yet by far the two most famous are Cognac, and Armagnac, both produced in France. Cognac is widely recognised as the finest brandy available, and differs from Armagnac in that it is twice distilled. The spirit takes its name from the town of Cognac in the far west of France. This town is home to many of the great Cognac houses of the industry: Martell, Hine, Remy-Martin, Hennessy, to name but a few. Some families, such as Frapin, have been operating in the region since the 13th century.
Cognac is produced using different varieties of grapes, though Ugni Blanc is by far the most popular. Rather, grapes tend to be classified by their “Cru”, a regional sorting system that rings around the town of Cognac, with those more central being valued highest. These regions are very regulated and tautly defined, ensuring that the consumer is aware of the quality of the spirit. Cognac grapes differ quite drastically from wine grapes, however, with Cognac grapes proving far more bitter and acidic than their vinous relatives, meaning that whilst French wine may enjoy a good season, Cognac may not, and vice versa.
All Cognac is aged in Limousin Oak casks, and age of maturation is bound by strict rules through classifications. Very Special (VS) Cognac can contain brandy no younger than 2 years old, whilst Very Superior Old Pale (VSOP) can contain brandy no younger than 4 years old, and the highest classification Extra Old (XO) cannot contain brandy younger than 10 years old (rising from 6 years due to a 2016 law change). There is a further classification: Hors d’Âge, or Vintage, which is effectively an extension of the XO category, but allows producers to illustrate that these Cognac is of extreme age.
Cognac has been at the top of the spirits world for nearly three centuries, and during this history has been the toast of kings, inventors and revolutionaries alike. It formed the basis for many of the classic cocktails that remain on menus around the globe to this day, and is truly a magnificent and delicious spirit that every drinker of discernment should sample.
Early cognac history is tied closely to the history of French wine.
Roman Emperor Titus Flavius Domitianus bans the practice of wine making.
Marcus Aurelius Probus, another Roman Emperor lifts the ban, and wine begins to be made again in the South-West of France.
The Duke of Guyenne and Poitiers Guillaume X., orders the planting of vineyards in the Charente region, where the town of Cognac is found.
Travelling merchants from England arrive at La Rochelle, the closest major seaport to Cognac to buy and sell wine.
Wine from the Cognac region is sold in Hamburg markets.
The Frapin family, who would later establish one of Cognac’s finest distilleries, first settle in the Cognac region.
Cognac wine is exported heavily to Britain as the 100 years war begins between France and England.
Brandy is distilled in the Armagnac region by farmers as a means of using up surplus grapes.
François I, an important figure in Cognac’s history, is born in the town. He later became king of France, and allowed trade along the Charente region’s rivers.
Merchants from Holland purchase wine from what would now be called the Borderies and Champagne Crus. After realising the wine would often spoil on the return journey, they began to distil it to a spirit as a means of reducing bulk and preserving the stock. This was known as a Brandwijn, or “Burnt Wine”, which gave rise to the name “Brandy”. Once back in Holland however, water was added to return the liquid to a wine-like proof, it was rarely drank neat. It was around this time that the first effects of oak barrels on the brandy were noticed.
At the start of this century, famed German alchemist and botanist published Liber de Arte Destillandi, a key text on the art of distilling.
Brandy is made in Cognac for the first time, reported by André Castelo, a chronicler, who states that a merchant from La Rochelle came to the town and produced 4 casks of good distilled spirit.
The Aunis region is producing far more wine than there is demand, meaning that the Dutch merchants are distilling the excess amount down to a spirit. The word Brandy appears for the first time.
The second occurrence of an eau-de-vie being made in Cognac town, with a purchase by a Mr. Serazin noted.
The practice of double distillation is experimented by wine merchants for the first time, initially to further reduce the volume of liquid for easy transportation and more available room on ships.
The Cognac Houses have a different, less accurate, yet more romantic story about how double distillation was first invented. The legend has it that the knight Jacques de la Croix Maron, the Lord of Segonzac, dreamt the Devil tried to damn his soul by boiling it in a huge cauldron. Yet, the knight’s faith was so strong, that the Devil had to boil it a second time. Terrifying stuff, never the less, the knight was inspired to apply the same principle to his eaux-de-vie, creating the double distillation process.
A distillery is founded by two Dutchmen, Van Der Boogwert and Loo Deyijck, in Tonnay-Charente, near Cognac.
Riots occur in protest of the high rate of tax on wine, which meant that production and retail was extremely difficult.
British merchant Lewes Roberts mentions a wine known as “Rotchell or Cogniacke.”
Wine-maker Philippe Augier founds Augier cognac house, which later becomes Augier Frères.
The London Gazette mentions, for the first time, “Cogniack” Brandy.
Louis XIV gives the house of Frapin an aristocratic status.
Trading houses are created which sell eaux-de-vie to sell to buyers in England, Holland and beyond in Europe.
Large parts of the vineyards in Saintonge are deverstated by a cold winter.
Claude Masses claims this is the year that double distillation was first invented, by a man in La Rochelle.
Channel Islander Jean Martell founds Martell Cognac, one of the most well renown distilleries in the region.
Paul-Emilie Rémy Martin alongside his father Jean Geay found Rémy Martin.
Isaac Ranson starts a trading house in Cognac, shipping eaux-de-vie to Holland and Ireland.
Louis XV bans the planting of new vineyards without prior permission.
Exports of Cognac rise considerably.
At Ransom & Delamain in Jarnac, James Delamain (an Irishman) rises to the position of partner in the firm.
Richard Hennessy, Irishman and former army officer, founds Hennessy Cognac.
In the centre of Cognac there are now ten trading houses selling the spirit around Europe.
Limousin oak casks have become the standard barrel.
Hennessy begins exporting Cognac brandy to Northern America, particularly New York.
Hennessy marries Martha Martell, meanwhile the Baron Jean-Baptiste Antione Otard with Jean Dupuy found the distillery Cognac Otard, as the spirits popularity continues to rise.
Just as other distilling families in Cognac have entwined, Thomas Hine and Elisabeth Delamain marry.
By this century cognac had stopped being sold by the barrel, but in bottles which are smaller, and more affordable for the customer. This leads to the creation of a side industry- that of bottle and cork making. The end of this century would spell disaster for the brandy industry as blight destroys most of the vineyards in Cognac.
Emmanuel Courvoisier begins selling wine and spirits in the suburb of Bercy in Paris, alongside Louis Gallois the mayor of Bercy at the time. At this point they merely sold the product.
Napoleon Bonaparte visits the Courvoisier warehouses in Bercy in 1811, and later demanded that his military forces have a ration of Cognac.
Napoleon is exiled to St. Helena, taking with him several casks of Cognac from Courvoisier’s warehouses, which first gave rise to the term “Napoleon Brandy.”
Thomas Hine & Co. Cognac is founded. The first classifications appear as VOP (Very Old Pale) and VSOP (Very Superior Old Pale).
Alecandre Bisquit founds Bisquit cognac.
Roullet & Delamain cognac house is founded in Jarnac by Henri Delamain and cousin Paul Roullet.
Felix Courvoisier and Jules Gallois, the sons of founders Emmanuel and Louis wanted to ensure a constant supply of premium spirit, and thus moved the company to Jarnac, nearby to Cognac.
King Louis Phillipe first purchases a barrel of Pineau de Charentes, an aperitif created with a small amount of Cognac.
Courvoisier moves into a magnificent Château on the banks Charente. This remains their global headquarters.
Alfred de Vigny, famous poet and translator of Shakespeare begins to produce his own Cognac.
Martell becomes the first Cognac house to label its bottles.
For the first time, Cognac is shipped to Australian shores.
The Sazerac cocktail, one of the finest in the world, is first invented in New Orleans, using Cognac as the base spirit.
The first “Crus” appear, as the Cognac regions are mapped, they are named: Grande Champagne, Petit Champagne, Premier Bois and Deuxième Bois.
Hennessy starts to produce and label bottles.
A.E. Dor Cognac House is founded in Jarnac.
For the first time, Martell ships its spirit to Shanghai in China.
Jean-Baptisite Camus founds the Camus Cognac House.
The iconic Hennessy axe-in-hand logo is registered as a trademark, as is the brand name.
A year later, Hennessy begins to use a star classification system for its brandies.
Napoleon’s heir, Napoleon III requested Courvoisier supply him with Cognac.
A new map of the Cognac region emerges with the zones of Fins Bois and Bons Bois added.
Phylloxera rears its ugly head in the Cognac region, destroying much of the grape crop and Cognac’s hold on the spirits industry, as the Whisky market booms in response.
Courvoisier labels its bottles for the first time.
The size of vineyards in the Cognac region is estimated at 300,000 hectares.
Resident of Cognac Claude Boucher, creates a new machine to make bottles, ensuring a more consistent solidity and regularity of structure.
Gold medals are awarded to Frapin and Courvoisier for their spirits at the 1889 Paris World Exposition.
Having stood at 300,000 hectares merely 13 years previously, the vineyards now only occupied 40,000 hectares of land, due to the full bite of the grape blight.
Hennessy is established as world market leader in the Cognac industry.
The six regions of Cognac become defined and protected by law.
The golden age of cocktails sees Cognac based cocktails extremely popular.
Hennessy and Martell exchange tips about export markets, with the agreement lasting until 1952.
The term ‘Fine Champagne’ is first used on bottles of Rémy Martin VSOP.
Courvoisier first use Napoleon in their marketing.
Stricter rules about the production of Cognac are introduced: no sugar may be added during production, and the wine distilled must be made out of white grapes. In response to the blight, grape vines have been imported from America, with Ugni Blanc replacing Folle Blanch and Colombard as the most popular variety used.
African-American soldiers were stationed in South-West France during and immediately after the Second World War, gaining a taste for Cognac, which they brought back to America. Earlier in the century, black performers such as Josephine Baker enjoyed Cognac, the beginning of a long association between black American musicians and the spirit- a connection that would work in Cognac’s favour at the end of the century. Indeed, Jazz, and other black art-forms were appreciated in France before America, and thus for African-Americans this was the spirit of a nation that admired their culture rather than admonishing it. Considering that bourbon, the national spirit of the States, appealed to Confederate sensibilities and nationalism, and that many distilleries were founded with slave labour, it is no surprise that many in the black community preferred cognac.
The Bureau National Interprofessionel de Cognac is founded. Known as the BNIC, this is the governing body for Cognac, but also representing the spirit’s interest on a national scale.
Courvoisier is the first cognac to advertise on television.
Courvoisier is bought by the Canadian drinks giants Hiriam-Walker.
Pernod Ricard buys Bisquit Cognac.
Hennessy and Moet-Chandon join forces to become Moet-Hennessy. Meanwhile, Hine is purchased by The Distillers Limited.
Courvoisier receives the Prestige de la France award, the highest accolade of French quality, and remains the only Cognac house to be given this prestigious honour.
Courvoisier changes hands again, having been bought by Allied Domecq.
The one of the world’s largest luxury goods companies is formed when Louis Vuitton merges with Moet-Hennessy, creating Louis Vuitton Moet-Hennessy, or LVMH as it is known.
Seagram purchases Martell.
This decade saw an upturn in the fortunes of Cognac, after suffering during the Tequila and Vodka booms of the 70s and 80s. This was thanks in no small part to the references to the spirit by rappers such as the Notorious B.I.G., Tupac and Busta Rhymes.
Over 87,000 hectares of vineyards exist in Cognac.
Pernod Ricard buys Seagram with Diageo, and thus acquires Martell. Meanwhile Hennessy breaks the record for highest sales in a year, with 35 million bottles.
Moet Hennessy wins a landmark trial against counterfeit Cognac in China.
LVMH buys a majority stake in Wenjun Distillery, one of China’s top brandy producers.
China is Hennessy’s largest market.
Hennessy announces that it will plant a vineyard in China in a partnership with the state agricultural company, demonstrating how the spirit has gone from provincial farm industry, to world-wide powerhouse.