Spirits

SING A SONG OF COGNAC

WHAT DO EMPEROR NAPOLEON BONAPARTE, SNOOP DOG AND STORMZY HAVE IN COMMON? FIONA MCDONALD SAVOURS THE TALES ASSOCIATED WITH FRANCE’S FAVOURED DISTILLED SPIRIT.

It’s the ultimate aspirational product – with the marketing budgets to prove it. Music mogul Jay Z has been snapped swigging directly from the bottle, clutching his Grammy award in the other hand, while Bonaparte demanded that his troops have rations of it while fighting wars. Million rand deals are signed and celebrated in Johannesburg’s finest restaurants by captains of finance
and industry and a bottle of Cognac on the table is de rigeur.

But that’s not the full picture: of the millions of bottles of Cognac produced in France each year, an embarrassingly scant 3% gets consumed in France. The biggest thirst for Cognac of late has
been the United States. There was a period in the 80s and 90s when it thrived in the East but then it hit rough times. The Asian Tiger economy boomed and so did the sales of Hennessy, Martell, Courvoisier and Rémy Martin with it. Cognac was massive from Beijing to Tokyo, Singapore to Seoul – until the economy plummeted, with predictable consequences for Cognac. At one point apparently eight years’ worth of stock lay in warehouses, unsold and with no
natural market presenting itself.

And then in the early 2000s something completely left field happened: rap musicians took to the
golden liquid, not just drinking it but singing about it and quite obviously being photographed and captured on social media.

Along with the grills, the chunky gold chains and diamond encrusted watches Cognac became cool because Busta Rhymes and Snoop Dog said so! Nearly 20 years later and British rapper Stormy STILL says so – as his 2019 Vossi Bop hit showed, with Vossi being slang for Courvoisier, one of the most historic of the big four Cognacs on the market.

Just four big names dominate the field, accounting for 90% of all sales: Hennessy, Martell, Rémy Martin and Courvoisier with 8 million, 2 million, 1.8 million and 1.5 million bottles sold
annually respectively.

So what is it about Cognac that it manages to have more lives than a cat?

The French owe the Dutch a debt of gratitude because it was they who brought the tradition of distilling wine into spirit to France in the mid 1600s. (The same Dutch traders who established themselves at the Cape and also gave South Africa its distilling tradition of “gebrande wijn” – brandewyn or brandy.)

The story goes that it was foreign merchants who were subsequently responsible for the establishment of the major Cognac companies. Richard Hennessy was Irish and Jean Martell
was from Jersey … which also serves to explain why the categorisation or quality level explanation of Cognac is English. (The main designations are VS – Very Special which is aged for a minimum of two years, VSOP – Very Superior Old Pale with its minimum age of four years, and XO or Extra Old has had a minimum of 10 years in cask.)

Martell has as its official foundation date 1715 while Hennessy started towards the middle of the same century. Travelling the region extensively allowed Jean Martell to taste a range of eaux de vie and to be able to source great bottles and create relationships with the best producers and growers. His widow, Rachel took up the reins on his death in 1753. But it took another 30 years before the first significant commercial success was chalked up: in 1783 the Treaty of Paris recognised the independence of the United States of America. The French had been helpful to the Americans in severing ties with Great Britain so the newly independent Americans were happy to receive the first shipment of Martell Cognac.

The Napoleonic wars took place between 1803 and 1815 and it’s rather amusing that although the British were bankrolling many of the countries Napoleon was trying to subjugate, King George III signed a special import license for Martell Cognac to be imported to slake their thirst! (Martell was also featured at the coronation of King George V in 1911.) Five years ago, the House of Martell celebrated its tercentenary, 300 years of making the remarkable spirit, with a gala event for just 300 guests at the Palace of Versailles.

Hennessy was founded by Richard Hennessy, the Irishman, in 1765 – and has a proud 255-year history of perfecting eaux de vie. According to South African brand manager Khomotso Ledwaba, Hennessy played a pivotal role in the quality classification of Cognac.

“Hennessy introduced the Very Special (VS), Very Superior Old Pale (VSOP) and Extra Old (XO) categories we know today,” he said.

And unlike other forebears who preferred Martell, Ledwaba said the Prince of Wales and future King George IV was the inspiration for the Very Superior Old Pale classification after he personally requested something special in 1818. South Africa got its first taste of this historic Cognac in 1866 when it was imported from France.

Hennessy’s Master Blender, Renaud Fillioux de Gironde, assembles his team of tasters on a daily basis – at 11am sharp! – to taste and grade the eaux de vie which go into the various products in the range. Rémy Martin also takes its name from its founder, a winegrower by trade who started his Cognac business in 1724. It remained in the family and underwent a noticeable growth spurt in the mid- 1800s when Paul-Emile Rémy Martin was in charge.

As its entry in Wikipedia states: “All Rémy Martin cognacs have the Cognac Fine Champagne appellation, meaning that they come exclusively from a blend of eaux de vie from the Grande
Champagne and Petite Champagne crus, with at least 50% of Grande Champagne. Thanks to chalky soils, these eaux de vie have great ageing potential and a particular aromatic intensity.”

And then there is the one that rap singers have favoured: Courvoisier. The Cognac famously called “Vossi” by British rap phenomenon Stormzy, differs from other brands in that it didn’t
start in the Cognac region – but rather in the French suburb of Bercy in Paris in 1809.

With founder Emmanuel Courvoisier and partner Louis Gallois soon realising that trading other producers’ products didn’t necessarily guarantee supply or quality, so they relocated to the source. More than 200 years ago they located themselves in Jarnac near Cognac and became producers in their own right. Now owned by Japanese spirit giant Suntory, Courvoisier has long celebrated its Napoleonic connection, after all, the self-proclaimed Gallic emperor supplied
his troops with their Cognac, reputedly shipped barrels of it to St Helena to tide him over during his exile and his heir, Napoleon III personally requested the spirit in 1869 – and also deemed
Courvoisier worthy of the title “Official Supplier to the Imperial Court”.

Smacking of the Gordon Gekko/Wall Street school of marketing, Courvoisier flighted a commercial in 2004 which possibly epitomises the reason for Cognac’s desirability among the rap and music fraternity. Just seven words accompanied the Courvoisier XO visual: “Don’t just stand there drooling. Get rich.”

Cognac is one of those products which bestows a glow on those whose tables it graces: the message being, “Check out the luxury product I can afford. I’ve made it.” In May 2020, auction house Sotheby’s sold a 258-year-old bottle of Cognac for $144 525 – or R2,75 million. One of only three bottles still with original labels, the Gautier Cognac 1762 was touted as “the oldest vintage Cognac ever to be sold at auction”.