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Sunday, December 20, 2015

Tales From The Cognac - Short Stories Of The Four Great Houses

Martell, Rémy Martin, Hennessy and Courvoisier bottles
Isaac Marion wrote "The aged cognac tastes like history. Not the kind taught in schools, full of wars and politics and cultural revolution - the smaller, softer history of a world with only two people in it." In 1979, two years before Marion was even born, Martin Sheen downed a bottle of Martell Cognac Cordon Bleu like a boss in Apocalypse Now.

In case you weren't aware, Cognac is a brandy from the Cognac appellation of France, made up of the departments of Charente and Charente-Maritime and surrounding the town of Cognac, just north of Bordeaux. And Marion was right. There is something about an aged Cognac that tastes like history, other than the obvious fact that it's been aged. Is it the grapes? The land? The oak? Tradition? History itself? Or all of the above?

I don't know the answer but I can't blame Sheen for devouring that bottle. So it's probably a good thing that this article isn't about the cognac spirit. This is about moments in history. Four great stories of the four great houses of Cognac. The ones that blazed the trail, the innovators that turned their ways into tradition, the successful houses that made cognac what it is today and continue to be the big boys on the block.

Martell, Rémy Martin, Hennessy and Courvoisier.

And it features illustrations by the enormously talented Zach Cunningham, making the pictures alone worth putting up with my writing. Check out his website and his Instagram



Jean Martell was brought into this world in 1694 in Jersey. Not the-arm-pit-of-America, but the island in the English channel that New Jersey is named after. Now I know what you're thinking, and I hate to let everybody down, but he has no relation to "The Red Viper" Oberyn Martell from Game of Thrones. Bummer, right?

Martell came from a successful family of wine merchants on the island. Jersey is in quite the strategic spot for trade, and at the time it was a hot spot for smugglers. Although it was (and still is) a self-governing English territory, it's closer to France than England. So there was plenty of French influence in their culture and French was the common language until the English language took over in the 20th century.

As a young man Jean Martell ambitiously followed the family industry. He traveled to the town of Charente in France looking to buy wine to send back to Jersey and sell off. Instead, aggressively with a turntable scratch, true love happened. The place and its brandy called to him, and he settled there and started making brandy himself. He was 21 years old and the year was 1715.

That's right. We're about to close out the 300th anniversary year of Martell, the first house of Cognac. Wine from Bordeaux and Borderies (a subregion of Cognac) had been used to make the first brandy by the Dutch in 1500, the earliest record of brandy being actually made in Cognac is 1549, and "Cogniack Brandy" had its first mention by the London Gazette in 1678. But Martell created the first real house in 1715. He wasn't just a farmer or a distiller making Cognac. He built a brand and a legacy.

The rumor is that Martell was a bit spiteful but a highly intelligent businessman. He married Jeanne Brunet, the daughter of a top Cognac merchant. That helped business. She died and then he married Rachel Lallemand, who was (probably not by coincidence) Jeanne's cousin. While running his Cognac business he was still managing things back in Jersey, and was exporting insane amounts of Cognac to England and other European countries. He became very rich and in 1728 he bought the land that he would turn into Martell's famous Founder's House.

Martell died in 1753 at the age of 59. His brother-in-law took over despite actual ownership belonging to Rachel and their sons. Although Louis Gabriel had a more unpleasant and cutthroat way of conducting business than Jean, he was expansion obsessed. Because of his focus on corporate growth you can't help but think of the butterfly effect. What if Louis hadn't forced himself into the business? Would Martell be around today?

House Martell wasn't just the first house in Cognac, but in 1849 they became the first to put labels on their bottles. Let that sink in for a minute. LABELS. Hennessy followed in 1865, sixteen years later, and then Courvoisier in 1876, twenty-seven years later. Innovators, that Martell.


In 1724, nine years after Martell founded his Cognac house, winemaker Rémy Martin went ahead and built his own Cognac house. Because Rémy does what he wants. Or maybe he didn't. I don't know because there's no information on this dude other than when he decided to name a Cognac house after himself. Either way, he may have been the second one on the scene but there's at least one thing that the brand in which he created beat to his competitors.

In 2003 Rémy Martin appointed Pierrette Trichet as their fourth Cellar Master in their long history. So what's the big deal? Pierrette is a woman. I know what you're saying: why does she need to be Wonder Woman to compete with men? Well, in an industry ridiculously dominated by males all throughout the ranks, as a woman you can't be their equal or just better than them to change their stubborn minds. You need to put them to shame.

Trichet was born in 1952 to a teacher as a mother and a viticulturist as a father in the Gers department of France, not far from Armagnac and near the border of Spain. At an early age she became fascinated with the aromas around her. From the jams her mother would make and how the smell would change during the process of its production, to her father's vineyards and how much she loved to smell the vine flowers when they were blooming.

She became a young woman of science and went to the University of Toulouse for biochemistry and biology, with the intention of using her education in science to follow in her father's footsteps as a viticulturist. After graduating from the university she took a job at a laboratory that conducted research and analysis on wine and cognac. Rémy Martin was one of the clients and by the time she was 24 years old she was working for them.

The chairman of Rémy Martin in the 1970's was André Heriard Dubreuil and the Cellar Master was André Giraud. Heriard Dubreuil wanted to get all scientific and shit with every step of the cognac-making process. From bringing in the best possible eaux-de-vie (the distilled spirit that will become Cognac after it's aged), to the aging in oak, and then the blending. So in 1976 he brought in the mind of Trichet who would run analysis on eaux-de-vie and cognac in their new laboratory and even get to taste it.

As the years went on her responsibilities grew, and in 1993 she was appointed to the tasting committee by Cellar Master Georges Clot. She would now taste the eaux-de-vie and cognac with Clot and the other members of the committee, and she had a voice. Her opinions mattered. Clot became Trichet's mentor and, after he retired in 2003, Dominique Hériard Dubreuil, chairwoman of Rémy Martin, appointed Trichet as the new Cellar Master for her incredible palate and background in science.

Trichet was now the first female Cellar Master in Cognac and it didn't come without critics. She told The Luxe Chronicles "You just have to focus on your job and get on with it." What is that job? Tasting thousands of samples of eaux-de-vie and making the decisions on which ones to buy. Going down into the cellars and tasting the aging cognacs to see how they're evolving. Then there's the blending. How much of each one needs to be used to maintain the same profile and house style?  And don't forget about creating new products. It's an enormous responsibility and incredibly difficult. Can you imagine being responsible for crafting Louis XIII every year? That's a $2,000-$3,000 bottle! What if you messed it up???

She'll never get to taste her best work, however. Fifty years from now the cognac that she bought as eaux-de-vie and put in the cellar will be blended and bottled with others in some really high-end, super-fancy cognac. Nobody will know it was her and she's okay with that. She told Brad Haskel of the Huffington post "I often compare myself to that of a relay runner who is given the baton by a teammate and then has to pass it on to another teammate in the best conditions. Wanting to create a new style or leave my personal mark on the Rémy Martin cognacs would be totally contrary to the mission entrusted of me."

Trichet stepped down in 2014 and left Baptiste Loiseau, a young gentleman she worked closely with for years, as her successor.


In the year 1765, fifty years after Martell was established and forty-one years after Rémy Martin, the third great house of Cognac was founded: Hennessy. So this was a milestone year for Hennessy as well, turning 250. You may know of this house thanks to RZA, who claims in Reunited that Wu-Tang "drinks Hennessy by the keg". Has there ever been a rap song to use violins more epically than Reunited? I don't think so. I recommend you give a listen.

Today Hennessy's products make up an astounding 40% of the world's cognac. It's enormously popular and successful. There are three ethnicities that have such a connection to Hennessy that it has earned the right to be called their own. The French, obviously, because that's where it's made. In World War II the African-American troops acquired a taste for Hennessy and brought their love for it back home with them, and it's still extremely popular among the African-American population. And then there's the Irish because of its roots.

In the Blackwater Valley of Ireland's Cork there's a little village named Killavullen. This is where Richard Hennessy, son of Lord James Hennessy of Ballymacmoy, was born in 1724. The ancestral home of his family, the Ballymacmoy House, is still standing and still under the ownership of his descendants.

Back then times were tough for a young Irishman or Scot for both financial and religious reasons, and they ended up becoming soldiers in other Catholic countries of Europe, especially France. They were called "The Wild Geese" and Richard was one of them. In 1744, at the age of twenty, he went off to fight for King Louis XV of France in the War of Austrian Succession.

The war had started four years earlier in 1740 when Charles IV up and died leaving his daughter Maria Theresa as the Queen of Hungary, Croatia and Bohemia. Oh, and the Archduchess of Austria and Duchess of Parma. She also would have been the Emperor of the Holy Roman Emperor if she had a penis, so the plan for that was to have her husband take that title. That woman's business card must have looked way too busy with titles. You've got to simplify those things.

She caught hell from all angles for being a woman in power because there was also a thing in Austria and Germany called "Salic Law" where a woman couldn't rule either. But her loving and thoughtful father, Charles IV, made a deal with the German states before he died so it was completely legal and legit. But, as we know, that doesn't stop non-progressive traditionalists. King Frederick II of Prussia, thinking because she was a woman that Maria was soft and wouldn't retaliate, gave her the bird by invading Silesia, a region that is now mostly in Poland but extends into Germany and the Czech Republic.

Who came to her defense? The Austrians. They rose up to defend Silesia. War broke out and alliances were made. France and Bavaria allied with Prussia and faced off against Austria, Great Britain, the Dutch and anybody else that hated France. So why did Richard Hennessy decide to join France to fight Maria and her allies? To put it simply: any opportunity to stick it to the English. Because eff 'em.

At one point Hennessy was garrisoned in Charente and he was introduced to the culture of the area and its brandy. In 1745, one year into his service, he was injured in one of the few great victories for the French in the war: the Battle of Fontenoy, near present day Belgium. There would be no returning to action from his injuries and his military career was over. The war ended with the Treaty of Aix-la-Chapelle in 1748, which included Maria Theresa losing Silesia to Prussia as part of the deal. But it would turn out that Maria Theresa was a fully competent leader and a highly intellectual human being, and that all of the doubt in her qualifications were wrong.

Hennessy stayed in France and after twenty years of doing different things in different places, he returned to Charente at the age of forty-one and started making his own cognac. His son James is credited with creating the brand we know of today. And guess who James ended up marrying? Why none other than Martha Martell! How beneficial. Much much later in 1923, Hennessy and Martell started another relationship that would last for twenty-nine years. It was an agreement between the two houses to exchange export market information.


Louis Gallois was a dude born sometime in the late eighteenth century. He just so happened to be the mayor of Bercy, a suburb of Paris, and he also had built its first wine and spirits warehouse, turning the fortunes of the town from down-trodden into a hub of the wine trade in France. Then in 1809 he went into business with Emmanuel Courvoisier, a man hailing from Jura in eastern France, to create a wine and spirits merchant and production company in Bercy. The fourth big house of Cognac was born.

Things must have gone well pretty quickly because in 1811, just two years after opening their doors, in walked Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte. Napoleon had expensive taste when it came to knocking a few back, although he didn't drink as much as most people of that era. His wife Josephine shared the same expensive taste but she also had, uuuhhh, a much bigger thirst. Napoleon's everyday-drinker was wine from Chambertin of Burgundy, which he would dilute with water. And then, of course, there was champagne. "In victory you deserve Champagne; in defeat you need it" is one of his famous quotes, after all. He received shipments of champagne from Moët & Chandon, the first of them in 1801. Josephine liked to experiment and try wines from all over the place while hosting social gatherings, but her rocks were the Médoc, sweet dessert wine and champagne.

Well, Napoleon enjoyed a bit of cognac after dinner for his dessert, and he adored the cognac he tasted from Emmanuel and Louis. It made such an impression on him that he returned in 1815, on his way to exile, just to pick up full barrels of the stuff so he could have it at his new home on Saint Helena. He told the fellas that he could have gone to any other producer of cognac but Courvoisier was what he wanted. Napoleon shared it with the English officers that escorted him to St. Helena, and they renamed the ship The Cognac of Napoleon. In the later years of his life he was unable to stomach certain things, especially Chambertin, so he converted to a dessert wine named Vin de Constance (AKA the self-titled Constantia) from Constantia, South Africa. He died in 1821 of either stomach cancer or arsenic poisoning.

By 1828 the sons of Emmanuel and Louis, Felix Courvoisier and Jules Gallois, were running the company and they really wanted to up the quality of their cognac. So they moved the operation out of Bercy and into actual Cognac, specifically the commune of Jarnac. Now the brand and house style was really starting to take shape. Felix died in 1866 and his nephews, the Curlier's, obtained the management responsibilities of Courvoisier.

The Curlier's did such a great job that Emperor Napoleon III, Bonaparte's nephew and heir, requested some Courvoisier to be sent to him in 1869. Suddenly Courvoisier was being named the  "Official Supplier to the Imperial Court". Jackpot!

For awhile there, old cognac became synonymous with Napoleon. For example, instead of asking for an older bottle of cognac you may have asked for a bottle of Napoleon, and the bottles that were marked as Napoleon would often feature the year 1811 somewhere on the bottle as well. Courvoisier benefited the most from that, being the one closest to Napoleon himself.

In 1909 the house was turned over to the Simon family and they were granted permission to put Napoleon's silhouette on their bottles. They started to use the name Napoleon as a classification between VSOP and XO, and now the term is used as just that in both Cognac and Armagnac, rather than just a loose term for old cognac. From the 1930's to the 1990's the house continued to push its connection with Napoleon, with posters and advertisements of Napoleon or men and women dressed up as Napoleon in the ad-style of the day.

I don't know about you, but when I think of Courvoisier I don't think of Napoleon. I think of Saturday Night Live's The Ladies Man. Would you like a Courvoithier? May I interetht you in a fith thandwich?

- Joey Casco CSW/CSS

An enormous THANK YOU goes out to Zach Cunningham for his incredible work on the illustrations in this article. Please go check out his work and support his talent!

Another enormous THANK YOU goes out to Graham Richardson. Whenever I find myself getting confused by history or not being able to find info I'm digging for, Graham is the history expert to see.

Complete History of Cognac: The long way to eaux-de-vie
Martell (cognac) - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
History - Cognac Martell (Société Martell & Co SA) - Producers and Distillers
The Good & Great Cognac Houses - Martell
Rémy Martin - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Pierrette Trichet: Guiding the Tradition & Innovation of Louis XIII & the House of Remy Martin
10,000 House: Pierrette Trichet, Cellar Master
Blending History And Modernity At The House Of Rémy Martin
Meet The Woman Behind Louis XIII's $2,200 Cognac
Rémy Martin Announces New Cellar Master Baptiste Loiseau
Cognac and the unlikely Irish connection
Hennessy - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Spirit of Hennessy’s Irish heritage infuses cognac-maker’s ambitions
Hennessy Cognac legacy is owed to a sleepy village in North Cork
War of the Austrian Succession - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Courvoisier - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
House of Courvoisier: From Napoleon to Busta Rhymes
Courvoisier: a brand history
Courvoisier, the imperial cognac
Cognac: The story of the world's greatest brandy
The Wine Habits of Napoleon and Josephine
Drink Like an Emperor
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  1. Hey! Armpit of the world?! Newark, maybe- but not all of Jersey! We have beautiful areas too!

    1. HAHA! Oh come on, you've heard that nickname before. ;)

  2. Love it! Thanks for sharing your research, humor those illustrations. Love Napoleon! Lol😃



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