Liquor of the Gods: An Excerpt from ‘A Bite-Sized History of France

Nonfiction by Stéphane Hénaut & Jeni Mitchell


For a time, in 2012, it appeared that France would soon enjoy the first theme park devoted to one of its most famous and controversial rulers, Napoleon Bonaparte. “Napoleonland,” as it was dubbed by the media, was the brainchild of Yves Jégo, a French politician. The sprawling park would include daily reenactments of the Battles of Trafalgar and Waterloo, roller coaster rides through mock Egyptian pyramids, and a ski run dotted with replicas of frozen corpses, in memory of Napoleon’s bitter Russian retreat. Fortunately, Jégo failed to raise sufficient funding, and the world was spared the interactive guillotine experience. Given the divisive legacy of Napoleon among French people today, it is probably for the best that he tends to be memorialized in many smaller and more abstract ways.

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Even fans of Courvoisier, one of the world’s most famous cognac purveyors, may not be aware that the vague silhouette on the brand’s distinctive purple label is, in fact, Napoleon Bonaparte, hand tucked in coat. It is a tribute to Napoleon’s appreciation for cognac: while his personal drink of choice was champagne, he distributed rations of cognac to his troops to lift their morale, and he brought along several casks of it to his final exile on Saint Helena. Today, the imposing Courvoisier Château on the banks of the Charente River, in the elegant town of Jarnac in western France, pays tribute to the little emperor with a display of some of his personal items, including a well-worn version of his famous hat.

Cognac is the name given to brandy produced in a specific winegrowing region around the town of Cognac, which lies about thirty miles inland from the Atlantic coast, between La Rochelle and Bordeaux. Its distinctive taste derives from the terroir in which its grapes are grown, the double distillation process that converts the local white wine to brandy, and, most important, the oak casks in which it is aged, which give it a glowing amber color and floral-woodsy flavor. By now you will probably not be surprised to learn that for the brandy to be called cognac, only one specific type of oak may be used (from the nearby forests of Limousin or Tronçais). The exquisite quality of cognac — the “liquor of the gods,” as Victor Hugo purportedly described it — depends upon a fixed routine, one that has been refined over several centuries.

Indeed, when you consider the multitude of historical coincidences that had to occur in this region in order for cognac to be invented, you might suspect divine intervention. We can thank the Atlantic waters for having once covered the Cognac region, leaving behind a special limestone and clay soil in which vines can flourish. Special tribute must go to the Gauls for inventing the wooden barrel, and to the Romans for introducing vineyards to this part of France. We must give thanks to the Arab scientists who refined ancient methods of distillation and introduced them to medieval Europe, and to Eleanor of Aquitaine’s effective promotion of her beloved local wine region. And finally, we must give due to the French Wars of Religion, which helped make La Rochelle, the closest seaport to Cognac, a Huguenot stronghold with close links to the Protestant state of Holland — because, strangely enough, the Dutch played a critical role in the earliest origins of this quintessential French liquor.

For much of the sixteenth century, Holland was a small northern outpost of the mighty Spanish empire. But in 1568, the Dutch provinces rebelled, commencing their Eighty Years’ War for independence from Spain. They established the Dutch Republic in 1581 and carried their war against Spain to the colonial realms. By the early seventeenth century, Holland was a powerful trading nation and commercial sea power, independent in all but name. The Dutch East India Company dominated the spice trade, raking in colossal profits, and Dutch colonies were established in Southeast Asia, the Caribbean, and on the east coast of America. Amsterdam became Europe’s most important banking and commercial center for nearly a century. Dutch traders became increasingly involved in the wine exports flowing from western France, especially from the ports of Bordeaux and La Rochelle, from the fifteenth century onward. After the English lost Gascony, the Dutch dominated the shipping of wine from the region to the rest of Europe. In the early 1600s, King Henry IV imported Dutch engineers to help drain the enormous marshes known as the Marais Poitevin, east of La Rochelle (the Dutch being renowned experts in reclaiming land from the sea). So the Dutch became quite familiar with the wines of western France, including the white wines produced around the town of Cognac. At the time, the Dutch had a reputation for being fond of drink and of life’s pleasures more generally, whether food, art, or flowers.

But overall, the wine industry was suffering a serious crisis in the 1600s. Europe was wracked by wars, such as the Thirty Years’ War, which killed off one-third to one-half of the inhabitants of central Europe. This seriously disrupted normal trade patterns, and French winemakers lost many of their most valuable markets even when their own lands were not affected. Demand for wine also waned with the spread of new religious movements, such as the Puritans, who abhorred alcohol, and with the rise in safer water supplies, which removed a key reason for frequent wine drinking. Wine faced stiff new competition from colonial drinks like tea and coffee, and from the new drinking establishments that sprung up to cater to their consumption. And globe-trotting peoples like the Dutch and the English faced a specific dilemma: their favorite French wines were relatively low in alcohol and spoiled easily on long sea voyages. Preservation techniques that today allow wine to be aged for decades had not yet been introduced, and at that time the upper life span of wine was no more than a year — much less if exposed to extremes of temperature and rough handling.

All of this created space for the emergence of new types of liquors: higher in alcohol, and thus easier to preserve, store, and transport, while also offering some sort of appealing new taste to consumers. The Dutch in particular increasingly began to distill wine, which involved overheating it in a special copper pot, resulting in a liquor they called brandewijn (burnt wine), eventually known in English as brandy. The process of distillation itself was not new, but the market for distilled spirits had traditionally been quite small. The colorless, high-octane alcohol known in France as eau-de-vie was mostly used for medicinal purposes; only the Germans had really taken to drinking it solely for intoxication. But distilled spirits began to become more popular, and the eau-de-vie produced from the Cognac wines was particularly delicious (unlike most brandies, it did not have to be distilled multiple times, and so it retained more of its original grape flavor). The liquor became a best seller in northern European taverns. At first the Dutch mainly distilled the wines in Holland, but eventually they decided to simplify things by distilling Cognac wines locally, and so the first cognac distilleries were built in the Charente region.

Of course, the Dutch do not deserve sole credit for cognac, as this early version was still quite primitive, and was usually mixed with water or fine herbs. French distillers took over and made substantial refinements — most notably, the lengthy aging of the liquor in oaken barrels, which is what distinguishes cognac from a banal eau-de-vie. This innovation took hold in the eighteenth century, and may have arisen by accident, after long delays in loading and transporting a shipment of the liquor gave it a more pleasing flavor, so it could be drunk straight. Today, cognac is aged from two and a half years to half a century before sale.

Cognac’s flavors deepen the longer it ages, but there is a trade-off: about 2 percent of the liquor evaporates each year. In an indication of the quasi-religious aura surrounding cognac, this lost portion is referred to as la part des anges, “the angel’s share.” Over the course of a year, France loses the equivalent of 20 million bottles of cognac to the angels (obviously they love cognac as much as we mortals do). This evaporation process turns the walls of the surrounding chamber black, which was once an enormous help to tax collectors trying to determine who might be illegally producing and selling cognac. Today, many old buildings around Cognac still bear the black traces of drunken angels on their walls.

As cognac began to take longer to produce and improved in taste, it became less of a cheap drink for sailors and commoners and more of a special liquor for the wealthier classes. By the eighteenth century, it was already selling at a premium in Amsterdam compared to other spirits. More and more land in Cognac was devoted to producing grapes for distillation; by the late nineteenth century, an area larger than Luxembourg was cultivated solely for cognac grapes. Overproduction was a regular occurrence. Producers would have to sit on their stock and wait for supply to fall, but luckily this just meant more aging time for the cognac.

Many of the great cognac-producing families of the seventeenth century were Huguenots. Following Louis XIV’s campaign of persecution, they fled to Holland, England, and Ireland but retained their ties to the Charente and thus helped spread appreciation of cognac even farther abroad. The English and Irish in particular took to the strongest varieties of cognac, and two of the most important cognac houses, Hennessy and Martell, were founded by an Irishman and an Englishman, respectively, in the eighteenth century. (Richard Hennessy was an Irish mercenary who discovered the joys of cognac while recuperating from injury in La Rochelle; Jean Martell was from the Channel Islands, a smuggler’s paradise awash with illicit cognac.) Americans were not immune to cognac’s charms either: during the great cocktail era of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, cognac anchored classic tipples like the sidecar and the stinger. And so the great cognac houses weathered several centuries of war, revolution, economic depression, and foreign occupation, all the while maintaining a reputation for luxury and refinement. During World War II, for example, German authorities requisitioned 27 million bottles of cognac alone.

But in France today, cognac is generally seen as more of an old man’s drink. The French much prefer whisky, which they drink more of each year than any other country in the world. Whisky accounts for about 40 percent of the spirits market in France, with Scottish brands the clear favorite, while cognac claims less than 1 percent.

Outside of France, the story is very different. In the United States, cognac was recently popularized by the American hip-hop community. Sales of Courvoisier jumped nearly 20 percent thanks to Busta Rhymes’s hit “Pass the Courvoisier,” and other cognac brands rushed to arrange new sponsorship deals with hip-hop luminaries like Jay-Z and Snoop Dogg. In a shrewd reverse-marketing move, Martell began to sponsor a popular American blues festival in Cognac every summer. In new economic powers like China, cognac has become an increasingly popular signifier of new wealth. Rémy Martin now caters to Chinese preferences by selling the liquor in eight-sided bottles (eight being a particularly lucky number in China). These kinds of savvy and open-minded marketing techniques are typical of the cognac industry, which is considered much less fussy about how its wares are adapted and imbibed than other French producers. It is an inescapable necessity, really, given that more than 95 percent of the cognac produced in France is exported to other countries.

Of course, even cognac producers have their limits, and like most French industries, they zealously defend the cognac AOC, which prevents producers outside the Cognac region from referring to their brandies as cognac. One of their longest-running battles, curiously enough, has been with the Armenian brandy industry. In 1900, Nikolay Shustov, an Armenian brandy maker, entered a blind tasting competition during the Paris International Exposition and won the Grand Prix. He began to refer to his brandy as cognac, and Armenian “cognac” later became a beloved staple of the Soviet elite. (According to legend, Winston Churchill became a fan of cognac after Joseph Stalin gave him a bottle during the Yalta Conference.) Today, most countries defer to French AOC laws and market the Armenian liquor as brandy, but you will still find bottles of Armenian cognac throughout the former communist world. It is a reminder that however underappreciated cognac might be for the average French drinker today, it remains a most heavenly liquor worldwide.

STÉPHANE HÉNAUT’s wide-ranging career in food includes working in the Harrods fromagerie, cooking for the Lord Mayor of London’s banquets, and selling obscure vegetables in a French fruiterie.
JENI MITCHELL is a teaching fellow in the Department of War Studies, King’s College London.

Copyright ©2018 by Stéphane Hénaut and Jeni Mitchell. This excerpt originally appeared in A Bite-Sized History of France: Gastronomic Tales of Revolution, War, and Enlightenment, published by The New Press and reprinted here with permission.

A Bite-Sized History of France can be purchased at IndieBound, The New Press, Amazon, and Barnes & Noble.