To whom do we owe the pleasure of cognac? The question of who invented cognac is a tale of trade and taste that dates two millenia.
If the history of Maison Martell dates to 1715, the story of cognac itself extends far further back in time.
The Cognac region has been producing wine for more than 2000 years. It was not until the Middle Ages, however, with the arrival of Dutch salt traders in the area that the wine trade across Europe started in earnest.
The Dutch of the 16th century developed a taste for the wines of southwest France and turned to distillation as a means to preserve them upon their return home.
They called their new beverage brandwijn, meaning burnt wine, which was consumed with water. The name was a nod to the fire used to heat the stills, and incidentally led to the term brandy, these days a standard term for a distilled wine made from a fermented fruit.
It was not long before the Dutch, looking to reduce the volumes of wine shipped from the Cognac region, decided to set up operations in the heart of Cognac itself. And so began the first of Cognac’s distilleries.
The invention of double distillation
Their initial distillation techniques were rudimentary, and by the 17th century the local French had improved upon the method. A major leap forward was the advent of double distillation, precipitating the beginning of the region’s eaux-de-vie.
In 1643 Augier became the first company to start trading eaux-de-vie, and little by little cognacs were shipped further and further afield. It was thus how a certain Jean Martell came across the eaux-de-vie of Cognac in the early 18th century.
On the Isle of Guernsey, where ships from France would stop on their routes to northern Europe, the young Martell’s mentor Lawrence Martin taught him the art of the trade.
By 1715 Jean Martell felt sufficiently trained to make an audacious decision. The market was growing for eaux-de-vie from Cognac, not least among the wealthy English aristocracy, yet the region itself boasted only two houses of production.
Moving to southwest France, the young entrepreneur established his own business, capitalising on his networks with local growers and distillers, and traders in the Channel Islands and London. Maison Martell was born. (See our story)
By the turn of the 19th century, the region’s much sought-after eaux-de-vie blends were being shipped as far afield as the United States and India, where they came to be known simply as cognac.
Please do not share with anyone under 18. Drink responsibly.