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Courvoisier Cognac

The Courvoisier story starts not in Cognac but in the Parisian suburb of Bercy. Here Emmanuel Courvoisier opened a business as wine and spirits merchant in 1809. It was two years later, in 1811, that Courvoisier met the man who would transform his business, none other than Napoleon Bonaparte, who was so impressed with the Cognac that he designated Courvoisier as the supplier to the French army.

Napoleon did not have long in charge of Europe. He was defeated by an allied army in 1815 at Battle of Waterloo and exiled to St Helena, a remote island between Africa and Brazil, but the relationship between the two names proved an enduring one. British soldiers tasted some of the Cognac captured from the emperor and dubbed it ‘Cognac Napoleon’ – a name that has stuck.

Courvoisier moves to Cognac

At this stage the business was still based near Paris selling all manner of wines and spirits but when Emmanuel’s son Felix took over he decided to concentrate on Cognac. So, in 1828, he moved the whole business over to Jarnac so he could be at the heart of the region, acquiring eaux-de-vie and wine for distillation. In 1857, he built the grand Maison Courvoisier on the banks of the Charente which remains the brand’s home to this day.

When Felix died in 1866, his nephews, the Curlier brothers, took over the business, which explains why older existing bottles bear the two surnames: Courvoisier and Curlier. But the Napoleon connection wasn’t over because in 1848, his nephew Louis Napoleon was elected president of France. Then in a coup d’etat in 1852, he declared himself Emperor Napoleon III (the confusing numbering is explained by the fact that there was very briefly a Napoleon II, son of Napoleon Bonaparte and Marie Louise of Austria, who aged just three was briefly emperor in 1815. You don’t need to worry about him). In 1869, Courvoisier was designated as ‘Official Supplier to the Imperial Court’ by Napoleon III. Sadly he did not have much longer to reign as he abdicated and fled to England following the French defeat by the Prussians in 1870. But this didn’t deter Courvoisier who quickly adapted to life in the Belle Epoque, as this period became known. The Curlier brothers opened offices in London to take advantage of the booming British market.

Courvoisier in the 20th century

The Curlier brothers era ended in 1909 when the Simon family, Courvoisier’s distributors, bought the company. Under their leadership, Courvoisier obtained warrants from the Royal Courts of Denmark, England, and Sweden. In 1950, the brand put the silhouette of its most famous fan, that’s Napoleon not Busta Rhymes, on the label and introduced the distinctive bottle shape named the Josephine after Napoleon’s wife. In 1964, the company was bought by Hiram Walker, the Canadian whisky giant. It then became part of Allied Domecq and is now owned by Beam Suntory.

Sourcing the finest raw materials

As one of the largest houses, Courvoisier blends its Cognac from a wide variety of sources, working with around 800 growers, though it doesn’t have any vineyards of its own. It buys eaux-de-vie from the Grande Champagne, Petite Champagne, Borderies, and Fin Bois régions. In addition to this, the house buys wine which is either distilled in-house or contracted out to partners.

Distillation can only take place from November to March, following the harvest in October, and runs 24 hours a day. Wines from the Fins Bois are distilled without the lees (dead yeast cells) because these go into younger fruitier Cognacs like VS and VSOP. Meanwhile to make spirits suitable for longer ageing, wine from Grande Champagne, Petite Champagne and Borderies is distilled with the lees. This provides a heavier spirit with more esters. They double-distil using 25,000 litre pot stills. During the process to create the house style, the distiller will remove around 25 litres of heads per distillation, equivalent to 1%. The team then separates the heart, seconds, and tails. The heart heads to cask and the rest is recycled within the distillation process. Oak-wise Courvoisier uses a mixture of wide-grain Limousin oak combined with fine grain oak from the north of France.

Today Courvoisier is the smallest of the ‘big four’ Cognac houses, producing around 18 million bottles per year. The largest market is the US taking 50% of sales with the UK, Russia, South Africa, Japan and China all major markets. France makes up less than 1% of sales.

Courvoisier and hip hop

As well as its famous association with Napoleon, Courvoisier has long had strong cultural attachments. In 1889 it sponsored the inauguration of a little building in downtown Paris called the Eiffel Tower, and the opening of the Moulin Rouge. Ooh la la! Charles Dickens was a fan and when he died apparently he left over 200 bottles of Courvoisier in his cellar. It is in music, however, with which Courvoisier is mainly associated with many American hip hop artists name checking the brand. Most notably Busta Rhymes with ‘Pass the Courvoisier’. In 2008, Courvoisier partnered with rapper Jay-Z to launch a limited edition cognac called "D'Ussé." In addition to such grand expressions, Courvoisier produces fine VS, VSOP and XO offerings which are all available from Master of Malt.

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