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Who invented Cognac?

Who invented Cognac?

Victor Hugo says that Cognac is “the liquor of the gods”, a beverage made by them… or for them? Certainly both in the mind of the poet. But if we come back to earth, we know that in the inventory of inventors, many are those who are attributed the decisive eureka for the creation of earthly beverages or foods: champagne to Dom Perignon, whipped cream to Vatel, whisky to Saint Patrick… So, who could be at the origin of Cognac?

The historiographical exercise of studying how the genesis of Cognac was presented begins with the observation of a real scientific vacuum, camouflaged by the use of legend before being taken in hand by historians, up to the project of inscription on the Intangible Cultural Heritage of UNESCO.

In 1877, Charles Albert d’Arnoux, known as Bertall, a fashionable Parisian illustrator, published his notes from a trip through the French vineyards. He claims to give an accurate report of his visit to the Charente. If the descriptions of the landscapes and the inhabitants are indeed accurate, the historical part shows to what extent, at that time, one does not care to tell the origins with rigor. Thus, after explaining that in the 17th century Dutch coasters came to collect dry white wines with a high alcohol content from the Cognac farms, he abbreviates the question of the genesis as follows: “One fine day, it was realized that these white Cognac wines, when distilled, gave a liquor far superior to anything that had been drunk up to that point, and combined a delicacy of taste, a sweetness of bouquet and perfume, and a general harmony of which no one had previously had any idea.” “One fine day”, they would start distilling in Charente and the Dutch would be involved.

Two winegrowers with grapes, still and glass of cognac, detail of a window with stained glass, Le Bois-Plage-en-Ré (Île de Ré). AKG- Images/Catherine Bibollet

But the know-how of Cognac is not in this distillation, which has been practiced for a long time and in different places, it is in the double distillation. This invention is attributed to a man, the Chevalier de la Croix-Maron, Lord of Segonzac. It is common to say “the legend wants” when it is indeed men who seek to give themselves a history. Thus, “legend has it” that this essential process was invented by this knight who saw himself in a dream in a boiling cauldron while Satan was trying to steal his soul. The pious soul having resisted this first torture, the Devil undertook a second “cooking”. Upon awakening, the ingenious mortal had the idea of extracting the best of the grape brandy through a second distillation. This lord of Segonzac, almost absent from local history, has thus found a much better place thanks to legend, although we do not really know who attributed to him this decisive technique for brandies. The posterity of the man who would have been secretary of the Embassy of Constantinople seems to be built more on religious writings, in which he defends transubstantiation in particular. Perhaps it is necessary to see a report there? Thus, he does not appear in the writings of the end of the nineteenth century of Abbé Cousin, who abundantly presents the historical facts of the Charente. In the chapter of Segonzac, there is no mention of the Chevalier de la Croix-Maron and no narrative explaining the invention of double distillation. The most developed source is a work of fiction, Le Chevalier de la Croix-Maron, a heroic play in four acts and in verse. It was commissioned from Eugène Guillebaud in the middle of the Second World War. The text was published in 1943 thanks to the support of merchant donors, but could not be performed as planned. Legends are inherent to all human groups and participate in the construction of culture. The legend of the pious knight testifies to the inability to recount the complex birth and tremendous success of Charentes brandy.

The late appearance of this storytelling testifies to the need for a community to find a founding act after the fact. There would have been a “beautiful day” when the choice was made to distill the wines and a restless night during which a local lord had the revelation of double distillation.

The construction of the historical narrative

Historians could not leave it at that and looked into their sources to write the story without fabricating. Archaeologists have established the presence of winegrowing installations as early as the second century in the vicinity of Cognac, and also near the Atlantic coast. The wine trade, just like the salt and wheat trade, is at the origin of the prosperity of the region. The Aunis, Saintonge and Angoumois regions have been known for their wine production since the Gallic period and throughout the Middle Ages. However, before 1600, references to eau de vie, or brandy, were rare. The passage devoted to Cognac in the encyclopedic works edited by Julien Turgan in the 1860’s on industry, arts and crafts is an admission of ignorance: “We have not been able to establish precisely when the fame of Cognac began. In Shakespeare’s time, it was Nantes that had the privilege of giving its name to the fine brand of Cognac esteemed by the gourmets of the time, later it was La Rochelle. […] We cannot specify the time when this trade changed, and when the alcohol with the aromas that make up Cognac began to be extracted from these wines.”

Robert Delamain, author of a History of Cognac published in 1935, was one of the first to take a serious interest in the genesis of the product. He reports that a document of 1549 from a merchant in La Rochelle mentions “the purchase of four barrels full of good and merchantable brandy”, which would represent the first trace of the precious liquid in the Charente ecosystem. For the end of the 16th century, records bearing the term “eau-de-vie” are sufficiently rare to affirm that the frequency of its production and trade was insignificant. The archives of Cognac and Saintes do not refer to eau-de-vie before 1600. In 1752, Louis-Étienne Arcère, a native of the Roche region, quotes a testimony from 1712 indicating that the conversion of wines into brandies in the region dates back to around 1620. It was therefore in the 17th century that brandies from the Charentes region began to circulate and to take their place in the register of popular drinks. The Dutch, tired of low quality grain spirits, encouraged Charentes production, first by importing wines that they distilled at home, then by installing stills on site, notably in La Rochelle and Tonnay. At the end of the Grand Siècle, the brandy obtained from the distillation of the wines of the vast Charente vineyards was distinguished from other brandies produced in France. And in 1751, in Diderot and d’Alembert’s Encyclopedia, the town of Cognac is given as “famous for its brandies”. This time, it was the Irish and the English, who were more demanding in terms of degree, color and aroma, who regulated the market. Trading houses were founded, several of which were run by expatriates from these countries: notably Richard Hennessy, James Delamain and Thomas Hine. Cognac was launched at high speed towards a worldwide success. But it will take stubbornness to maintain the conjunction of favorable factors. Jean Monnet, an illustrious player in the Cognac trade, gives his version of the origin and success of the Charentais product: “The quality of Cognac is the result of a fortunate combination of natural chances and solid virtues, maintained for more than two centuries by obstinate growers and merchants. We are far from the mysticism of the Chevalier de la Croix-Maron. Even more prosaically, many historians credit the Cobden-Chevalier Free Trade Treaty of 1860 with effects that far outweigh the natural opportunities of the land. By lowering taxes on French products, this agreement opened the gigantic market of the British Empire to the Charente specialty, thus ensuring its worldwide success.

From history to common heritage 

The historiography of Cognac has undergone a decisive stage in recent years in the context of the work carried out to support the application of the “Savoir-faire du Cognac” as intangible cultural heritage to UNESCO. The preliminary recognition by the Ministry of Culture was obtained in January 2021. Research and synthesis have mobilized the memory, knowledge and experience of the current actors to write the most contemporary page of the history of Cognac: this page privileges the notion of transmission at the origin of the product and its success. The introductory lines of the registration form testify to this: “The elaboration of Cognac, a wine brandy distilled twice in a Charentais still, is a patient and collective process, which has been built up through the transmission of know-how since the 17th century.” It is indeed “empiricism and oral transmission, perpetuated from generation to generation and supported by viticultural traditions and a trade structured in situ from the outset” that constitute the identity foundations of the community. The texts in the inventory form the new Charentais novel in which mystical experiences, individual genius, and the decisive actions of certain groups have given way to complementary actions within a large inclusive community. A multicultural community crossed by a “tradition based on an alliance between local wine-making know-how and a merchant culture brought in since the 16th century by foreign merchants (Dutch, Anglo-Saxon, Norwegian…), which has always been based on a logic of exchange and complementarity”. Finally, the genesis and history of Cognac, devoid of inventors, are expressed as the work of a collective whose strength remains indispensable in the face of contemporary challenges.

Bamboccio, Brandy seller, 1599- 1642
© AKG-Images/De Agostini Picture Lib./V Pirozzi

© La Revue des Deux Mondes 

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