The History of Cognac

Cognac is a form of brandy made of fermented white grapes that have been aged for at least two years. Named for the town of Cognac, France, this distilled spirit is created from a delicate process in which natural grape presses must be used. In order for a distilled beverage to bear the name Cognac, the grapes must be grown and processed in a six region zone in and around the town from which it gets its name, according to the Discover Poitou Charentes website. The Romans set the groundwork for the history of Cognac.

Roman Roots

Roman invaders laid the foundation for the cognac industry approximately 2,000 years ago. According to Cocktail Times, they brought grapevines to France and planted them in the region. Cognac became a renowned wine-producing region by the 3rd century and transported its product to far-reaching areas. The wine shipping industry relied heavily on the Charente River. Its reputation as a top wine-producing region helped Cognac grow economically. In the 17th century, though, the distillation process changed the face of alcoholic beverages.

17th Century

The introduction of distillation grew out of necessity more than invention. When Cognac’s wine transporting business expanded, the wine could not maintain its quality on its long sea travels. Traders began distilling the wine so that it could withstand the rough transporting conditions. They found that distilling the wine took up less space and improved from aging in oak barrels. Discoverer Poitou Charentes says Dutch merchants called the beverage brandewijn, or burnt or distilled wine. It gave birth to the name brandywine, or brandy.

Wine producers in Cognac wanted to distinguish their beverage from brandy prodcued in other areas. Wine makers developed a process of double distillation. The Dutch installed the first stills in the area, and the French improved on what the Dutch taught them. Before distillation, grapes from the region were pressed and fermented in local, wild yeast for two or three weeks. This changed the sugars to alcohol. After the grapes were fermented and distilled twice, the beverage was aged in oak barrels. The process has generally remained the same for hundreds of years.

18th Century

By the end of the 17th century and beginning of the 18th century, the market for Cognac began flourishing. Most of the business came from the Brisith Isles and Northern Europe. Eventually, word spread about Cognac, and traders transported the beverage to the Far East and North America. The Bureau National Interprofessionel du Cognac says the Cognac industry became more organized, and local businesses established commercial relationships in the areas where they exported Cognac.

Booming and Busting in the 19th Century

During the 19th century, Frnace was undergoing social and political changes that eventually affected the regions around Cognac. In the 19th century, numerous Cognac houses were established and the industry experienced a economic boom. The people welcomed the growth after the French Revoluion caused the cognac industry to drop. By the middle of the century, the industry seemed to be on an upswing.

As the industry began growing, phylloxera hit the region and killed most of the vineyards in the region. Phylloxera is a tiny insect that feeds on grape roots, which stunts the plants’ growth. The University of California Integrated Pest Management Program says the young roots swell and turn yellow, and mature roots swell. By the end of the century, the industry began rebounding, thanks to the introduction of phyllorexa-resistant grapevines from the United States.

In the meantime, Cognac houses began shipping spirits in bottles instead of oak casks. The decision to ship Cognac in bottles helped other industries grow, according to L’encyclopedie du Cognac. In 1885, Claude Boucher mastered an automated glassblowing technique the proved profitable for himself and Cognac distillers. Other industries helped by bottling spirits included casemaking, cork making, and printing.

20th Century and Beyond

The grafting process weakened some of the native vines, and the phylloxera-resistant vines from America were used in the majority of Cognac prodution. In 1909, the government set the boundary for the region. In 1936, the French government recognized the Cognac region as a Controlled Appellation of Origin, a special certification for regions that produce agricultural products. During World War II, a distribution bureau was created, but it was replaced by the Bureau National Interprofessionnel du Cognac. These organizations helped regulate the production and distribution of the product.

Currently, the cognac is exported to more than 150 countries, according to the Bureau National Interprofessionnel du Cognac. The quality the region established hundreds of years ago still remains the cornerstone of their industry. The small region of Cognac has earned its worldwid reputation for a rich beverage that was originally created out of necessity. By surviving social and enviromenental uncertainties that could have derailed it, the cognac industry symbolizes a fighting and innovative spirit.