18th September 2017
Toasting the Tower: The Brandy of Napoleon
The Prisoner and the Penguin
20th March 2017
Probably the drink most associated with the launch of something is champagne, so you would perhaps expect that the opening of the Eiffel Tower would have been toasted with a glass of the bubbly stuff from the North East of France.
You would, however, only be half-right, because on the night of 31st March 1899, when the Tower was opened as one of the temporary exhibits of the Universal Exhibition, only one drink was served, but it was a cocktail of champagne and Courvoisier cognac.
Courvoisier went on to be awarded the Gold Medal at the exhibition and the Tower proved so popular it became a permanent feature on the Parisian skyline.
Courvoisier was – and still is – immensely popular in France. It is linked with other key moments and figures of French history, but perhaps one in particular stands out.
The brand had originally been established in the suburb of Bercy in 1809, by Emmanuel Courvoisier and Louis Gallois, then the mayor of Bercy. Courvoisier began life as a wine and spirit company but Emmanuel and Louis’ reputation quickly grew as the traders of the very best cognacs. The pair decided that if they were going to build on this success, and that to guarantee their supply of the finest cognacs they should relocate to the region itself and become producers.
In 1811, a famous fan visited the brand’s new home. His visit was captured in a painting by Etienne Bouhot. The fan was none other than Napoleon Bonaparte.
So taken with the brand was he, that he decided to order some for his artillery companies to lift their morale during the ongoing Napoleonic Wars. He told his commanders, “While you are on the march, [I] have issued to your forces, as much as may be possible, wine in the evening and cognac in the morning.”
It seems cognac wasn’t seen as just an after-dinner drink.
Even after his defeat at the battle of Waterloo, the connection to Napoleon continued. Exiled to the remote island of St Helena in the Atlantic Ocean, legend has it that he was allowed to choose one item of luxury to take with him. It is said that he chose several casks of his beloved Courvoisier cognac and that one day, after dinner with the English officers on board HMS Northumberland, he treated them to a taste .
The English officers loved it and christened it, ‘The Brandy of Napoleon’.
The link remains and is commemorated in the brand’s logo, which features an outline drawing of the Emperor.
Whether the producers of the BBC Radio 4 show “Desert Island Discs”, where the hypothetical castaways are allowed to choose an item of luxury, borrowed the idea from the British navy’s courtesy to Napoleon, I don’t know. Neither do I know if anyone has actually chosen Courvoisier as their item of luxury.
What I do know is that I can thoroughly recommend the Courvoisier and champagne cocktail, though perhaps not first thing in the morning.
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