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First bottles of Courvoisier cognac

Courvoisier cognac is a global phenomenon, available and respected in practically every market in the world. But as with virtually all famous spirit brands that have stood the test of time, it boasts an incredible origin story; one steeped in adventure and entrepreneurialism (by way of Napoleon Bonaparte’s Imperial court).

The Courvoisier story starts humbly enough in Bercy, on the outskirts of Paris, just as Napoleon I was about to declare himself Emperor of France. A tiny settlement on the Seine, sitting outside the Barrière de Bercy, one of the magnificent and imposing stone gates that used to guard the city of Paris, it was where Louis Gallois and Emmanuel Courvoisier, who the brand was eventually named after, met and set up their wine and spirits business in the early 1800s.


It was largely thanks to their personal vision, energy and enterprise that Bercy would transform itself from a quiet backwater into one of the jewels in Paris’ crown, supplying the city’s thirsty population with all the wine and cognac they needed (which was a lot!).


Louis Gallois was born in in the tiny village of Laroche, in the Burgundy region, in 1775. With a passion for wine instilled in him from an early age, and a good head for business, he knew his future lay in trading Burgundy’s most famous export. So he settled in Bercy, an inspired choice as it was close to the river for easy transport and was free of Paris’ taxes. He was so confident of the location that he was one of the first to invest in and build a permanent wine and spirits warehouse in the area.


It was in Bercy that Louis Gallois met Emmanuel Courvoisier. Emmanuel was a farmer’s son born in Mouthe, a region to the east of Burgundy near the Swiss border, and like Louis had moved to Paris in the early nineteenth century looking to start his own business.


These two entrepreneurs proved the perfect partners. In no time at all, Louis Gallois had become a respected and trusted wine merchant (he created the wine market, which eventually came to cater for spirits too, that put Bercy on the map) and Emmanuel Courvoisier had found his own niche, becoming an extraordinary wine and eaux-de-vie salesman.


They instantly hit it off, and agreed to go into business together, quickly creating a reputation for supplying some of the finest wines and spirits around (although at this stage, they were brokers rather than makers). With their wares becoming more and more coveted, Emmanuel, who moved in the right social circles, spent his time cultivating contacts in the Imperial Court, quickly building up relationships with some of the Marshalls of the Empire (Maréchal d’Empire), Napoleon’s most trusted generals.


As a wine and spirits centre, Bercy flourished, as did Louis Gallois and Emmanuel Courvoisier’s business. Napoleon himself visited the warehouses on 8th February 1811, accompanied by Géraud Duroc, Duke of Friuli and Grand Marshall of the Palace of Napoleon (as Napoleon’s most trusted aide, he was in charge of his Imperial Highness’ security, and was often called ‘Napoleon’s shadow’). It was an occasion captured in Étienne Bouhot’s famous painting ‘The Emperor visiting the market for eau-de-vie on the Quai Bercy’ (oil on canvas).

Through Emmanuel’s contacts with the Imperial Court and the Marshalls of the Empire, it is not unthinkable that the Emperor may have paid a visit to their offices at 40 Quai de Bercy. And there’s no doubt Napoleon Bonaparte was a huge fan of cognac, even sending orders to his Marshalls about what their troops should drink while going into battle:

“While you are on the march, have issued to your forces, as much as may be possible, wine in the evening and brandy in the morning.”

As an aside, just four years later, after his defeat at Waterloo, Napoleon went to Château de Malmaison in Paris, before fleeing to Ile d’Aix in 1815. An island just off the coast of Rochefort, it is where the Charente River meets the sea (the port where Courvoisier would later be exported around the world). He eventually surrendered and was transferred to the island of Saint Helena. Legend has it that he chose several casks of cognac, said to be Courvoisier, as his one item of luxury, a treat much appreciated by the English officers on board HMS Northumberland during their epic 67-day voyage. They named it ‘The Brandy of Napoleon’.


Showing his growing importance in the area, Louis was appointed Mayor of Bercy on 20th December 1815, a post he kept until 1821. During his six-year tenure, he even renamed some of the local area’s streets in his own honour. In the The Historical Dictionary of Paris Streets by Jacques Hillairet, you can find Rue Gallois, Rue Louis, Rue Laroche (the village where he was born), Rue St. Anne (his wife’s name) and Rue Leopold (his son’s name). Today, there’s even a Rue de Cognac. Louis Gallois passed away in 1849, aged 74, and is buried in the Bercy Cemetery.


While Emmanuel and Louis had established the business, their sons were about to take it to the next level. Felix Courvoisier, born on 11th July 1799, was a close friend of Louis’ son, called Louis-Jules, born in 1800. (He would later become the Count of Naives after marrying Josephine Sophie Malwine Mortier, daughter of the Duke of Treviso, in 1842).


Like their fathers, the two young men were natural entrepreneurs, and quickly saw an opportunity to specialize exclusively in brandy and other spirits from their warehouses in Bercy (the name Courvoisier first started appearing on bottles of their cognac from 1843).


In 1828, they decided to take a bold change of direction for their business. Rather than be simply brandy brokers, they wanted more control over the quality of the spirit they’d built their reputation on, so established a permanent base in the sleepy town of Jarnac, in the heart of the Cognac region. This proved successful, so under their sound leadership, the business went from strength to strength and their standing and influence in Paris increased. On 3rd June 1831 Louis-Jules was awarded the Chevalier (Knight) of the Legion of Honor, one of the highest awards of the time (the Legion of Honour Order had been established by Napoleon I on 19th May 1802). And with this growing success and prominence, they bought three cellars and buildings in the Place du Château in Jarnac in 1835 (which later became the site of their magnificent and ornate Château on the banks of the Charente River, which remains Courvoisier’s home to this day). But despite having this base in Jarnac, they still spent most of their time in the hustle, bustle and excitement of Paris.


During the Paris unrest of 1848, battles broke out in and around the city. Felix Courvoisier played an important role in easing the riots in Bercy and prevented the destruction of many spirit warehouses. For his bravery, he too was later named Chevalier (Knight) of the Legion of Honor on 7th August 1852.


In 1855, Felix Courvoisier invited his sister’s son, Jules Curlier, to join the business (and then Émile in 1862). They proved as industrious and passionate as their uncle, with a keen eye for marketing and export, and the business rapidly expanded.

Felix Courvoisier died on 14th May 1866, aged 67, at his home in 91 Quai de Bercy. During his life, he had had the honour of watching Napoleon I visit the fledgling business in Bercy and of seeing Courvoisier cognac become the sole Fournisseurs brevetés de S M L'Empereur, or Official Supplier of the Court of Napoleon III from 1862. He proudly saw the name ‘Courvoisier’ used on bottles of cognac he and Louis-Jules were selling (the first mention of the name occurred in 1843). He was Commander the Paris 52nd battalion of the National Guard, his loyal service getting him promoted to Officier (Officer) of the Legion of Honor on 13th August 1863. He must also have been delighted to know the business was in the safe hands of the next generation of family.


(La Presse, the first newspaper to be mass printed in France, reported on 15th May 1866: “The funeral of Mr. Felix Courvoisier, merchant, an Officer of the Legion of Honor, Commander of the 52 Battalion of the National Guard, will take place Wednesday, 16 May, in Bercy Church at 9am. The family asks those of his friends who have not received tickets to kindly consider the present notice as an invitation. We will meet at the funeral home, 31 Quai de Bercy.”)


Louis-Jules Gallois de Naives died a year later, on 4th February 1867, aged 66, and is buried in an ornate tomb in Bercy Cemetery.

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