Courvoisier – The Toast of Paris By Harriet O'Grady
In 1889, the Eiffel Tower was opened as one of the temporary exhibits of the Universal Exhibition to celebrate the centennial of the French Revolution and as a showcase for the best that France had to offer. Revolutionary in concept, the Eiffel Tower immediately caught the public’s imagination, even though it had its notable detractors. Today, it is inconceivable to even think of Paris without bringing to mind its iconic tower, which has come to symbolise the very essence of the city itself. It was built during La Belle Époque. This period (which lasted roughly from 1870 until 1910), was a time of wealth and huge optimism. In 1889, France was at the cutting edge of new technology, science, medicine, architecture and the arts. A new movement called Art Nouveau had emerged.
A drink was served at the opening of the Eiffel Tower. This consisted of a cocktail of Courvoisier cognac and champagne. In the 1880s, Courvoisier itself was at the height of its popularity. It was awarded the Gold Medal at the exhibition. It had been the drink of choice of Napoleon I who had asked for some barrels to go with him on his exile to St Helena, and it was the official drink at the court of Napoleon III.
Courvoisier, originally founded in Paris in the early 1800s by entrepreneurs Louis Gallois and Emmanuel Courvoisier before moving to Jarnac near Cognac, is justifiably proud of its connection with the “City of Light.” This September, the brand decided to return to Paris and the Eiffel Tower for an evening of celebration and to launch a new brand campaign which will include experience-led consumer events in key cities across the globe, a new Paris Golden Age Tour, new signature Courvoisier cocktails, Golden Age-inspired Innovations and limited editions, and a digital engagement campaign.
I was able to attend this event in a large, glass-fronted room on the first floor of the Tower, where the original opening had taken place. The Courvoisier and champagne cocktail was in evidence and the food was a replica of that served in 1889. This consisted of such delicacies as foie gras, truffles, salmon, lobster, lamb and poultry. As well as a jazz band and a lady violinist, bold can-can dancers straight out of a Toulouse Lautrec poster enlivened the evening with hooplas and high kicks.
I marvelled at the view stretching towards the Seine, Notre Dame and beyond to Montmartre, a view which has remained largely unchanged since that time and could not help but imagine the excitement of the guests, who were able to look out at Paris from the first floor height of 57 metres. Past and present seemed to merge seamlessly, and that is indeed the great charm of Paris for the Paris we see, the great avenues and their uniform architecture of pale stone – all 80 kms of them laid out in the mid 19th Century by Haussmann – are still there, but it is also a city which is constantly renewing and reinventing itself. Earlier that afternoon, on a Golden Age Courvoisier tour of the city, I was able to experience this first hand.
Paris has always been beautiful, but it is even lovelier now that all the great buildings have been cleaned. The Grand Palais and the Petit Palais and the recently gilded features of the Pont Napoleon III shone in the afternoon sunlight as the great Seine river flowed peacefully below, dividing the left from the right banks. The wide avenues of the 19th Century encouraged cafés to flow out onto the pavements. On this warm afternoon, there was not an empty table at the Café de Flore and Les Deux Maggots in St. Germain. As always, one goes there to see and be seen. Close to the famous Lavirotte Art Nouveau building in the 7th arrondissement, a peaceful demonstration was in full swing making us slightly alter our course, and reminding us that the French haven’t lost any of their enthusiasm for taking to the streets when they are dissatisfied.
Cities and people do not remain static. Courvoisier is well aware of this and is keen to maintain the freshness of its brand, as well as claiming Courvoisier’s Parisian heritage. To quote François Bazini, Vice President of Marketing International at Courvoisier’s owners Beam Suntory, ‘‘Everything that people around the world know and love about Paris – the architecture, the music, the art, the romance, the Eiffel Tower itself – it’s all from this Golden Age. Even if they don’t know it because they are not art historians, what they love about Paris was all born during La Belle Époque. This is why this time is so relevant to consumers around the world today – and why Courvoisier is right to claim that heritage.’’
Today’s young, affluent global consumers are gaining serious importance. They now make up 45% of the market for luxury goods. Gender neutral, edgier, aware, ecologically conscious; they look for tradition and history in the brands that they buy, but the brand also has to be relevant to their times, as well as their aspirations. As François Bazini says, ‘‘They reject brands that pretend to be something they’re not, or simply claim to be ‘old.’ They expect modern brands with values, history and provenance.’’ Courvoisier is keen to meet this challenge. As well as their new brand campaign, they have come up with beautifully designed new packaging decorated in embossed imperial purple and gold, recalling the intricate iron structure of the Eiffel Tower. They have also altered the shape of their bottles.
Today, the trend is towards cocktail bars which are meeting with great success in all the great cities of the world. Indeed, in the US alone, sales of cognac across the board have increased by 20% largely due to the current fashion for cocktails. In the UK, Courvoisier accounts for over 50% of sales. Cognac is a perfect base for such drinks, easily replacing vodka. I was able to taste a delicious cocktail named 1889 at Fouquet’s, a favourite venue for French politicians, film stars and “le beau monde” on the Champs Élysées. The cocktail was mixed by Stéphane Genouves, Bartender and Meilleur Ouvrier de France in 2011. To watch him in action was fascinating: the way he twisted the bottle to unscrew the stop, the movement of his hands and the style with which he shook the cocktail shaker. The recipe (and I urge you to make it and serve it in a martini glass) is 5cl Courvoisier VSOP, 2cl mandarine Napoléon, 1cl orange juice, 4cl passion fruit juice and 4cl apple juice.
The marvellous thing about the top French brands is that they have not slipped up on quality and the same care, attention and personal pride in creating a top quality product have been carefully maintained throughout the years. In the case of Courvoisier, that standard of excellence is kept up by the master blender, Patrice Pinet (he is only the 6th since the creation of Courvoisier). It is thanks to craftsmen like him and his dedicated team that we are able to enjoy a drink which has such a unique complexity of aromas. In light of this, one can only wish Courvoisier continuing success for many more generations to come.