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Martell celebrates its tricentenary

One of the world’s oldest cognac houses celebrates its tricentenary, and The Peak drops in on the festivities to learn how it has outlasted the competition.

Even among the luxury world’s elite, operating for 300 continuous years is not a common – and certainly not easy – feat. But here Martell still stands, the oldest of the “big four” cognac producers including Courvoisier, Hennessy and Remy Martin, and predating other venerable luxury houses like Hermes, Patek Philippe and Louis Vuitton (none of which have even reached their 200th year).

And Martell didn’t scrape its way here. Discounting the usual hang-ups of running a business, the brand has truly prospered. From past to present, the spirit has found itself on world-famous tables, from Nicholas I’s to George V’s. And, if this year’s celebrations are anything to go by, history has done nothing to dull Martell’s brilliance.

The soiree

Martell’s event planners must have learnt a thing or two from real-estate agents because the foremost thing in people’s memories of the evening would have been location, location, location.

The tricentennial celebrations were held at none other than the Palace of Versailles, a venue so staggeringly beautiful and so richly steeped in history that it almost distracts one from the point of being there in the first place.

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Approximately 700 casks rest in Martell’s cellars.

But it was not a point that was easily forgotten for the 300 VIP guests. “We chose to host the celebrations here because the Palace of Versailles and Martell both existed during the Age of Enlightenment, and the palace is clearly the embodiment of the French art de vivre,” said Martell CEO and chairman Philippe Guettat. “We have also been a patron of the palace since 2007, helping with the restoration of this magnificent jewel of French culture. There’s no better place to begin the celebrations.”

The party to kick off the year-long festivities in over 30 cities worldwide was a glitzy affair, starting with cognac cocktails accompanying a sensational show put on by the Patrouille de France aerobatics team above the gardens.

The dinner, conceived by chef Paul Pairet of Shanghai’s Mr & Mrs Bund and Ultraviolet restaurants, was part of a sensorial experience that included the use of giant visuals and sounds to accompany each course – to pay tribute to founder Jean Martell’s first journey to Cognac.

Outside the dinner hall were four “ateliers” that made up the Art of Martell exhibition, which focused on the aspects of distillation, blending, ageing and tasting. Here, guests – which included celebrities like Diane Kruger, Naomie Harris, Solange Knowles and Karen Mok – were able to learn about the complex processes that give Martell its unique DNA.

The story

Before we dive into the complexities of the liquid, let us look at a different kind of spirit – the one of endurance. The house’s story begins with Jean Martell, an Englishman from Jersey whose original trade was in eau-de-vie (clear, colourless fruit brandy). Jean was only 12 years old when his father entrusted him to one of his trader contacts to learn the ropes, and was 21 by the time he was sent to France to look for new business.

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“Gabare” boats used to transport cognac around the world in the 18th century.

As the first foreigner to arrive in Cognac, Jean seized the opportunity to become an independent trader. By going to Cognac alone, he ensured better control of his supplies, earning him a reputation in the region for being honest, hardworking and entrepreneurial. For nearly 40 years, Jean dedicated most of his time to learning the intricacies of various eaux-de-vie, eventually expanding his business by buying oak barrels to age these spirits in.

When he died in 1753 his wife Rachel Lallemand took over and kept the business alive while its competitors slowly dropped out thanks to colonial wars and climactic perils that drove price fluctuations. After 30 years of devotion to the brand, her sons Jean and Frederic took over and continued to build Martell, boosting overseas sales (the first shipment to Singapore was in 1871, for 200 cases) until it became the top cognac brand in England by 1814.

In the generations that followed, many (now famous) Martell products were launched, such as the brand’s first VSOP in 1831 and its most well-known edition, the Cordon Bleu, created in 1912 and now among the most popular cognacs in the XO category. The brand is now represented in over 130 countries today. So what is it that’s kept Martell afloat for three centuries and still going strong? In a word: elegance.

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Some of Martell’s eaux-de-vie are over a century old.

The spirit

Martell’s celebratory campaign theme is French art de vivre, which can be poetically translated as “the art of life”. And there is artistry in the way Martell makes its precious spirits. If you visit the distillery before the harvest season, you will notice a large rose bush in front of each row of vines in the nearby vineyard. The roses are big and splendid but not entirely decorative. They have a dark and honourable purpose: to serve as the first line of defence against certain bugs and fungi. Because the bushes are more susceptible to such afflictions, the vines are kept safe.

While Martell uses grapes from four of Cognac’s best crus – Grande Champagne, Petit Champagne, Borderies and Fins Bois – it especially favours eaux-de-vie from Borderies and Martell owns half of the area’s vineyards. This is because Borderies soil is highly diverse – the clay and flint stones in the soil help produce eaux-de-vie with distinct nuttiness and an aroma of violets.

Martell also has an unusual distillation rule. Like any other cognac house, the grapes are first pressed to obtain the juice, which is then left to ferment for a few days. At this point most distillers will proceed to distil this wine, but Martell insists on filtering out the lees (fermentation sediment) before distillation, so as to create a finer, purer eau-de-vie.

Despite the huge machines that help the entire production process, making good cognac is still a very human operation that is heavily reliant on its cellar masters. Their exceptional sense of smell and extensive knowledge of their product enable them to keep producing consistent spirits, even when presented with hundreds of varying eaux-de-vie.

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The party concluded with a spectacular fireworks show.

When we smell apples, a cellar master will smell apple crumble their grandmother baked on Sundays; when we smell leather, he will remember the antique chesterfield they jumped on as a child.

“You are always putting a part of your personality, a part of your feelings, into each blend,” says Martell cellar master Benoit Fil, who has been with the house for 38 years. “I am always learning, and the longer I do this, the better I get at it.”

Three centuries is a long time to maintain such an unwavering level of dedication to quality, but, if the house keeps doing what it does best – making sublime cognac in a style unlike any other – then we’re certain they’ll be around for three more.