On 20th May 2015, Martell, the oldest of the great cognac houses, celebrated its 300th birthday. Martell was established the year after the first recorded use of the word 'gin' (1714), the year folding umbrellas debuted in Paris and nearly 100 years before the first definition of the word 'cocktail' (1806). The year Jean Martell founded Martell, 1715, was an eventful year (more below).
Now, 300 years is a birthday worthy of some celebration and Martell Cognac celebrated its tricentenary in style with a party at the stately Palace of Versailles close to Paris. Fittingly, 300 VIP guests from around the world attended what was a spectacular evening, including celebrities such as actress Diane Kruger, also Martell's Ambassador; singer-songwriter Karen Mok; actress and Bond girl Naomie Harris. It was a night where you could find yourself talking to Antoine Firino Martell, one of the living descendants of the brand's Founder, Jean Martell, or Annalisa Burgos who reads the news on Singapore TV.
Château de Versailles
The privileged 300 guests, including yours truly, explored the luxurious Palace of Versailles and pondered at its splendour before wandering out onto the vast terrace overlooking the spectacular manicured gardens of Versailles to see the French Air Force's display team repeatedly fly past and then over the palace.
The highlight of the evening was what is best described as a 'three-hour-long fully-immersive gastronomic experience' created by renowned French chef, Paul Pairet. Designed around the 300 year story of Martell, this feast for the senses was served amidst vast screens displaying corresponding visuals with specific sounds and smells relating to each course.
Few homes could accommodate such a lavish dinner for 300 but Château de Versailles boasts splendour on a vast scale. To put things in perspective, Versailles was built 130+ years before the invention of the electric light bulb (1800) so was lit by candles - all 20,000 of them. Imagine lighting 20,000 candles each night. How many boxes of matches?
two of the 'candle' chandeliers at Versailles
Château de Versailles is considered the cradle of French craftsmanship and epitome of French Art de Vivre, a way of living that was fully developed by Louis XIV (1638-1715). Martell Cognac was founded at the height of this movement; a period when gastronomy, tasting and craftsmanship were all celebrated and enjoyed with style. As an official supplier to Louis XV, Martell also has close associations with the Château de Versailles and since 2007 has been a patron to restoration projects within the Palace, most recently the restoration of The Antichambre du Roi in 2014.
300 years ago, when Jean Martell, a young merchant from Jersey founded his cognac trading company, he embodied the spirt of enterprise that was sweeping through Europe. Wealth from the New World poured in and the seas were alive with trade and swashbuckling adventurers. This was an age when new inventions, scientific discoveries, new products and their associated new manufacturers were arriving on an almost hourly basis.
In England, George I was on the throne, ruling from London, which had recently become the centre of a pulsating new world of print and coffee houses, of world trade and new manufacturers and was rapidly transforming into what we think of as the modern world. This was the time that daily newspapers, Britain's first professional police force and even shop window displays became commonplace.
Science and an understanding of the natural world were progressing in leaps and bounds and on the 3 May 1715, Edmond Halley's prediction of a total eclipse over London proved accurate to within four minutes and the City enjoyed 3 minutes 33 seconds of totality in the last total eclipse visible in London for nearly 900 years - the next will be in 2726.
But 1715 wasn't all light and sunshine. In England as there was a degree of civil unrest and with it nervousness on the side of the authorities. This was the year Britain's notorious Riot Act came into force, giving officials the authority to make a proclamation to disperse, if a group of more than 12 people were gathered together. If the crowd didn't dissipate, force could be used against them.
The various wars of the period continued apace throughout 1715, with Swedish troops marching into Norway, Prussia declaring war on Sweden and the Ottomans continuing their war with the Venetians. In Scotland, the first of the Jacobite Rebellions against the rule of King George broke out and James, the son of the deposed King James II, arrived from France (later fleeing but not before leaving his recipe for Drambuie - but that's another story).
Despite all this battling, 1715 was actually the first year of peace for those countries that had been involved in the long War of the Spanish Succession, a major European conflict that had seen the territory hungry Louis XIV pitted against England and the Dutch Republic (with other countries piling in intermittently). The sea was a major battle ground for this war and as a result the countries involved had hugely expanded their navies, even employing press gangs to kidnap and force able bodied men into naval service.
It was also usual practice at this time for nations to commission merchant and non-military vessels as 'privateers', basically state sanctioned pirate ships sent round the globe to plunder enemy merchant ships. In what is known as The Golden Age of Piracy, privateers could keep what they plundered, including the ship itself, but had to pay a percentage of their bounty to their government.
1715 saw the death of one of England's most notorious privateers William Dampier who died in debt, despite having arrived home from his final expedition carrying plundered goods valued at £20 million ($30 million) in today's money, most of which had come the captured Spanish galleon, the Nuestra Señora de la Encarnación y Desengaño, off the coast of Mexico in 1709.
But as the war ended these great navies were scaled down and commissions for privateers revoked. Ports and wharves were suddenly filled with thousands of out of work hungry sailors. Then in July 1715 news came that a fleet of Spanish treasure ships, laden with gold and silver, had been wrecked off the Florida coast. Seven days after leaving Havana the fleet had been struck by a violent storm and one after another eleven ships were smashed to pieces on jagged reefs, and over a thousand sailors perished. Salvage sloops dragged the ocean floor recovering chests of gold but news of the sunken treasure spread fast, creating a maritime gold rush as hordes of desperate unemployed sailors rushed to the area to fill their pockets with gold and silver. Who knows what they stole or plundered but the event led to a gathering of privateers, pirates and looters, among them the infamous Black Sam and Blackbeard, the likes of which had never seen before.
All this took place a long way from the tranquil banks of the Charente where Jean Martell was in the first months of his new cognac business but over the decades and centuries that followed the Cognac Brand he created became a truly global brand and today is shipped to 158 countries, thankfully over relatively peaceful waters.