What do Quentin Tarantino’s movie Reservoir Dogs, Jay-Z’s song “Can’t Knock the Hustle” and the video for “Blurred Lines” by Robin Thicke, T.I., and Pharrell Williams have in common? All three contain a reference to a French brand born in the heart of the Charente département almost 300 years ago. Founded in 1724 by a winegrower and merchant who lent it his name, Rémy Martin has survived the passing centuries, the French Revolution, the phylloxera epidemic, and two world wars, going from strength to strength to become the third-largest Cognac house after Hennessy and Martell.
The story of Rémy Martin began in the small village of Rouillac, 20 miles from the town of Cognac. However, this French tale also has an international element, as the liquor would never have seen the light of day had it not been for Dutch traders in the 16th century. As the local wine traveled terribly, they began distilling it into brandewijn (“burnt wine”), an alcoholic drink that the English later renamed “brandy.” As it was easier to transport and store than wine, this Charentais spirit appealed to several British merchants, who established a trading post near Cognac in the 18th century and began shipping it around the world.
Rémy Martin and his descendants had no international ambitions, but that didn’t stop their business from flourishing. However, things really changed when Paul-Emile Rémy Martin, the fourth generation, started running the company in 1841. He began selling Cognac in bottles rather than in barrels, which meant developing the brand. He created a logo inspired by his astrological sign, Sagittarius, a centaur armed with a spear, which is still the Rémy Martin symbol today. He also started exporting his products beyond Europe’s borders, and even as far afield as America.
The Smuggler Who Became a Cognac Distributor
The first record of Rémy Martin in the United States dates back to the late 1870s. In the coffee-table book The Spirit of Cognac, published for Rémy Martin’s 300th anniversary, an advertisement from the 1880s reads “agents, Messrs. James Loucheim & Cie, New York.” However, according to the book’s author, Thomas Laurenceau, “until the 1930s, Rémy Martin’s presence in America had no real structure.”
Paradoxically, it was the Prohibition era, from 1920 to 1933, that helped the brand take root in the United States. This shift was thanks to Joseph Reinfeld, a bartender and bootlegger who remains famous to this day. The circuit he set up to bring bottles into the United States, via Saint Pierre and Miquelon and then Canada, saw him become Rémy Martin’s first official distributor in the United States in 1934. The brand was also driven by André Renaud’s desire to move the company upmarket when he took the helm in 1924. To differentiate it from other producers, he preferred the VSOP (Very Superior Old Pale) appellation and the name Fine Champagne, a blend of eaux-de-vie from the leading Cognac vintages of Grande Champagne and Petite Champagne. VSOP Fine Champagne went on to become Rémy Martin’s crowning glory and enabled it to conquer the United States.
“André Renaud spoke better ancient Greek than English, but he realized that the brand had to go international,” says Thomas Laurenceau. He entrusted this mission to Otto Quien, the son of a Bordeaux wine merchant and a man with a global background. Born in Shanghai and brought up by an English governess, he spoke multiple languages from childhood and traveled the world promoting the brand from the early 1930s to the late 1960s, combining tradition with modern marketing. During a sales visit organized by Joseph Reinfeld, the company had billboards put up along the Nationale 10 road between Bordeaux and Cognac. “Few people knew Rémy Martin in France at the time, but André Renaud understood that the American salesmen had to be impressed.”
An American Success Story
After World War II, the United States became Rémy Martin’s largest market and remains so to this day (17.8 million bottles sold in 2020). In the land of bourbon, Cognac was particularly appealing to African American consumers, some of whom discovered it in France during the two world wars. Long before the rise of hip-hop, Cognac was adopted by jazz fans and more broadly “by a community keen to distinguish itself from whiskey drinkers: ‘I’m different, so I drink Cognac,’” says Thomas Laurenceau.
Over the next few decades, Rémy Martin also took Japan by storm with Alain Delon as its ambassador, followed by China. However, the United States always had a special connection to the company. When the group’s directors were forced to sell their international distribution network in the wake of the Asian financial crisis of 1997, they decided at the last minute to keep the American branch and use it to bounce back. History proved them right. Rémy Martin’s success in America has continued unabated throughout the 21st century, driven by subtle innovations and exceptional classics such as Louis XIII, launched in 1874. The latest creation, Tercet, first sold in the United States in 2019, a year before its release in France, draws on the craft trend by combining the expertise of the house’s cellar master, Baptiste Loiseau, with that of a winemaker and a distiller.
Meanwhile, Rémy Martin continues to work with Black American stars such as rapper Usher, chef Kwame Onwuachi, and even Serena Williams! Last February, the tennis champion starred in Rémy Martin’s first Super Bowl commercial, playing the role of a coach inspired by Oliver Stone’s 1999 movie Any Given Sunday. “It was important for us to recruit a female athlete like Serena Williams, whose career is historically rich and underpinned by excellence, and who continues to inspire future generations, in keeping with our brand’s values,” says Tina Reejsinghani, vice-president for the Americas for Rémy Martin and other luxury spirits in the Rémy Cointreau group. With Cognac sales down in the United States in 2023 after two years of growth, the 300th anniversary will be an opportunity to put Rémy Martin back in the spotlight, and maybe even reboot it for centuries to come.