On most days at 11am, an esteemed panel of cognac tasters convenes in an innocuous-looking meeting room at the headquarters of French cognac giant Hennessy. The sun-lit chamber, which resembles an old-school chemistry laboratory, is lined with hundreds of labelled bottles of eau-de-vie samples sitting on shelves, blissfully unaware of the alchemy that they would become a part of.
Hennessy’s multi-generational tasting committee, which comprises members aged from their 30s to 60s, regularly goes through its vast inventory of 500,000 barrels of eaux-de-vie, which is one of the world’s largest collections of fruit brandy that is blended to craft cognac.
Each session lasts more than an hour, where about 50 samples of eaux-de-vie are taste-tested and evaluated for their quality and ageing potential, deciding which ones make the cut for Hennessy’s emblematic core collections, from V.S.O.P. (Very Special Old Pale), X.O. (Extra Old) to Paradis, and its limited edition releases.
Leading the charge is Renaud Fillioux de Gironde, who has been Hennessy’s master blender since 2017. Renaud, who is in his mid-40s, has cognac in his blood — the Cognac native is the eighth generation of Hennessy’s master blenders, who have hailed from the Fillioux family for over two centuries. Since 1806, Hennessy, which was run by the eponymous family, has been tapping on the Fillioux family’s expertise in overseeing the vineyards, barrel-making and blending of cognac.
Presiding over the tasting room is an oil portrait of Raymond Fillioux, the fifth-generation master blender. Renaud tells The Peak in jest: “He is checking if I am doing anything wrong”, before turning serious, “Trust has been a key part of the relationship between the two families. The Hennessy family trusted us to make the best decisions for their stock, which gave us the confidence to do our job perfectly.”
Although Hennessy is no longer family-run and has been part of French luxury powerhouse LVMH since the 1980s, the Fillioux family remains at the heart of the cognac business. Hennessy, which is represented by the ‘H’ in the LVMH Group, is a top contributor to French international trade, with 99 per cent of its products sold via export.
Last year, the group made a record 79.2 billion euros (S$117 billion) in revenue, of which wines and spirits accounted for about nine per cent.
Despite having a fabled family heritage, Renaud, whose parents are a grape grower and distiller, did not face much pressure to continue the lineage of master blenders growing up. Instead, it felt natural for him to join the company after graduating with an economics degree at 24. Cognac was already an intrinsic part of his life — a staple at celebratory family feasts and part of conversations at family dinners. “To others, it’s a rich heritage. For me, It’s just a part of my life,” he says candidly.
Like other members of the tasting committee, Renaud had to undergo a rigorous apprenticeship for over a decade, during which he was mainly listening and learning about cognac. These sessions help members build up a solid base of memories and form pertinent opinions on evaluating the eaux-de-vie before they are anointed as professional tasters.
Renaud worked under the tutelage of his uncle, the seventh-generation master blender, Yann Fillioux, for 15 years, who drilled in him the importance of consistency and upholding the family’s legacy in the maison’s history.
While maintaining the quality of cognac that are crafted with eaux-de-vie selected by his predecessors is his raison d’être, Renaud is open to “improvements and experimentation without having to make urgent decisions”.
The father of three young children adopts a long-term perspective in crafting new eaux-de-vie for cognacs and ensuring that there is an ample supply for future generations. He warns: ”If you cross the line of quality and transmission of culture across generations, it takes a minute to break what has been built for centuries.
As a former wine-grower relations manager (a job that he juggled while undergoing training to become a professional taster), he has worked first-hand with Hennessy’s network of about 1,600 winegrowers across six regions, including Grande Champagne and Fin Bois, to better understand the growing conditions and introduce sustainable viticulture. These green initiatives include growing hedges and trees in the vineyards to increase biodiversity in their plots.
Other environmentally friendly initiatives include experimenting with hydrogen energy to power the distillation process, achieving zero herbicide use in its vineyards and the using machines to remove weed in its vineyards.
What’s the biggest lesson Renaud learned from working with his uncle? “Preparing for the challenges of tomorrow is more important than today. Now is always the best time to prepare for the future,” he states.
This ensures that rare labels such as Hennessy Paradis, which was created by Maurice Fillioux, the sixth-generation of master blenders, in 1979, bear the hallmark of a consistent quality.
The Hennessy Paradis, which was named after the Founder’s Cellar that houses the most valuable reserves of eaux-de-vie, pays homage to harmonious symphonies performed in concert halls with a flavourful profile of cinnamon, cardamon, and preserved fruit with a floral finish. True to its music roots, Hennessy unveiled R&B star Alicia Keys and pianist Lang Lang as the stars of a global campaign in May.
Making up the Paradis are some of the most prized eaux-de-vie that are stored in the Founder’s Cellar, which is home to over 20,000 barrels, most of which have been matured for more than 50 years. The copper-hued spirit also assimilates some of the toasty and vanilla flavours from the barrels, which are made from aged French oak from the Limousin forest and are hand-assembled by a team of artisans at the L’Atelier de Tonnellerie cooperage, which is a stone’s throw away from Hennessy’s headquarters.
Taking a tour around the sacred Founder’s Cellar, which was built nine years after the founding of the Maison in 1765, I spotted signs of the time-honoured relationship between the Fillioux and Hennessy families. Some of the barrels, which date back to 1934, are emblazoned with the Fillioux name, which meant that a member of the family had produced the eau-de-vie close to a century ago.
Big data & cognac
While Filloux name is closely intertwined with the history of Hennesy, Renaud takes a forward-looking and open approach to charting the future of the maison. Currently, he is looking into the potential of big data to predict the growth of grapes and the quality of eaux-de-vie in light of uncertain weather conditions and climate change.
He says: “Getting hold of historical data on how weather and soil affected the quality of eaux-de-vie in the past will help me better understand the relationship between growing conditions and how the eaux-de-vie will turn out. With this information, I can make better decisions today.”
However, he does not think that humans will be entirely replaced in the cognac production process. He says: “It is about using technology to help you go one step further to push the boundaries of quality.”
“If I don’t challenge myself, who’s going to take one step further? This is what I learned from my predecessors — pushing the limit makes the difference between what’s good and what’s exceptional.”
An enchanting stay at Chateau de Bagnolet
Hennessy immerses its top customers and partners in the savoir-faire of the maison through by-invite-only stays at this former family residence and exclusive experiences.
What do renowned pianist Lang Lang, film director Oliver Stone, and Kenyan rapper Octopizzo have in common? They have all been guests at Chateau de Bagnolet, a charming eight-room bungalow that sits on the banks of the Charente River in Cognac in a lush 2.8-ha manicured garden, where deer drop in for a morning stroll and hedges are blooming with flowers.
Built in 1810, the chateau was part of the Hennessy family’s estate before it was sold off in 1964. The house has long been Hennessy’s de-facto venue to entertain its most valuable corporate and private clients on an by-invite basis. According to Hennessy, Mainland China, Hong Kong, and Singapore are among the top markets for private sales in Asia.
Each intimate stay is tailor-made for guests, which includes experiences such as a tour of the Founder’s Cellar — where some of the oldest eaux-de-vie are kept — a visit to the barrel-making workshop, and tasting sessions with master blender Renaud Fillioux de Gironde.
During a recent press trip to Cognac, former global brand ambassador Maurice Hennessy, who is a direct descendant of founder Richard Hennessy and now runs vineyards that produce eaux-de-vie for Hennessy, regaled us with tales of great parties attended by the who’s who of society at the Chateau.
Equally intriguing is the house’s decor that draws inspiration from the cognac. The elegant living room is dominated by red wallpaper adorned with motifs of flowers and grapes, and matched with plush sofas in hues of pink. The walls are also decked out in portraits of the Hennessy family and historic photos including a visit by the late Queen Mother of the UK. The house is also served by a full-time housekeeping and culinary team that is headed by chef David Fransoret, and showcases the art de vivre, including a grand display of service a la francaise, complete with glasses of cognac.