Inside Cognac's French Renaissance
The intrinsically French spirit has found more fans abroad than at home, but Hennessy could soon change that.
The first thing you notice upon entering the Hennessy Founder’s Cellar, the iconic cognac brand’s prime maturation facility, is the intoxicating smell of wood and dried fruit. The source is hundreds of French oak barrels full of eau-de-vie patiently aging in the dark. A little bit of cognac, known as the angel’s share, evaporates into the cool air as the liquid expands and contracts in and out of the wood over the years, perfuming the air in here.
Nestled on shelves near the barrels are glass demijohns filled with eau-de-vie, the oldest of which dates all the way back to 1800. A portion of this extra mature eau-de-vie will eventually make its way into Paradis Imperial, one of Hennessy’s ultra premium expressions.
Paradis Imperial is the creation of Yann Fillioux, a seventh generation Hennessy master blender who is now retired. His nephew, Renaud Fillioux de Gironde, has taken over the position, and heads the tasting committee that meets every weekday at 11 a.m. at the Hennessy headquarters in Cognac. He leads a panel that tastes 10,000 samples of eaux-de-vie each year to decide what liquid will eventually be blended into cognac. “The master blender is not a magician,” says de Gironde. “If you want to do this job, you need rigor, patience, and passion. If you have that, then you create a blend. There’s no luck.”
Cognac is hugely popular in the United States. According to the Distilled Spirits Council, in 2016 sales were up almost 13 percent from the previous year and have grown more than 50 percent over the past five years. VS and VSOP blends are most popular, but most cognac houses also release a few limited-edition, high-end expressions as well for those who wish to try something expensive and rare.
Cognac is meant to be sipped neat or on the rocks, but it is also an important ingredient in cocktails. “When you go back to the origins of cocktails, you find cognac as the preferred spirit in some of the iconic and original cocktail books,” says Jordan Bushell, Hennessy's national brand ambassador. “We are at a point in the cocktail world where classics are back in a big way.”
And many of these drinks, like the Sidecar, Sazerac, and the original Mint Julep, were made with cognac.
In France, however, cognac is not widely consumed. This seems counterintuitive, as it is an intrinsically French product, but nearly all the cognac distilled in France is exported. According to Hennessy ambassador Fabien Levieux, the reason for this is that the French have a stuffier concept of the spirit. “They consider it a drink to be enjoyed from a snifter in front of a fireplace on special occasions,” he says, and not something for everyday consumption. But the resurgence of cognac in cocktail culture may change this mindset in the future.
Paradis Imperial is truly a luxurious cognac. It comes in an elegant Baccarat crystal bottle that highlights the deep amber color of the liquid. De Gironde says that on average only ten out of every 10,000 eaux-de-vie will make it into this blend. “When you are picking eaux-de-vie for Paradis Imperial, you are searching for ones with amazing maturity combined with elegance,” he says. “Each eau-de-vie, like us, ages. It will improve [with age], but after a certain point it will decline.”
He explains that the eaux-de-vie blended into Paradis Imperial is liquid that has matured in old French oak, as opposed to new barrels. This means that instead of becoming the dominant flavor component, the oak helps to “support the natural potential and develop true elegance.” The result is a rich cognac with deep, complex flavors of almond, orange, and vanilla, with a silky mouth feel.
For de Gironde, Paradis Imperial is perhaps the most exquisite Hennessy expression yet. But that doesn’t mean that he is resting on his laurels. “My expertise is my passion for quality,” he says. “One thing that’s always in my mind is, we did something good today, but can we do better [tomorrow]?”
Here are some other premium cognac expressions available now: