JEWEL IN THE CROWN
STEPHEN SHORT explores how Hennessy continues its reign in the world of cognac
IF BRANDY IS the aristocrat in the room, then cognac is the king. It’s the time-honoured libation of presidents and royalty, and continues to be a jewel in the crown of French commerce. And that’s no idle boast. Sample this list of the top 10 destinations for cognac in 2017, in descending order by number of bottles sold: the US (82.6 million), China (25.5m), Singapore (24m), England (9.9m), Germany ( 5.5m), France (4.3m), Latvia ( 3.7m), Hong Kong ( 3.5m), Holland (2.9m) and South Africa (2.6m). Last year, the increase in cognac consumption in China and Hong Kong alone grew by 31 per cent, second only to Latvia, which recorded a more than 140 per cent increase over 12 months. France itself, both the throne and royal court of cognac, accounts for a mere 2.2 per cent of the world’s consumption.
Maurice Hennessy helps oversee this provenance.
He’s the global brand ambassador for Hennessy and from the eighth generation of the direct descendants of Richard Hennessy, the Irishman who founded the house in 1765. Born in 1950 in Neuilly near Paris, he spent his youth in Cognac, read agriculture at university in Paris and after a few years in West Africa, was invited to join the family firm. His baptism was public relations in France, followed by five years in London for the development of the British market. Since returning to Cognac in 1984, he travels regularly in America (both North and South) and Europe. Along the way, he dispenses Hennessy training programmes across the globe, and conducts tastings to develop and enhance brand awareness and appreciation.
While Hennessy’s position atop the cognac empire remains largely unchanging – Rémy Martin, Martell, Camus and Courvoisier duke it out below – its clientele has shifted with the times and the changes wrought by technology. How has the consumer changed since the ’80s and ’90s? “The Hennessy drinker is younger and more daring,” he says, quaffing a glass from a recent collaboration that saw designer Marc Newson recalibrate a limited edition bottle of Hennessy XO, which stands for Extra Old. “When I was young, well, the simple idea of putting ice in the glass was just unthinkable. But now it’s my best drink.”
It’s classic meets contemporary from the top down – and in the case of Newson’s bottle, borrowed retrospectively. “I think when Marc stood in front of the old bottles designed by my uncle in 1947, he was in awe,” he recalls. “All he did was take away the grapes and leaves decorating it, creating a simple but elegant new shape.
And collectors loved it.”