The life of a Hennessy apprentice taster

Hennessy’s founder, Richard Hennessy, fled his ancestral home of Ballymacmoy House in 1724 as part of the famous Wild Geese or Flight of the Earls.

Richard Hennessy (1724 — 1800) was an Irish military officer and businessman, best known for founding the Hennessy cognac dynasty, which is today a luxury brand and one of the most prominent in the world. From an Irish Catholic family in County Cork, Ireland, Hennessy went into exile as part of an Irish Catholic military diaspora, serving in the French Army.

The Hennessy cognac distillery was founded in 1765 in Cognac, Charente. During the 1970s, Kilian Hennessy, a fifth-generation direct descendant of Hennessy, became the CEO of Hennessy, succeeding his first cousin Maurice-Richard.  Kilian Hennessy spearheaded the company’s 1971 merger with Moët et Chandon, which created Moët Hennessy.

Moët Hennessy merged with Louis Vuitton in 1987, creating one of the world’s largest luxury brand conglomerates, Louis Vuitton • Moët-Hennessy or LVMH. In 1988, a management crisis led to the group’s takeover by Bernard Arnault, owner of the haute couture house Christian Dior, with the support of Guinness.  Kilian Hennessy remained on the company’s advisory board until his death in 2010 at the age of 103.

If you’re a lover of Hennessy, you may be interested to hear about their apprenticeship programme.

Apprentice tasters in the cognac house have to remain silent for five years, before they are allowed to give their opinions.

The rigour, bordering on reverence, is necessary when it comes to crafting a blend as rare as the Hennessy Paradis Imperial, say Hennessy’s head of distilleries Olivier Paultes.

As an apprentice in Hennessy’s tasting committee, Olivier Paultes, the cognac house’s head of distilleries, wants you to be completely silent when you are tasting the eaux-de-vie (colourless brandies distilled from Ugni Blanc wine) alongside your senior colleagues. You can’t say a word for years. Until then, it is watch and learn; speak only when spoken to.

“Our tasting committee consists of seven members: Hennessy’s eighth generation master blender, Renaud Fillioux de Gironde; a cask expert; a wine specialist; a distillation expert; two young colleagues, one of whom is a 33-year-old woman – a first in our committee; and me,” Paultes told Channel News Asia. “The young members can smell, taste, and, of course, spit [the eaux-de-vie], but it is forbidden for them to talk or comment. It is only after five years that we start to ask them some questions.”

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Olivier Paultes, Hennessy’s head of distilleries, launches the latest expression of Paradis Imperial, a creation of Yann Fillioux, the cognac house’s 7th generation Master Blender. (Photo: Hennessy)

The decorum seems like an austere rule lifted from a top Tokyo sushi joint, where an apprentice has to spend several years preparing sushi rice before their itamae or head chef allows them to make sushi for guests. But for Paultes, such a rule is hardly anachronistic. “Tasting is all about concentration,” said Paultes. “I want [my younger colleagues] to focus carefully on the subtleties of the different eaux-de-vie, and learn how to age them [in casks].”

The 55-year-old Paultes is no stranger to the art of ageing and blending brandies. His great-grandfather and grandfather were master blenders in Cognac. He first entered the industry as an inventory hand for small cognac producers, taking stock – and sniffing – their collection of eaux-de-vie. At 23, he joined Frapin, a family-run cognac producer, to learn about blending. Two years later, he was promoted, becoming France’s youngest cellar master.

After 24 years at Frapin, Paultes joined Hennessy in 2011, where he is responsible for the quality of the eaux-de-vie sourced from 800 distilleries in Cognac. Hennessy’s eaux-de-vie come from the four top crus in Cognac: Grande Champagne, Petite Champagne, Borderies, and Fins Bois.

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The elegant pour comes in a new crystal decanter designed by Arik Levy, who is know for his mastery of sculptural forms. (Photo: Hennessy)

Each eau-de-vie has “its own [specificities]”, which will influence how it is aged and blended, said Paultes. “For example, with an eau-de-vie that has a delicate perfume, you’d want to put it in old casks of eight to ten years old, to preserve its aromas. For a brandy that is spicy, you can use it for our X.O blend, which has that flavour profile. If your eaux-de-vie selection is not precise, you can’t make a good cognac.”

The Hennessy Paradis Imperial – the jewel in Hennessy’s portfolio – requires a very precise selection of eaux-de-vie: Just an average of 10 out of 10,000 eaux-de-vie from any given harvest have the potential to go into the blend for this particular spirit.

“For the Paradis Imperial, we pick eaux-de-vie that have a lot of floral aromas. We are looking for elegance,” remarks Paultes. The premium cognac offers notes of jasmine and cedar, with delicious mandarin peel flavours that unfurl on your palate. There is a hint of spice; a whiff of cardamom. Its finish is long but not overpowering, fading gently like the glow of a sunset. Paultes, who was in town recently to launch the new Hennessy Paradis Imperial, says it has “finesse and a very good balance”.

The 2019 edition of the Hennessy Paradis Imperial offers an exquisite crystal decanter designed by artist and designer, Arik Levy; and a Louis Vuitton-crafted trunk  – that holds four magnums of the Paradis Imperial.

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The Israeli-born designer, Arik Levy. (Photo: Hennessy)

More than 100 top eaux-de-vie of varying ages form the Paradis Imperial’s blend, with the oldest being a brandy of about 130 years old, which was stored in a demi-john or large glass jar. Paultes clears up a common misconception about cask-ageing: You can’t have an eau-de-vie that is aged for 130 years in wood. If you fill a 350-litre cask, you will have only 14 litres left after 100 years because of evaporation. Once an eau-de-vie has reached its peak or “point of elegance”, it is transferred to a demi-john to prevent evaporation.

Rustling up a Hennessy-based cocktail isn’t a faux pas in Paultes’ book, as long as you keep to younger cognacs like the V.S.O.P or X.O.

However, the only way to drink the Paradis Imperial is – in Paultes’ words – “neat, neat, neat”. “You have to respect the hard work of our master blender,” he said.

Source: Channel News Asia, CNA Luxury, Wikipedia