When we were young, we would get a drop of cognac on a cube of sugar,” Maurice Hennessy reminisces over luncheon. His early exposure to the golden-hued libation, was somewhat ambivalent—as initial reactions go. “I can’t say that I hated it because it was a small drop and it was sweet and wonderful because of the sugar. But I won’t lie to you: I didn’t really enjoy cognac until I was 23, which was when I started getting very involved in the job and drinking it with those who taught me much about it.”
A name of such omnipresence in the world of fine wines and spirits hardly needs an introduction. Yet, Maurice loves to tell the story. Born in Neuilly, the distinguished Frenchman is an eighth-generation member of the famed family that founded the cognac maison in 1765. Founding father Richard, who was of Irish descent, built his brandy empire on what the rich 75-hectare Cognac terroir had to offer.
“In the mid-18th century, the business of cognac wasn’t so specialised as it is now. It was Richard who did the tasting of the cognac he purchased from the market,” explains Maurice. “He’d ship the barrels back where he would then age and blend them till they expressed their full potential.”
In 1850, the gifted Jean Fillioux offered his tasting and blending services to Richard and eventually became the head of the cooperage—or what is known as the Master Cooper. As such, the Hennessy-Fillioux tandem, much like cognac ageing in a barrel, has improved through the centuries, creating a symbiosis that is unshakeable.
Since its establishment more than 250 years ago, the maison has never stopped reinventing itself. Driven by their passion for the exceptional, the two families share this adventure, relentlessly thriving for perfection and always ready to face new challenges.
Yann Fillioux, the seventh-generation Master Blender, is today’s Jean to Maurice. Having worked with Maurice for 50 years, Yann has elevated the art of blending to the highest level combining his exceptional talent with creativity and uncompromising loyalty to the house’s history and to his predecessors. For half a century, he has been tasting and testing Hennessy cognac, therein innovating while protecting and improving it.
This year, Yann has passed the legacy to the hands of his nephew, Renaud Fillioux de Gironde, a member of the eighth generation of the Fillioux family. His talent is buttressed by experts who constitute the Comité Degustacion (Tasting Committee), the only one of its kind in the profession.
“You have to look at these tasters as [bastions of ] quality control,” says Maurice. “They are buying the future of the firm.”
Just as the Master Blender’s role is crucial to said future, Maurice’s has been indispensable as well.
He regards his eventual involvement in the firm as a natural progression rather than a role that was expected of him. His father, a nuclear scientist, encouraged the teenager to pursue a vocation that suited him. Said his father, “You’re not really a businessman and if farming is what y ou like, then you’re meant to do it.”
Following his father’s sagely advise, Maurice took up studies to be an agronomist at the Institut Technique et Pratique de l’Agriculture. “I was very much happy with my farming school but then I realised that the cognac business was far more interesting,” he professes with a chuckle, adding, “My grandfather was very proud that I got into the family business—that I know because my grandmother told me.”
Today at 67, the indefatigable and talented storyteller, armed with both his “cognac gene” and exceptional blends (VS, VSOP, XO, Paradis, Paradis Imperial, and Richard Hennessy) travels the globe, spreading the gospel of the illustrious Hennessy tradition. “I enjoy the wonders of travelling and meeting people around the world. I mean, we can talk about cognac all you want but I can talk about anything and everything. You learn so much and hopefully I teach them something back,” he says.
His recent visit to Manila was to celebrate Hennessy milestones and its continued success in a whirlwind of cognac appreciation and tasting engagements across the city.
In a private tasting conducted for Philippine Tatler, the featured cognac was Hennessy Paradis Impérial, a delicate and superbly crafted blend mirroring the legacy of talent and expertise carried throughout seven generations of the Fillioux Master Blenders. The jewel in Yann’s crown, Paradis Impérial is a beautifully blended mélange of a handful of precisely selected cognacs, some of which are over 100 years old, that have reached their point de elegance. As per the Comité Degustacion, this is a state of optimal taste and consistency in the ageing process.
The handsome crystalline decanter Impérial bottle designed by award-winning French Baccarat designer Stephanie Balini is certainly a regal addition to any bar. Highlighting the paler than usual cognac, the bottle elegantly locks in the vibrant aromas of spirits distilled years ago.
“The best way to prepare the palate for cognac is dessert,” Maurice says, thoughtfully navigating the intricacies and nuances of the unique blend. He then pours the liquid into a tulip glass as opposed to a snifter or balloon glass. “Balloon glasses or liquor glasses are too big and your pours may end up too generous so as to fill the glass. The large exposed surface area also causes the cognac to evaporate quicker and the bouquet assaults the nose,” he points out.
With his first sip, he commences to describe this “modern” work of art. “It is not as spicy, woody, or tannic as classic cognacs,” he explains. “The bouquet hints at citrus fruit, jasmine, dry roses—but that’s just me…and there’s a wonderful length in the mouth.” Indeed, Paradis Impérial is an utterly delicious testimony to the art of wine growing and the Hennessy hallmark of fine eaux de vie.
While cognac served neat in a tulip glass is a marvellous unadulterated way to go, it is not the be all or end all of its appreciation. Maurice, in fact, subscribes to the philosophy that cognac appreciation differs depending on the company, rather than the temperature, season or culture, or even age-old traditions such as the postsupper tipple that many hold steadfastly to.
When asked what he values most about being the face of Hennessy, he says, “The people who work at Hennessy—they are my world. I love the connection with the vines, the wine growers, the distillers—people who are salt of the earth ,” he says.
This way of life is one he holds dear and has evidently made quite the effort to retain proximity to it. Residing near Cognac with his wife, Maurice co-owns a vineyard with his brother, of which his three daughters are shareholders. However, with no sons to speak of, the quintessential question that begs to be asked is what legacy he’d like to leave behind.
“I don’t know!” Hennessy sputters with a surprised laugh. “But I do know that I don’t want to be the last Hennessy at Hennessy.”
Just as well that he has a young cousin, also eighth generation, who has happily delved into the marketing of the brand and whom will surely be teaming up with Renaud. “He’s 35—he has his whole life in front of him,” Maurice cheerfully says.