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Art of the master blender
EVERY morning at 11am, for, oh, just the last couple of centuries or so, a group of eight men have gathered in a tiny little room in an ashen-grey building for a drink. They have a collection to make any big spender in a bar with his personal inventory livid with envy, but never in his wildest intoxicated fantasies will he get to taste any of it. At least not until these men have done their work, and duty-free shops the world over fill their shelves with bottles of glistening amber liquid whose name says it all: Hennessy.
We are in Cognac country and it's beautiful. If you've never been, imagine rolling green landscapes and castles. It's as if everybody there has one. Even little ones. All grey, as if following a style template dictated by Home & Chateaux magazine. And if you forget just what Cognac is famous for, you'll be reminded of it by the many brand names that have signs plastered all over town. Hennessy - and everybody else.
That little room - in Hennessy's headquarters just off the banks of the Charente river - is the heart of the 250-year-old company that forms the 'H' in the LVMH group. It's as if entry is only by holy men - that's how hallowed it is - and is only open to certain visitors at certain times, and only under watchful eyes and constant reminders of how hallowed it is.
That is in case you get the urge to touch or swipe any of the carefully numbered vials of eaux de vie that line the shelves of this apothecary-like space. There are hundreds, no, thousands, of vials in all sizes here, all with their tasting notes meticulously recorded by the eight apostles aka human computers aka tasting panel members headed by their master blender. For these men, the task is to remember what each and every eaux de vie tastes like, so they can mix and match them in a complicated alchemist's formula to create all the different blends of cognac in the Hennessy collection.
In 2010, the team - now led by 8th generation master blender Renaud Fillioux de Gironde - finally found their Holy Grail, the ultimate cognac blend known as Hennessy Paradis Imperial which capped off centuries of sniffing, tasting and shortlisting only the absolute best eaux de vie to make this precious blend.
Eaux de vie - the double distillation of wine made from grapes grown only in Cognac - are the building blocks of cognac, and Hennessy receives no end of samples from the many wine growers they work with. The company itself owns 200 hectares of vineyards but it works with many small farmers with 15 hectare-sized plots who make their own eaux de vie and send them to Hennessy for grading.
"At Hennessy, there is no room for approximation" is its clarion call, referencing the crazy precision with which the master blender and team are able to identify and match the many different different grades and characteristics of eaux de vie to blend into Paradis Imperial - and other cognac lines - that taste exactly the same with each batch. And the task is made even more difficult considering that only 10 out of every 10,000 samples of eaux de vie have the potential to become part of the Paradis Imperial formula.
Casks of the precious eaux de vie that pass the test are kept in the Founder's Cellar, left to mature until the right moment when they will be blended. It's exactly what its name says - a working cellar in its original wooden structure that is occasionally used as a venue for elegant banquets and as a permanent home for a specially commissioned light installation created by London-based art collective Marshmallow Laser Feast. It took two years and over 50 people to create the work which tells the story of the master blender's quest. A sphere made of laser-precision cut acrylic crystals (to embody Hennessy's philosophy of precision) creates a dazzling dance of light and shadow, every move and image controlled by a robot that represents the master blender - the epitome of perfection.
For master blender Renaud Fillioux de Gironde, who comes from an unbroken line of blenders that have worked for Hennessy from the start, Paradis Imperial is the ultimate taste that has taken his family generations to achieve.
"My uncle is the seventh generation blender who created Paradis in 2010," he says. "It is quite recent, and a tribute to the previous generations who spent their lives selecting what would one day become Paradis Imperial. It's the fruit of the precise selection of eaux de vie that has been done by my family for over 200 years. It is the moment when precise selection meets ultimate maturation."
Considering how, unlike wine, cognac is all about tasting the same regardless of the quality of the wine produced in different vintages, the blender's job requires almost computer-like memory."That's why we meet every morning - we have to do so much tasting. You need 10 years of daily practice, tasting again and again so you understand the combination. We have references in our minds and a pool of tasting notes. To get that consistency is the most difficult thing to do."
Even then, blending isn't the be all and end all of cognac, he adds. "It's one part of a long process that starts from working with growers, selecting the eaux de vie and ageing them to achieve their full potential. It's not about ok, let's take this and that - you have to work to understand it. To be consistent you have to make sure that everything you add is perfect."
Looking at the incredible scenery and Hennessy's dominant presence in Cognac which includes distilleries, cooperage and the most charming Chateau de Bagnolet - bought by the Hennessy family in 1840 and used to treat guests to perfect brunches and manicured gardens, it's not hard to agree that it all is, pretty perfect.