Being part of a famed legacy has not made Maurice Hennessy boastful. Au contraire, he is humbled by how far the luxury brand has come.
Reflecting on how bygone generations of the cognac house would feel about its growth, he says, “My grandfather was a man of the past, so he would probably be surprised to see how we do things now. However, he would be very happy for the success we have and how we have people everywhere who savour Hennessy.”
The cognac maison was founded in 1765 after the Hennessy clan moved from Ireland to Cognac, France, in the mid-18th century. As the eighth generation of his family in Cognac, Maurice is now global brand ambassador, not a role he had envisioned for himself. He had wanted to be a monk; “then I wanted to be a farmer. Because my father was a nuclear scientist, he pushed me to not be in the family business. Still, I discovered this business because I did an internship with a distributor in Paris and I suddenly realised this was a job I liked”.
Trained at Institut Technique et Pratique de l’Agriculture as an agronomist, Maurice worked for several years on development projects and international cooperation in West Africa. It was only when he was 25 that he returned to his hometown to join Hennessy. Though he does not regret not being a farmer or a monk, Maurice does have his own vineyard now. “Really, my thing was more cattle but a vineyard was so fascinating and I would like to spend more time on improving mine,” he says.
Maurice can claim that he has a hand in the production of this world-class cognac from the beginning to the end. “We have 16,000 farmers who have vineyards, and I’m one of them. I make white wine and I age my spirit in my barrels for a few years before I sell it to Hennessy. And there are a lot of people who do that. Hennessy is not a big factory that owns 20,000ha of vineyards. It buys from lots of artisans, and we know how to do that very well. We’ve even had the same family of tasters for 200 years,” he explains.
Evidently, Maurice is a little old school in his thinking. “I don’t like the word ‘expression’. I know it’s a modern word that people use but I’m fighting it. We are not an expression; we are something you can touch and drink,” he says.
Which then is his favourite cognac to drink and savour? “They are a bit like my children; you can’t have a favourite one,” he laughs.
A globetrotter, Maurice has been just about everywhere. One place that made quite an impact on him is the Big Apple. “I liked New York, especially in the 1980s, because it was a breath of fresh air when you’d lived in a small town like Cognac all your life. New York was wild.”
Maurice was in Kuala Lumpur last month for an exclusive media dinner at Noble House Restaurant. As he walks us through a tasting of the Hennessy VSOP, X.O and Paradis Imperial, he says, “There are wonderful notes of jasmine and vanilla, some light flowers from the spring and citrus. When you drink it, you will find all of that and even a whiff of tobacco. It’s very delicate, very elegant.”
When asked what goes best with cognac, he offers a comprehensive list. “Citrus, chocolate, mint leaves, apple juice, ginger ale, foie gras, chocolate, coffee, if you’re very rich, caviar and some blue cheeses — that’s for French cuisine. The best is still Chinese food. I’m a big fan of Chinese food; it just depends on the type of animal,” he laughs.
That evening, the classic pairing of Chinese food and cognac does not disappoint. The menu includes favourites such as stir-fried glass noodles and peppered pork ribs. Some of us even add a dash of Hennessy X.O to the sumptuous fish maw broth, which elevates the flavours perfectly.
Maurice’s advice is to enjoy cognac in moderation. “We preach moderation because we like to keep our customers alive for a long, long time and also because it’s a product made with a lot of care, art and wisdom. It’s meant to be consumed nicely,” he smiles.
He likens the luxury cognac brand to a famed musical ensemble to show how, although each bottle is unique, together they create the sweet music Hennessy is known for.
“If you see the Berlin Symphony, you don’t say it’s just violins. The Berlin Symphony has violins, cellos, flutes, trumpets ... everything. It’s the same with this cognac. You have 30 years old, 40 years old, grand champagne, petit champagne and so forth.” Music indeed to the ears —and palates — of connoisseurs all over the world.
This interview first appeared on July 30, 2018 in The Edge Malaysia.