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Friday
Aug262016

Hennessy's Light Bulb Moment

If there's one big booze company I know inside and out, it's LVMH—Louis Vuitton Moët Hennessy. I've worked closely with them for more than seven years and the French-based group is one of K&L's strongest and most loyal partners. We're talking deep and long-lasting relationships here. I've been everywhere with these guys and partied with them all over the world. I've overnighted at Ardbeg and drunk crazy rare whiskies late into the night with distillery manager Mickey Head. I've done some falconing (yes, the sport of using a falcon to hunt) at Glenmorangie with their former development director Mark Harvey. I've had lunch at Cheval Blanc in Bordeaux with their esteemed winemaker Pierre Lurton, drinking back vintages of Château d'Yquem for kicks.  I've sipped Champagne with the heads of Ruinart and Dom Perignon at numerous events with my colleague Gary Westby. I've even stayed at the storied Château de Bagnolet in Cognac with Maurice Hennessy himself. Maurice and I even started sharing literature at one point (I sent him a copy of Vonnegut's Cat's Cradle last year for fun). I know every one of their fantastic products like the back of my hand and with all the support they've provided to us over the years, there's nothing I wouldn't do to help these guys out. That's why last year, while having dinner in Cognac, I mentioned to the company's big bosses that a special edition Hennessy would work wonders for a specialty store like K&L. Not some fancy, bling-bling, big baller, crystal decanter version of Hennessy, mind you; but rather a humble, more natural, fruit-forward, throwback edition of Hennessy—one with an entire different look, an entirely different label, and an entirely different style. 

It was at a blending seminar we did with Olivier Paultes, the director of distilleries and part of the prestigious Hennessy tasting team, that the light bulb went off in my head. It wasn't that Hennessy didn't make or collect brandies that were more in line with the style we sell here at K&L, it's just that they didn't blend them to that particular flavor profile. Whereas Hennessy's house style is a dark, caramel-laden, spicy Cognac with more focus paid to the richness of the spirit than the brandy's inherent fruitiness, we're pedaling a more restrained and delicate profile at K&L. We've been working directly with producers like Dudognon, Bouju, and Ragnaud Sabourin for years to bring lighter, leaner, more delicate Cognacs to the market and our customers have responded with open arms. Tasting with Olivier, however, was a revelation. He pulled out a bevy single vintage samples for us to taste in the Spring of 2015 during our visit and I sat there in the warehouse parlor—my industry friends Lester Lopez and Mike Azevedo across from me—drinking in the incredible flavors. These were the Hennessy blending Cognacs? They tasted like finished products to me. They were totally different than what I would normally associate with the brand. They were soft and supple, complex and full of fresh fruit. Gone was the coffee bean and caramel; replaced instead by something far more restrained. I spent the rest of the evening telling the Hennessy brass that I would be much more successful selling Hennessy if it tasted more like that; that maybe they should take a page from the Ardbeg/Glenmorangie side of the business and try doing an annual release of something completely unique and different. "Put it in a flask," I remember saying. "It should be presented in something like out of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade—at the end where he chooses the least gaudy cup of the grail he can find."

Flash forward to more than a year later. In walks my friend Lester with a bottle of something called Hennessy Master Blender's Edition Selection No. 1 in his hand—a special edition scheduled for an exclusive American release later this November. The packaging was totally different. The price would be completely reasonable: less than a hundred dollars. The style was restrained, drier, and focused entirely on that same soft-fruited character I had tasted back at the warehouse last April. It was a glorious edition of Hennessy. I went back for seconds, thirds, fourths, and finally fifths! It wasn't only the most delicious Hennessy I'd ever tasted, it was a Cognac I'd be excited to put into the hands of others so that they could have a similar experience. The palate was so elegant and mouthcoating, while the finish was a whisper of dried apricot and toasted almond. It looks like Hennessy's plan is to let a different master blender (there are a few at Hennessy) create a different blend each year; hopefully, in the style of the one pictured above. I've been waiting for a major Cognac house to do something like this for five years—something more old school, brandy-centric, and most importantly affordable! Hennessy has more delicious Cognac sitting in its warehouse from hundreds of different producers than every other Cognac producer put together. It makes sense they could spare the juice.

And if I had anything to do with making it happen, I'm honored. Look for the Hennessy Master Blender's edition this November.

-David Driscoll