France: Day 2 - Hennessy Seminar: Part II

We had been to the warehouses of Hennessy in 2013—when we did the regular tour of the Cognac facility as part of a quick romp through town. Back then, when we saw the perfectly-poised chalk calligraphy adorning each barrel, we assumed these markings were just for the casks being kept in the one chai that allows visitors—a nice addition to the Disneyland effect reserved for the tourists. We asked Maurice, however, if we could visit one of the functioning facilities to see part of the bottling process. “No problem,” he said. We assumed the “real” warehouses would be much more rustic and less curated for guests. Yet, as soon as we walked in we realized that the beautiful handwriting was just as prevalent. 

The workers were there pulling older brandies out of the cask and getting some of the mature liquid ready for blending. Again, like I mentioned before with Hine, you walk through these buildings—all full of Cognac from 50 to 150 years ago—and you think this can’t be functional. These can’t be real. They’re probably empty, or just for show. But I watched these guys uncork ancient barriques and pump the aged Cognac out of the wood and into a container. It’s a real place, making real brandies, despite the fact that it all seems too fantastic to be real.

We walked through another building with Maurice so that he could show us where his own estate Cognac was aging. 

And then we found the treasure trove: the casks containing the new 250th anniversary blend. 270 liter barrels, re-coopered to hold 250 liters (a great gimmick) in tribute to the significance of the moment. We would get a preview of the new edition later that evening.

After walking through the warehouses, Maurice left us with Raphael Gerard: the chief historian of Hennessy’s archive department. He’s the guy who digs through records and old documents in search of more information about Hennessy’s past. I wish I would have had a tape recorder going because he told us a story so long and incredible that there’s no way I’ll ever be able to type it up now. It involved the role of Hennessy from the time of the French and American Revolutions until Prohibition was eventually lifted in the U.S. This was a photo of a famous jazz singer sitting on the first crates of Hennessy to enter the states after the ban was lifted.

If you think Hennessy isn’t authentic or doesn’t have a romantic and real heritage, then look at these original letters written by the brand’s first American importer back in 1786. These are real documents that are still around, thanks to James Hennessy—the son of Richard—who was fanatical about keeping everything in order for future generations. We spent a good twenty minutes digging through old boxes of this stuff! It didn’t seem like it could be real, but then again Hennessy Cognac is older than the United States, so it all makes sense in the end.

At 5 PM it was time to sit down with Olivier Paultes, the director of distilleries and part of the prestigious Hennessy tasting team. His job is to taste more than seventy different eaux-de-vie each day, and to ultimately keep track of quality control. I was very, very impressed by him. He was open-minded, interested in what our experiences with smaller producers were, and eager to help us learn more without seeming pedantic. More importantly, his passion for Cognac in general was clear and contagious. 

Finally, I got to experience something at Hennessy that I have been dying to do for years: taste the unblended brandies, from single vintages and individual estates, that make up the vast selection of Hennessy’s collection. Imagine if you were only able to taste Johnnie Walker Blended Whisky, and never the components like Caol Ila, Talisker, or Clynelish on their own. That’s kind of how I’ve long felt about Hennessy. I’ve always heard they have incredible stocks. I had just seen those vast inventories aging in person! But up until this point we had never been able to try them on their own. Olivier had set up a blending table for us, full of different sample bottles pulled from various estates and vintages, to show us how each component brandy ultimately contributes to the blend. I was in heaven. We tasted a 1965 cask so ridiculously good that it made my head spin.

Ultimately, however, the back stocks of Hennessy are so vast and the demand for their Cognac so great, that the individualities of their single expressions will never be experienced by the general consumer. That’s simply not the business that Hennessy is in. They’re an incredibly large house that ships Cognac to every booze market there is. In the end, the Walker comparison is apt—except that, unlike young grain whisky made from inexpensive barley and distilled quickly on a column still, there’s nothing inexpensive or easy about making real Cognac. And, of course, there’s only so much that can be made each year. If a Scottish producer runs out of barley or wheat, they can always buy more from Eastern Europe or any other neighbor willing to sell them more supplies. They can distill year-round as long as they can get more grain. Cognac, however, is limited. It must be made from grapes and those grapes must be grown within the geographical borders of the region, harvested only once per year. Hence, why Hennessy buys as much brandy as they can get and meticulously manages their aging supplies.

We finished our visit to Hennessy with a fantastic dinner back at Chateau de Bagnolet; joined by our friends Jean-Baptiste and Olivier this time. We talked strategy and emerging trends in the new boutique market until late in the evening, Eventually Maurice took his leave, and as I walked with him out to the car I told him, “You delivered on your promise. You definitely showed me a side of Hennessy that I did not think existed.”

“I told you how it was. And was it indeed like I said?” he asked.

It was indeed, Maurice. While I still don’t know how successful K&L can be selling Hennessy and its ubiquitous marks, I know that my opinion of the Cognac brand is completely changed. Just because you’re supplying the world’s thirst for French brandy doesn’t mean you’re doing it at the expense of tradition or quality. It just means you have a much more difficult job, and sometimes that comes at a price. Hennessy could very well release the most incredible single vintage, single cask, single producer expressions ever seen within the industry, but that’s not their gig. They’re supplying the mass market—the Costcos and the duty free shops of airports all over the globe. It’s nice to know, however, that within those blends are some pretty incredible components. It’s nice to know that there is indeed a soul to Cognac’s reigning king.

-David Driscoll


France: Day 2 - Hennessy Seminar: Part I

I first met Maurice Hennessy at a dinner in San Francisco in 2014; a bottle signing event downtown. We hit it off almost immediately. I was just stopping by to say hello on my way home, but the LVMH rep invited me to eat with them and eventually I was seated next to Maurice himself. We naturally started talking about the business. He asked what I did, and I told him about K&L. An hour or so later I was still having trouble explaining to him why we struggle to sell Hennessy Cognac. He was intrigued by the conversation, however. Not many people had ever told him specifically that the larger and more successful the company, the harder it is to market. "But that's K&L for you," I said. "What works for everyone else doesn't work for us."

"So you will need to come to Cognac soon and let me show you around," he replied. "I promise it will be very different."

I smiled and thanked him for the kind offer, understanding that this was just polite small talk and that the kind invitation would never actually happen. Yet, eight months later, I found myself staying at Maurice's family estate, eating lunch with him at Bistro de Claude in downtown Cognac, getting ready for an in-depth look at the company's complex operation. Let's be honest here: in the new era of boutique alcohol, many customers assume that big is bad. They think something mass produced must equate to a lower quality. Corporate ownership means a lack of authenticity; the removal of anything endearing about the humble people making the product by hand. Because of this new way of thinking, our customers assume that anything produced from a gigantic Cognac house must be total slop compared to the small and rustic producers making tiny amounts of brandy on their own estate. "I need to see how Hennessy is actually made," I told Maurice, "because that's the only way I'll be able to convince our most discerning customers that this is not only the industry's largest Cognac producer, it's also one of the best."

"That shouldn't be a problem," he said with a smile.

2015 marks the 250th anniversary of the Hennessy house, which was founded in 1765 by Richard Hennessy; the forefather of Maurice. I knew that the company had something big in store for us, as they took my words as a personal challenge. They wanted to prove to me that Hennessy was as focused on boutique quality as any other producer in the region, despite their size and scale. I never in a million years thought they would ultimately give us complete and utter access to the entire operation. I never thought that Maurice would actually get behind the wheel himself, drive us to the house he grew up in, and show us around Angelier, home to Billarderie distillery—one of many small production centers Hennessy owns in the Cognac region. Yet, that's exactly what happened. We laid down the gauntlet, and LVMH responded with one of the most incredible days of booze education I've ever received.

Located in the heart of the Borderies, Angelier is one of the most idyllic places I've ever been in my entire life. It took my breath away and made my heart stop. "This is where I would fish as a kid, and take my canoe down the creek," Maurice told us. "We would even catch a trout every now and again."

And inside a small, rustic ediface on the property sits the distillery itself—a classic Cognac pot still. This is one of the small operations that distills the Borderies fruit growing in vineyards nearby. I had always believed that Hennessy had no control over their own distillation, but in fact they do indeed handle some of their own production.

Maurice himself also owns his own Grand Champagne vineyards near his home in the region, and we were treated to a private look at his estate. He is actually one of the 1500 small farmers who sell their brandy to Hennessy, part of the gigantic network of small operations that make the company what it is. "I like selling my Cognac to Hennessy," he told us. "Of course, I guess I could start my own little label on the side, but I couldn't well put my name on it, could I?" That might be a conflict of interest.

There's still a lot to talk about, but I've gotta run. More soon.

-David Driscoll


France: Day 2 - Morning at Hine

Let me start this post by saying this: we did enough today to justify and entire week's worth of articles. I could write ten paragraphs just for every hour we spent with Maurice Hennessy. That being said, I don't have a week to string these stories out, so I'm going to split it up between the first and second parts of the day. We woke up early at Chateau de Bagnolet, grabbed a pastry and a cup of coffee, and jumped in the van for the twenty minute drive to Jarnac—the neighbor to Cognac just a short trip down the river Charente. We had a 10 AM meeting with the house of Hine, one of the more interesting and forward-thinking producers from the old world of French brandy.

In the new age of distiller/producers, where the name of the actual distillery is often the name of the brand itself, it's easy to forget that the idea of DIY marketing is quite new to the booze world. For hundreds of years, the people producing the great brandies of France had nothing to do with blending them, marketing them, or even delivering them into the hands of customers. The Cognac industry was (and mostly still is today) run by negociants who would purchase different distillates from small producers and handle the entire business side of the trade; often shipping their casks abroad by boat, down the Charente River, where they would make their way to various merchants all over the world. Surprisingly enough, it was an influx of British and Irish entrepreneurs that established some of the earliest Cognac houses we still know today. Richard Hennessy, of course, was from Ireland, and it was in a French prison during the Revolution that he met Thomas Hine—an Englishman from a family of Cognac merchants sent southward to learn the French language. Hine would eventually be released, fall in love with the daughter of a blending house, and change the company to his namesake when he and his wife eventually inherited the family business. More than 200 years later, there is still a strong link between Hine and the UK. Their head commercial director, Carolyn Meunier—who met us at the estate today—is from England originally herself. 

While there is a small warehouse at Hine facility in Jarnac, most of their Cognac is aging outside the city limits. In fact, due to those strong relationships in the UK, a number of what they call their "early landed" vintage casks are aged at Glenfarclas distillery in the Scottish Highlands. While releasing vintage-dated casks in France is a bureaucratic nightmare (due to an abundance of laws requiring a licensed official to be present for all aspects of anything eventually being labeled with a specific numerical age statement) there surprisingly is no law that states French Cognac must be aged in France. Therefore, Hine is able to send a number of "early-landed" casks (meaning casks that are leaving Jarnac for the UK and arriving "early" in their maturation period) back home, where they have an age-old agreement to use the Her Majesty's bonding customs. That means Hine can release a number of vintage-dated products without being restricted by French guidelines using their UK-based stocks. 

Sometimes it's easy to think the old demi-johns laying around Cognac warehouses are just cheesy props or marketing materials for tourists, simply because of the ridiculous maturity or provenance of these brandies. However, it's totally common to have Cognac from the mid-1800s just sitting there in glass, right on the shelf, waiting to be used in a special blend or rare bottling. What is uncommon to see, however, is a WWII vintage. The Nazis shutdown a lot of production in France during their reign. 1943 is not a year I've seen at a producer previously. 

It's also easy to associate big Cognac houses with the glitz and glamour of big marketing (Hine does have an amazingly hip and modern tasting room), but don't get confused by their attention to aesthetics. Many Cognac houses are often sticklers for the highest quality of spirits and pay extreme attention to detail. Just because they're technically a blending house also doesn't mean they don't handle production. While Hine does purchase brandies from producers around the region, they also own 110 hectares of their own fruit, which they distill under their own domaine name: Bonneuil. In fact, you can buy a single estate version of entirely domaine-bottled Hine Bonneuil Cognac in their gift shop (which I did).

But, of course, just because they're buying a lot of juice from other producers, don't think Hine doesn't understand the production of those other distillers down to the finest of details. Eric Forget, the cellar master and director at Hine, is an incredible wealth of knowledge when it comes to every inch of Cognac terroir. He worked for Hennessy for many years and was actually in charge of managing the relationships between the company and its 1500 contracted growers. That makes him the ideal person to speak to when it comes to understanding what makes each distillate unique, as he has a strong working knowledge concerning hundreds of different estates. Eric had also arranged a selection of available barrel samples for us, from which he explained the significance of their individual origins and what made each one unique. For someone looking for more specifics from his Cognac, the presentation was utterly fantastic. I was spellbound before we had even tasted anything!

Besides their willingness for total transparency and detail-based approach to marketing, one of the reasons I was so excited to work with Hine was the fact that they purposely use a very low char level in their barrels. That means more fruit and less oak in the ultimate spirit. That means more terroir and less wood. That means a better understanding of the region in every sip. That means a better connoisseurship of the spirit and what makes it unique. We found two casks that really jumped out at us, both very different in their personalities. One was a lighter nine year old Grand Champagne brandy, lithe and fruity in its profile. The other a richer 2002 vintage with more supple richness and spice on the finish. Based on today's experience, I'm pretty sure we'll be doing a lot more business with Hine in the near future. 

They made their case. We were impressed. We countered with ours. A deal was struck. That's how relationships should work; with both parties equally enthused and excited about the future.

-David Driscoll


France: Day 1 - Chateau de Bagnolet

North from the city of Cognac, along the bank of La Charente, sits Chateau de Bagnolet: the house of Hennessy. Originally built in 1810, the ancient estate today serves as a guesthouse and hosting area for guests of the Cognac giant. We left Edinburgh this morning, did a layover in Amsterdam, then landed in Bordeaux around 4 PM. We then quickly rented a car, drove the hour and a half north to Cognac, and pulled into Bagnolet just before dinner time. Hennessy VS and ginger beer cocktails were promptly served. I stood on the balcony and stared off towards the river. Maurice Hennessy was due to arrive at 8 PM for dinner. We had a lot to talk about.

We dined over Pouilly-Fuisse and fish, followed by dessert paired with Hennessy XO. After the meal, we ajourned in the parlor to discuss business and share stories from the current state of the industry. Now I'm here with Charles Neal, my old pal Lester, and we're getting ready to drink Cognac late into the evening. 

You might be thinking at this point: David, only three days in Scotland? Is that really enough? Yes, my friends, three days is sufficient for what we need to do. At this stage in the game, the belts have been tightened and the supplies slowly rationed. It's not easy right now. We've only got four solid mainstay partners for single cask imports at this point, and we can knock out those appointments in three focused, hard-fought days. France, on the other hand, is limitless. We still are just scratching the surface with our brandy department and I want to spend a serious amount of time expanding on the work we've already done. That's why I'll be in France for the next eleven days: to start getting very, very serious about Cognac and Armagnac.

Get ready for a serious set of French-inspired blog posts. But first, a bit of fun.

-David Driscoll


Scotland: Day 3 - Glasgow Pride

Another glorious morning in Glasgow. We awoke (after another night of Finnieston's finest at Ox and Finch) and headed over to the offices of Hunter Laing where we met our old friend Andrew and sat down for coffee and croissants. His father Stewart was in the U.S. on a promotional tour, so we would begin our negotiations for this year's Hepburn's Choice and Sovereign selections with the most-recent generation of Laing whisky suppliers. Right off the bat we noticed the new packaging for Sovereign, a very welcome surprise! I quickly informed Andrew of my new obsession with Glasgow as a city—its vibrant food and drink scene especiallyand told him we needed to get the "Glasgow Pride" movement started with him: Glasgow's finest whisky bottler. The problem, however, is that there's little whisky actually made in Glasgow anymore. Even nearby Auchentoshan and Glengoyne are at least a twenty minute drive outside of the city limits. He suggested a cask of 30 year old Dumbarton under the new Sovereign label—from the now-defunct grain distillery once located just down the River Clyde—of which he had an open bottle right there on the table. Loaded with soft vanilla and creamy caramel, I told him that sounded just splendid. Book it.

Andrew and his dad Stewart have been incredible partners for us over the last four years, even letting us take ultra-rare whiskies like Port Ellen and Ardbeg from their vast collection. Along with another solid sampling of Hepburn's Choice and Sovereign samples, both David and I were taken by a number of super mature whiskies that simply knocked our socks off. There was another ancient Port Ellen on the table, and a 47 year old sherry butt of Glenfarclas, but the real winner—and easily the best whisky I've tasted on this trip so far—was a 41 year old sherry-matured Teaninich. It was just epic. Unreal. Sublime. Soft and creamy with a profile very much like the Ladyburn and Glenlochy whiskies we've bottled from Signatory in the past. It's coming home with us no matter what I have to do to get it.

After leaving Hunter Laing, we hiked on over to the riverfront where modern Glasgow is currently expanding into groundbreaking new territory. There's the eye-popping new SSE Hydro Arena, a 13,000 seat venue that will host renowned hip-hop diva Nicki Minaj tomorrow night. The glistening metallic majesty of the futuristic-looking Riverside Museum; a fortress containing relics of Glasgow's storied history. You've also got the head office of the BBC just across the water, as well as the main SSE Conference Center, hosting thousands of international business attendees annually. To me, it would seem that any company looking making a splash (pardon the pun) in Glasgow would definitely want to build along the Clyde; the sparkling spectacle of Glasgow's vibrant future. I think I know of one such company actually. Maybe they should invest in some land.

This overhead photo taken during the 1950s shows the location of how previous photo once looked, back when the Queen's Dock (that U-shaped outlet on the left) was once home to Scotland's largest export center for outgoing whisky. Built in 1877, the pump house (just where that little canal allows access into the U-shaped port) once controlled a barrier gate that would open the channel for incoming ships looking to load up on Scotland's greatest national product.

Today the U-shaped dock has been filled in, paved over, and turned into a parking lot, but the pump house still remains; most recently serving as an Indian restaurant and nightclub. All that is about to change, however. The building has since been purchased and plans have been filed to renovate and restore the Queen's Dock to its proper whisky heritage. Guess what whisky fans? Downtown Glasgow is about to get a proper, urban single malt distillery right in the center of town. And guess who's going to help run it? A proper Glasgow family with proper whisky-making roots. My close friend Andrew Morrison and his dad, Tim Morrison, both of Morrison-Bowmore heritage, will be operating partners in what will soon become The Glasgow Distillery—a proper homage to the whisky legacy of Glasgow, built to celebrate the spirit itself, and host the many tourists who come to the city each year (sadly, only find that all the famed Scottish distilleries are not anywhere nearby).

It was at the pump house that we met with Glen Moore, one of the project managers who is helping lead the remodel and designing of the new distillery. A former mill man himself, Glen worked his way up through the Morrison-Bowmore hierarchy years ago and was at one point the assistant manager at Auchentoshan. We spotted him nearby, shook hands, and went in to check out the new digs. While the pump house still needs a major amount of renovating, the distillery itself will be built in the parking lot next door; part of a separate building that will be connected to the old ediface. At full speed, it will produce around 450,000 liters annually and distill only for its own private single malt label (nothing sold off for blending). The house itself will be part of a huge visitors center that will not only function as an educational component to Glasgow's whisky history, but as a museum to all of Scotch whisky's history in its entirety. I won't go into too much detail now, but I was simply speechless after hearing the overview and seeing the plan so far. If Glen and the Morrison's can pull this off, the center is going to be the new mecca of Scotch whisky for the nation. A modern distillery juxtaposed with a historic building on an iconic site with real whisky heritage, all just a short walk away from the most heavily-visited touristic section of the city. I haven't seen anything this cool since the Giants built AT&T Stadium right on the Embarcadero. It's an epic proposal.

The location couldn't be more ideal. It's close to other attractions, close to hotels, close to public transportation, and it's only a short walk over the pedestrian footbridge to Finnieston: the neighborhood of Glasgow where David and I have spent every waking moment thus far. There are so many new restaurants and bars opening just near the new distillery site, to the point that it seems Glasgow is experiencing an entirely new renaissance of food and drink-related culture. I've yet to visit anywhere else in the UK that's on the level Finnieston is currently operating on. The fact that this neighborhood might soon get its own urban whisky distillery is simply exhilerating.

We had to eat once more, of course, at another new restaurant—this time a place called Porter & Rye, where (as you might have guessed from the name) they have in-house, dry-aged porterhouse steaks and an amazing selection of American rye whiskies. We had lunch here with Glen over pints and small plates of various meats, before heading across the street to the Ben Nevis whisky bar for a few drams of A.D. Rattray's Cask Islay (and I haven't even said anything yet about the amazing craft beer movement going on here). Then it was time to head for Edinburgh and the airport hotel, where David and I will soon begin evaluating this year's prospective crop.

We've got a lot of work ahead of us. Tomorrow we're off to Cognac. We need one more gigantic tasting before we can say we left Scotland thoroughly scavenged. One thing I'm very happy about is how much time we got to spend in Glasgow this year. We've always enjoyed the one night a year we stay downtown, but this year we got to experience so much more of what's really happening on the ground, and—more importantly—what we can expect in the future. Make sure you add Glasgow to your list of international cities to visit!

-David Driscoll