Aspirational Delight

You may not know this, but I'm a big fan of Hennessy Cognac. I don't often recommend it to customers or write about it on the blog because big brand Cognacs are not what most K&L shoppers are looking for (and we have so many interesting grower/producer options), but nevertheless I always have a bottle of Hennessy at home. To me, Hennessy is no different than Campari or Ricard -- and no less indispensable. It's a spirit of distinct flavor and cultural heritage that simply transcends the detailed manner in which we talk about booze these days. Hennessy is not a small artisanal producer making small batches of rustic brandy. It's a 250 year old Cognac house that is as much an icon of the booze industry as Chanel is to the fashion world.

You don't drink Hennessy as a pedagogical exercise, or to gain an understanding of grape-based distillation. You drink it because it's easy and it tastes good. You drink Hennessy simply because it's fun, glamorous, and because you like to drink. Certain brands still have a role in my home bar, even with all of the new boutique options that we carry now. Despite all of the crafty, high-quality, bitter liqueur substitutes that have hit the market over the past few years, I still reach for Campari when I want an Americano; just like I still reach for that bottle of Hennessy VSOP Privilege when I want something tasty over rocks.

Because I myself like to drink and enjoy glamorous surroundings, I headed up to Hakkasan in San Francisco last night for a special Hennessy dinner with Maurice Hennessy himself. I wasn't there to learn about the brand, or to take copious amounts of notes for a detailed blog post. I was there simply as a fan of their spirits; I was there only to enjoy myself.

The ladies were dressed up and the fellas had their finest suits on. The low-lighting set an intimate mood for the small crowd that had gathered to meet Maurice.

Delicious cocktails were mixed up and the tables were beautifully set. I love big brand events because of the attention to detail. If you go to a Hennessy party you can be damn sure that you're going to enjoy yourself, which is ultimately what drinking is about. The dinners always feel as if they're very special -- and by extension, I feel special as well. One of the most important facets of building a brand is associating your product with enjoyment. There are few companies that understand this concept more than LVMH. Not only do they have good taste and impeccable style, but they're also staffed with the nicest and most dedicated employees. It's no secret that we're big fans of the way these guys do business here at K&L.

If you've ever been to one of our Ardbeg or Glenmorangie events, then you know exactly what I mean. You can't help but love their products by the end of the evening.

I am not someone who disassociates the liquid in the bottle from the bottle itself. I hate ugly booze labels and, no matter what anyone else tells you, most people feel the same way. There's a reason whisky consumers get upset when there's a tear on the label or if the box has a dent in it (and I don't think anyone is as well-versed in that subject as I am). Booze is just as aesthetic as it is gustatory -- our eyes help us recognize the beauty in the bottle long before we ever taste it. The visuals of any event are just as important.

When you drop a significant amount of money on a bottle of liquor, you want it to taste good obviously, but you also want it to look nice. It's for that indisputable reason that booze and fashion have always gone hand-in-hand. Hennessy has always done a great job with their packaging and their presentation, which is why so many artists and musicians are drawn to the brand: they appreciate those same aesthetics.

Glassware is also part of the sensual experience. A fine spirit should be served in fine crystal, should it not? I know it's fun for the more-grounded drinkers to poo-poo the high-browed antics of the top-shelf brands, but sometimes it's enjoyable to simply give in to the occasion and allow yourself to get carried away in the moment. Dressing up and drinking Hennessy Imperial out of fancy glasses is fun; I'm not going to lie.

But amidst all the glitzy-glam and hobnobbery going on in that room last night, one man shone like a beacon of humility and class: Maurice Hennessy. Considering the guy is practically Cognac royalty, overseeing one of the most luxurious brands in the entire industry, one might expect a bit of stuffiness or superficial pleasantry. I was surprised, however (and incredibly pleased), when I found him to be quite the opposite.

The first thing I asked Maurice when I met him was whether he originally wanted to be in the Cognac business, or if he was forced into it out of familial duty. 

"I didn't want to do this at the beginning," he said with a smirk on his face. "I wanted to raise cows."

For a man who spends many an evening with famous rappers, as well as foreign dignitaries, he's incredibly down-to-earth. "I still want to raise cows," he added after I laughed at his initial statement.

He's also quite cynical, in a very Kurt Vonnegut kind of way. He asked me to sit next to him at dinner so that we could further chat, but also to protect him from the onslaught of photographs and bottle-signing requests that he was being peppered with.

"You're asking me this, despite the fact that I did nothing but take photographs of you from the moment I walked in?" I asked him.

"Yes, but you did it in a very discreet and respectable way," he answered with a twinkle in his eye. "You were far away from me, so I couldn't tell you much I didn't like it."

What most impressed me about Maurice, however, was the way he handled people. He never gets flustered, frustrated, or fatigued. Connecting with all types of different consumers is what he most enjoys about his position. He's quick to joke about the somewhat ridiculous nature of wealth and new-money desire, but he's just as quick to defend those with an aspiration for the finer things in life.

"Everyone begins by pouring Coke into their alcohol," he told me after I made a joke about certain drinking tendencies. "But eventually they learn to appreciate it, just as you and I did."

Later in the night, after the woman seated next to me ordered an XO on the rocks, he leaned in and whispered, "You know why I love this crowd? Because they don't sit here at dinner and ask me about all the little details. They sit back and enjoy it. No one's worried about following the proper protocol. They drink their Cognac the way they want to."

Maurice's calm and collected demeanor coupled with the wisdom he's acquired after more than forty years in the booze business was an absolute pleasure to experience. We talked about boise, about small producers versus large producers, and about the growth of the global market; never once did his answers disappoint. He's completely at peace with many of the conflicts that plague my angst-ridden mind when it comes to the industry, saying to me: "David, why would you let that bother you? There's nothing you can do about it, so move on and do the best you can do."

Maurice understands the distillation side of the business as well. He owns his own vineyards independently of LVMH and he actually distills his own eau-de-vie (which he then sells to Hennessy, or course). The guy understands and appreciates the entire picture. We were surrounded that evening by a crowd of Hennessy admirers aspiring to luxury, but I left the dinner with an aspirational desire to be more like Maurice.

-David Driscoll

David Driscoll