SB meets… Hennessy master blender
Renaud Fillioux de Gironde, the master blender for Hennessy Cognac, discusses the brand’s long‐term approach and the process behind one of its rarest liquids.
*This feature was first published in the March 2022 edition of The Spirits Business magazine.
How did you get started in the industry?
I joined Hennessy in 2002. I grew up in the area of Cognac; all my family is involved in the Cognac industry. I had the opportunity to join Hennessy, without knowing what was going to happen in the process. I worked very closely with my uncle, who is the seventh generation of our family to be the master blender for Hennessy. I learned how to taste and make Cognac. In 2017, I took the position of master blender, the eighth generation of my family to do that, which is quite unusual and rare.
How have you seen the company change since you joined 20 years ago?
It has been amazing. There are things that have changed and things that haven’t. The dynamic has been increasing all the time. Cognac in particular has had a lot of success in the past few years. What never changes is the focus on quality. One of the fundamental pillars of our success is always making sure that what we do is perfect.
What are your daily responsibilities?
Every day is different but the one thing that is the same is the 11am tasting session, meeting every morning to assess the quality of what we are purchasing from the growers, what we’ve got in stock, what we’re blending and what we’re experimenting with. If there’s one thing that’s key in my day to day is the hour and a half spent tasting. The rest of the day is spent talking about how to improve quality, talking with growers and the management of the stock and barrels.
The large part that we always forget about is the long‐term vision. If you think about some of our Cognacs, we age them for 10, 15, 20, 50 years before we blend them. You have to always think ahead.
What is the most challenging part of your role?
It’s very challenging to be able to make significant Cognacs of a top level of quality that is consistent. One challenge is to prepare select eaux‐de‐vie that will be interesting in 10, 50 or 100 years.
Are you working on anything new?
Part of my job is recreating some of the product. Richard Hennessy has existed since 1996, and we’ve got other Cognac that has existed for 150 years or more. My job is to make sure the taste of them remains consistent and it is a great challenge. We’re always thinking of doing limited editions.
How do you ensure the quality of the eaux-de-vie?
By tasting again and again. We have very strong partnerships, and to ensure the quality, we test everything we purchase from our partners. Every year, from April to September, we will retaste the whole stock of Hennessy in barrels, thousands of batches. This is to follow the evolution of each batch, of its quality. When you think about blending, people think you are an alchemist or magician, but it’s because we are rigorous and strict with the process. At the end you can do interesting blends.
What was the process behind the relaunch of Richard Hennessy Cognac?
We make only the equivalent of 12 barrels per year for the entire world. Richard Hennessy was the founder of Hennessy, a great personality and a great vision. It’s the whole story of Hennessy in a glass; we’re talking about some eaux de vie that has been aged for 50 years, 100 years, and more. When you age the eaux‐de‐vie, the idea is to use them when they are at their best. We retest all of them every year and assess their quality.
The question is how are we going to manage their potential in terms of ageing process. They are all aged in French oak barrels, made with oak that has been seasoned for at least three years. We buy new barrels but we use them for 20, 30, 40 years. We might have some maintenance to do on them but we keep them for a long time. We manage the stock and follow the quality, and each batch is improving.
We keep from one vintage only what has the potential to go one step further. What you have with Richard Hennessy is the ultimate expression of this quest for pure quality, not having an eaux‐de‐vie that is old, but that is great with amazing maturity.