Text by Josh Sims
Portrait by Olivier Lalin
"It's where you want
to go if you want a proper drink," says
Maurice-Richard Hennessy. To a swanky five-star hotel bar or velvet-roped nightclub? "The working men's clubs of Newcastle and Wales -
they're heavily subsidised, comfortable and the men who go there don't want any rubbish." The advice is all the stranger coming from Hennessy -
not only because he is an erudite, middle-class, middle-aged French gentleman vineyard owner, but also because his name gives him away as a member of the Hennessy family. That would be the one that has been making fine cognac since 1765; the "H" in luxury-goods empire LVMH.
"The name certainly has more advantages than disadvantages, especially around cognac, and there are not many parts of the world now where the name does not give most people a little tingle," he says, his Berluti loafers undercutting an otherwise salary-man attire. "I remember once passing through US Customs in San Francisco and the officer asked me if I had any samples. I joked that she could get it in the shops. Back then I was still impressed by how well known the brand name is."
These days that
renown is, in part, down to Maurice-Richard choosing to pick up
where his grandfather left off. He is part of the eighth
generation of the Hennessy family since ancestor Richard emigrated from Ireland and began making what was then still called brandy, and is now the
only family member still involved. (His father opted to become a nuclear physicist.) Hennessy is the brand's ambassador, with the not-unenviable
job of travelling the world, espousing the spirit's merits and annually clinking glasses with royals and celebrities in a private box at the Hennessy Gold Cup, Britain's oldest established horse race. When he is not doing
that, Hennessy, the man, is growing grapes to sell to Hennessy, the company, to make Hennessy, the cognac.
"First and foremost
I'm a farmer, which I love," he explains. "It is
something I want to build up and one day leave in good health to my daughters. But, of course, I grew up with cognac: my father giving me a piece of sugar soaked in cognac on Sundays, or an ounce of wine - a very good Bordeaux, mind. When I started drinking cognac I didn't really
like it. But, of course, while I think it's more important to look forward, I'm conscious of the family heritage. Then the taste comes until you like it very much."
He is not alone.
Though once seen as a luxury good with a secondary function as an
economic barometer - if sales of cognac go down, watch out, yacht
brokers - the spirit now seems to be bucking the trend. And this
despite its prices, which reflect the fact that it takes nine
litres of quality wine to make one litre of cognac. Once perceived
as an old man's drink, cognac has been repositioned as stylish sup
- in Russia and China by
the newly rich, and in the US and UK through hip hop. In 2007, Hennessy was rap's third most frequently name-checked brand, after Bentley and Rolls-Royce. Hennessy may be an unlikely habitué of working men's clubs, but he's an even unlikelier rap fan.
"Some of it is
amazing work - physically very challenging, some
clever play with words, even if a lot of it is very rude," he notes. "But certainly, Hennessy now has a much more youthful image."
Everywhere, it seems, except in its homeland. Ironically, explains the French face of an iconic French product, the French are hardly cognac connoisseurs. "People in France aren't ready to spend the money. They drink cheap whiskeys, cheap vodkas, whatever's cheap," he says. "It's true that so much of Hennessy's advertising plays on being French and its French heritage. But, you know, there's a reason why it's all in English..."