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Inside Hennessy’s Spirited Empire

CARRYING A SURNAME THAT HAS BEEN SYNONYMOUS

with superior cognac for seven generations could certainly give one an oversized sense of self. Look around us: Every day a new “star” is born who created “the best” something or other as the endless cycle of media churns out another “brilliant innovator” of another product we all can’t live without (can’t we?).

Yet when a name is one of three emblazoned on the most powerful luxury goods conglomerate-Louis Vuitton Moet Hennessy (LVMH)-well, it certainly helps put the flash-in-the-pan stardom so prevalent today into perspective. Hence Maurice Hennessy, once called “The King of Cognacs,” has delightful perspective.

Seated in the Sun Suite at The Waikiki EDITION the morning after what he calls “a surprisingly successful” pairing of food and cognac dinner, Hennessy took a few hours from his busy lecture and travel schedule to chat.

LVMH hasn’t been news shy in recent months. The fashion retail, champagne and liquor giant recent acquired a 17.1 percent ownership in the Hermes fashion house: a move that usually ends with the conglomerate acquiring the whole caboodle. (They already own Dior, Givenchy, Marc Jacobs, Fendi and Donna Karan, to name only a few.)

There also have been rumblings of considerable branching out deeper into the hospitality sector. The group’s fledgling Cheval Blanc hotel (in Courchevel, France) is primed to open locations in Oman and Egypt. The properties will come complete with Louis Vuitton and Dior boutiques as well as Givenchy-manned spas.

Yet seated on a lanai overlooking the Ala Wai Boat Harbor in Waikiki, Maurice Hennessy seems hardly concerned with such grandiose, global-reaching affairs. Swirling a glass of XO at 9:30 a.m. (it’s a photo prop, really) and dressed more dapper than perhaps anyone should be in Waikiki at such an hour, Hennessy is completely at ease.

Last evening he was completely in his element. That is, standing before a room full of people in the business of hawking fine spirits-where he waxed poetic on the finer points of why anyone should stock their establishment with the cognac his family has been producing since 1765.

So why should anyone who isn’t a hip-hop mogul, silver-haired policy-maker (or the aforementioned newly successful) care about sipping cognac? Hennessy finds humor in the fact that many people think along these lines.

“In the 1940s and ’50s, even before the world wars, young people went out and drank cognac and soda,” Hennessy professes a wealth of knowledge on the geographical evolution of spirits. “Cocktails with Hennessy were very popular in the nightclubs. Young people today seem to be finding that they should drink less, but drink better. And that plays nicely with our little venture.”

Some quick fact-finding confirms his notion: As late as the early 20th century, there wasn’t Scotch whiskey enough for distribution, as that was kept in Scotland and Ireland. Vodka was hidden in Russia (not to emerge for another decade or two) and gin stayed close to its roots in Northern Europe (Amsterdam) and Great Britain. In fact, cognac and rum were the two main spirits used in most mixed drinks in the U.S. until the explosion of cocktail bars and dance clubs.

“You have some great artists behind the bar these days,” Hennessy adds. “I recently had a mint julep made by one of these artists. You know, the first mint julep was made with cognac. It was lovely.”

Of course, he would know. Hennessy, whose family originates from County Cork in Ireland, is fully entrenched in the Cognac region of western France. (His brother now owns and is in the process of updating the family’s Irish home that was owned by founder Richard Hennessy-who served as an officer in Louis XV’s army in 1760.) It is only here-in this appellation d’origine controlee-that cognac can be produced.

On the 225-acre vineyard that Hennessy and his wife reside, Hennessy’s story is (not surprisingly) one that begins with hands in the dirt.

“I wasn’t as much farming as I was biking around the vineyards when I was young,” he says with a snicker, noting that he went on to study farming and agriculture in university before an internship in wine and spirits marketing and distribution suited his penchant for business. It was through promoting the brand that Hennessy felt he could speak most candidly.

“There have been some great Hennessys, some of whom were terribly rich. But like any family, some were utterly useless. Some spent a lot of money in casinos. Some whom I grew up with in Cognac are still involved in the business in one aspect or another. But being human beings, like anyone else, with financial power comes…a lot of interesting things.”

Indeed. Let’s take the pressure of distilling a perfect product year after year, for example. Hennessy explains the gist of producing Hennessy cognac; the challenge lies in the fact that while grapes and the environment in which they are harvested change on a yearly basis (thus affecting flavor, in a great range), the cognac always needs to taste the same in bottle. The “magic” occurs when the family of blenders-who have worked alongside the Hennessys for as many generations-mix the distilled product from a range of years. This can include blends that are more than 200 years old. To boot, Hennessy Cognac utilizes more than 7,000 farmers and the grapes they harvest across 200,000 acres of grapevines.

Is cognac a boy’s club, we ask? In fact, one of the master distillers is a female, Hennessy adds. And while his two sisters are not involved in the family business, there are many executives at the company who are women.

Sipping on the Road

Hennessy, who spends an average of two weeks per month away (“My wife thinks I’m nuts. But I love it,” he adds, noting she was currently vacationing in Chile) recently was in Las Vegas, where he popped in to the new Louis Vuitton store. He calls it “nothing short of amazing.”

“I’m not a shopper. But if I am, it’s bookshops. I love them. In Cognac, I order most of my books off Amazon. But when in Paris, which is a lot, I go to La Hune and spend hours there,” he says, rattling off a short list of recently unearthed travel treasures.

“I was in Vietnam and they make amazing iced coffee. Not the crappy Nescafé watered-down stuff. There, they do this very special blend and process that is unique to iced coffees. They also happen to love their cognac…” he adds.

Our discussion delves headlong in to the ties that bind cognac drinkers the world over-of which, we learn, there are many.

“There is a connection between fine champagne, cigars, chocolate, coffee-all the things of a certain refinement we need to take in moderation. But cognac has a nice story. Just as here, at this hotel [The Waikiki EDITION], the manager told me a tale about the coffee they serve being the same beans that go to the White House. It may be just a story, but it’s a nice story, regardless.”

Similarly, there are emerging destinations that carry stories, which intrigue him. China and Russia, according to Hennessy, lead the pack.

“China is amazing. I’ve literally watched the trees between the Shanghai airport and downtown grow with the city. Unfortunately, they’ve destroyed almost everything old to build new, which is sort of the Chinese way. And some of it is nice. It’s fascinating to see how practical they are,” he adds.

Directly following our Honolulu interview, he will head to his new favorite locale-Siberia.

“What I like about Russia is their amazing culture,” he shares. “The fact that they were living in this tough situation and it’s slowly improving. I had read about all these cities in fables, Dostoyevsky books and so forth, but you could never go. Now you can.”

Naturally, we brought up the fact that the Eastern European and Russian women aren’t hard to look at.

“It’s true. But I will tell you: They all dress like models, which becomes a very typical look there. It’s not healthy. Now, here in Hawai’i, there are stunning, very healthy women. They might not all be able to be tall, pencil-thin models. But that’s not my type of woman. I don’t like these moving skeletons dressed by fashion designers and put together by makeup and hairstylists. Here, it’s fascinating. Not to mention they greet you with a kiss-having never met you!”

Pop Culture

Somehow the conversation, which Hennessy keeps rather light, albeit engaging, turns to the state of the global media. He claims that the newspapers in his native France “lean so far to the left in their commentary” that he sticks to reading them solely for cinema schedules-and to see who has died.

“But I love American films and television. The Sex and the City movie; although it’s really just the opening montage that I like. All these great pictures you get to see on planes, I love it. My favorite is American Dad, the cartoon. I absolutely love it. The real conservative, Fox News thing, it’s so serious and strange,” he continues. “It’s like, we’re not allowed to say this or that, as if we’re talking to the king or something. But suddenly you put it in cartoon-whether it’s Homer Simpson or the American Dad-and it’s all OK. It’s vulgar and I love it.”

As this global gallivanting spokesperson and educator visits rapidly developing markets such as the Czech Republic, Poland and the Middle East, Hennessy rolls out statistics like the date his cognac was first delivered to New York (1794) or Mexico and China (1850). Yet it’s when he stops to gaze at the caramel-colored liquid in the snifter he caresses that the stoic nature of cognac-and this figurehead of its most-storied brand-seems most at ease.