While we like to think of tasting an exceptional cognac around a beautiful fireplace, we still don’t think of it – in France – as being combined with other beverages to enjoy it in cocktails. However, since its creation, cognac has not been drunk neat. The most emblematic of Cognac houses – Hennessy – is now offering six new cocktail creations based on Very Special in order to sublimate this spirit and return to its origins.
Through these novelties, the house highlights, in addition to its unique savoir-faire , its modernity and its ability to shake up clichés.
A flagship of the LVMH group, Hennessy is a major player in French international trade, thus contributing to the influence of France and its crafts around the world.
Julien Pepin Lehalleur, Brand Education and Training Director of the house works -with his team – to make the unique heritage of this House shine.
Icon-Icon met with him to discuss the values of the House through six original cocktails: between tradition and modernity, Hennessy does not deviate here from the values that make it the icon of Cognac.
In order to begin and recontextualize for our readers, could you briefly sum up your career until your brand education and training director role at the Hennessy House ?
I started with a business school where I was President of the oenology association. I very quickly did internships in the spirits industry. I did my first internship in 1996, at Hennessy.
I went to Italie and when I came back I started in finance at Moët et Chandon. I then stayed with the LVMH group – notably at Dior Couture. After a trip to Lebanon, I returned to Moët Hennessy.
I stayed at Krug for six years and was lucky enough to meet Maggie Henriquez, the president of Krug. I was in charge of the United States, Asia and I redefined the training speech.
Finally, the position of Brand Education and Training Director opened up. It was made for me. I’ve been in the job for three and a half years now.
I manage a team of 5 ambassadors based in Cognac – I go back and forth between Paris and Cognac.
When you are a premium luxury brand, you can’t just train your teams on how to make Cognac. Therefore, our role is to help the sales teams around the world – the Hennessy distribution network is present in more than 155 countries – to understand what the Hennessy added value is and why it is important to talk about its heritage.
The idea is to make a difference between training the teams in the savoir-faire of cognac, giving them the means to talk about it and knowing how to explain what makes Hennessy an iconic brand.
Hotels, restaurants, wine shops and nightclubs are important influencers of the brand. It is through them that we reach Hennessy fans and do this important background work on the brand’s message.
What would be the values of the Hennessy House ?
The particularity of Hennessy lies in the fact that eight generations of the same family have worked hand in hand with eight generations of another family. This is what gives this House something truly singular.
There’s a very strong sense of transmission and at the same time a certain modernity. One evening, you can be in a nightclub with a glass of VS and the next day in a palace with a glass of Hennessy Paradis. It is this duality that is very interesting. It is a current trend in Cognac houses, but the difference with Hennessy is that it has been in its DNA for a very long time.
The Hennessy House is often collaborating with many artists, do you think art and cognac are inseparable ?
Completely. There is art and I’ll even add handicraft.
In Cognac, in general, we speak of the art of selection, the art of maturation and the art of blending. It is indeed a whole art that is passed on. At Hennessy, we talk about a certain musicality of the Cognacs – the work of the notes and the search for harmony.
It’s been a while that Hennessy cognac is associated with artists and craftsperson’s to customize its small bottles. But not only : It can be to create specific architectures, specific boxes. When you are really a luxury brand, you have to go beyond your category.
If you want to be up to date and even avant-garde, you have to work with the greatest artists, but also with the artists of tomorrow. Some of them have become essential in the art world – I am thinking in particular of Shepard Fairey (editor’s note: also known under the pseudonym Obey), with whom Hennessy collaborated in 2014.
Could you talk to us about the Hennessy visual identity?
First, there are our iconic bottle shapes. The VS with its very long neck and angular shape or the XO with its upside down grape shape, recognisable the world over.
Secondly, there is a very strong code of the House: it is the armed arm. It’s the coat of arms of the Hennessy family for 400 years, this Irish aristocratic family, most of whose members were soldiers – notably the founder of the Hennessy Cognac House, Richard Hennessy, in 1765. This sword arm is very important to us because it symbolises tenacity, strength. This coat of arms went from the family circle at the beginning of the 19th century to an emblem present on all bottles. Not all luxury houses have an emblem, but when you have one, it’s an asset.
One of your iconic cognac is obviously the XO, could you tell us a few words ?
The XO is indeed an iconic of the House. When I say “iconic”, I mean that it is a product, a Man or a brand, which goes beyond its category, that is to say that it becomes something other than simply a Cognac.
XO has become much more than an Xtra Old Cognac. It’s important to remember that it was Hennessy who coined the term in 1870 – so it’s been a little over 150 years. The aim was to create a Cognac with very old eaux-de-vie for family and friends. Very quickly it became a success, was marketed and has remained so through the ages. It is one of the three remaining blendsof the House.
Very iconic because, in 1947, there was a member of the family who decided to bring Hennessy into the air of design by making a specific bottle – not a Charentaise bottle but a specific bottle, mass-produced, by one of the greatest glassmakers of the time in Cognac.
XO has become such an iconic Cognac that in 1936, when the AOC of Cognac was finalised, XO became a category in its own right and all Cognac houses were allowed to use the name. On the other hand, the XO has gone beyond its category: now there are XO rums, XO Calvados, etc. There are also derivative products: there is XO sauce in China or – I have just discovered it – the XO Hotel in the 17th arrondissement of Paris.
You are currently communicating on 6 new original cocktail creations in collaboration with Ugo & Spirits, could you tell us a little about them?
ou should know that the French market is not at all used to drink Hennessy in cocktails. For a little over 250 years, Hennessy has been drunk with sparkling water, tonic water or ginger ale, that was the traditional version. Drinking Cognac dry is not the way it was consumed in the beginning. So, cognacs in cocktails are not something new at all.
Also, in France, we have never been very good at Cognac. So we had to revisit the cliché of Cognac, drunk in a plaid by the fireplace in winter. Elsewhere, making cocktails with Hennessy is a classic for many bartenders. So we wanted to bring this idea back to France.
At Hennessy, our work is to produce cognacs. However, mixology, i.e. taking spirits and working on them to transcend them, is the work of mixologists. So we called on them, especially Ugo & Spirits who know the House very well, to create new things.
Why did you choose VS as the base for these cocktails?
VS is a young Cognac that is worked for mixology: it is fruity but has structure. It is therefore perfect for a multitude of cocktails.
In France, the cocktail market is relatively backward, so it was important to highlight only one Cognac. Finally, there is the notion of price: bartendersmust be able to sell cocktails at a slightly higher price.
Very soon, cocktails made with XO will be available.
Precisely, what is Hennessy’s position on making cocktails with XO?
I was instrumental in making this a reality, endorsed by our master assembler.
A year and a half ago, we worked with the House mixologist, Jordan Bushell, to make seven cocktails that correspond to the seven notes that the Tasting Committee highlights. This way, each taste note will be given pride of place.
At Hennessy, we would like people in France to stop putting barriers in the way of drinking a Cognac in a cocktail. It is possible and it is already the case in the rest of the world, especially in the United States and China.
Finally, would you have an object, a memory, a smell or an emblematic place that never leaves you and that you would like to share with us?
It’s a place that has a smell.
For me, it’s the cellar of the Chai du Fondateur. The oldest eaux-de-vie – some of them dating back to the 1800s – can be found there! Every time I go in, the smells take me back to 1996 when I first visited.
In my opinion, olfactory memories are often the most powerful.
Interview by Sébastien Girard, President of Icon-Icon and Saskia Blanc.