Maurice-Richard Hennessy, the eighth-generation family member to work in the family business, was in Hong Kong recently to launch Odyssey, the fourth exclusive collection of Hennessy X.O in a bottle designed by artist Arik Levy. We caught up with the courteous descendent of Richard Hennessy to talk about the family business, as well as some of his favourite cognac and food pairings.
Asia Tatler Dining: You are the eighth-generation Hennessy and a direct descendent of Richard Hennessy: what is it like working in the family business?
Maurice-Richard Henessy: Well, it' s not a family-owned business anymore, it's part of the large LVMH group so I knew the family-owned business aspect only when I was a kid. In 1971, we married with Moët et Chandon, became Moët Hennessy and then of course extended to LVMH, who does a great job. I can't see how the company would have carried on in the 21st century as just a family business. Maybe I'm mistaken, maybe we would have d one extremely well, but I think we have to do what we did, which is to merge with other companies with the same idea of luxury. Also, it's not just about the Hennessy family, the brand is also about the families of suppliers, vine growers. One of the major families at Hennessy is the Fillioux family, who have been the blenders for seven generations. Thank God that carries on, they are the most important people.
ATD: While cognac is known as a French brandy, Hennessy also has a distinct Irish heritage. How does that distinguish Hennessy from other cognacs on the market?
MRH: The Irish heritage is that my ancestor, Richard Hennessy, came to France in the middle of the 18th century, like many Irish second or third sons who left their homeland moved to Europe. They had a great reputation as soldiers, so they joined the newly Catholic armies in Europe and Richard Hennessy joined the Irish brigade of Louis XV. After that, he started a business in Cognac, selling a drink they knew well in every army in Europe, cognac. Now the cognac has nothing Irish about it, but the Hennessy brand has a certain reputation of ethics. Hennessy is the only cognac brand started by an army officer who had a great sense of honour. He was interested in the quality of the drink he was selling and the relation with the suppliers and customers. He was surprisingly honest when you think it was 18th century before they invented all these consumer protection acts.
ATD: Cognac, as you say, has been around for centuries. What are some of the traditional ways of drinking it and has that changed over the years?
MRH: Cognac was created as a long drink to be consumed with water. And in many parts of the world, people drink cognac with soda or water, in larger amount than cognac on its own. That's why the best-selling cognac from Hennessy is Hennessy VS or VSOP [Ed's note: Hennessy's entry-level products] which are fresh and nice but not too expensive, which people don't hesitate to mix with all kind of cocktails or long drinks. There was a time when people forgot about that and are now shocked by the thought of having a cocktail with cognac. I wouldn't recommend XO or Richard Hennessy as a cocktail but I think the young generation is going back to what was a great tradition until the 60s, which was drinking cognac as a long drink.
ATD: Your job involves a fair amount of traveling, do people from different countries have different ways of drinking cognac?
MRH: There are some very classical countries where they drink it on its own, and only on its own. And we have to be there to suggest that they should try it as a long drink and they try it and love it. It's not my favourite but there is a Caribbean island where they drink cognac with evaporated milk.
ATD: As a type of brandy, is cognac also usually enjoyed after meals? Is it possible to pair cognac with food?
MRH: Yes it is, especially with Chinese and Vietnamese food, it can go with very hot food, it can help to dissolve the fat. The best is shark's fin soup, but this is banned these days so no more of that. Chicken-based soups go well with cognac, as does seafood like fish, crab and lobsters. The best pairing for cognac however, is chocolate. That really is the best marriage. With dark chocolate, I'd drink XO, which is very tannic. With milk chocolate, I'd have it with Paradis.
ATD: What types of food definitely do not go well with cognac?
MRH: I don't think it's right with red meat. I would tell you never to have cognac with sea cucumbers but that's just because I hate them.
ATD: With all the different types of cognac available (Richard Hennessy, X.O, VS, VSOP, etc.), are there subcategories of food pairings?
MRH: X.O goes with all the food, especially chocolate and fish. Paradis is very elegant and delicate as it's made of older cognacs so I would say it is good on its own, but you can have it also with something lighter, maybe vanilla ice cream or lobster, but nothing too spicy. I also like it with blue cheese like Stilton. Richard Hennessy is very concentrated but remarkably fruity and lively so it goes well with red berries, chocolate and raspberry. Or foie gras torchon, not the foie gras which is re-cooked.