Turning point

Hennessy's Master Blender's Selection No 1.

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This article first appeared in The Edge Financial Daily, on October 27, 2016.

 

"WE don’t tell Yann what to do. Yann tells us what to do.”

Jordan Bushell, Hennessy’s head of mixology and education, is sitting in a glassed-in conference room at Bloomberg in New York, batting away the suggestion that executives could dictate product development to its seventh-generation master blender, Yann Fillioux.

“We had asked him for different things, and he kind of said, ‘All right, here’s the blend of the moment.’”

And that blend is Hennessy Master Blender’s Selection No 1 (MBS), a brand-new cognac expression officially announced on Monday.

MBS was one of the most interesting new spirits I tasted this summer at the booze industry convention, Tales of the Cocktail — an unctuous, slightly sweet, slightly overproof, single-batch blend of 80 to 100 eau de vie, aged up to 16 years in two- to four-year-old Limousin oak. It was interesting, not so much for what it was (or because I was the 29th person in the world to taste it), but more for what it seemed to be attempting.

My first thought on seeing the square bottle with a hand-lettered retro label: “That looks like a bourbon.” My second thought on tasting the liquid: “This tastes like a bourbon.” My third thought: “I could get into this.”

I’m not a cognac connoisseur by any stretch, aside from the odd cigar-in-front-of-a-fire moment or stiff sidecar in a European bar. Brandy always seemed like a bit of a put-on to drink neat, something from another generation.

And yet, you could have said that about bourbon whiskey until not too recently.

According to adult beverage research firm IWSR, sales of super-premium bourbon increased 28.8% from 2011 to 2015. Meanwhile, comparable cognac sales increased 9.5%. To put a value on it, Euromonitor International reports that US$3.8 billion worth of bourbon was sold retail in the US in 2015 versus US$1.3 billion worth of cognac, a 19.1% versus 8.5% year-on-year growth respectively.

Bushell, the brand mixologist, won’t go as far as to confirm that Hennessy or Fillioux specifically aimed to replicate a bourbony taste, but he admits that this is part of a strategy to capitalise on that brown spirit boom.

“It’s about getting people out of that comfort zone, but in a place that they’re comfortable,” he says.

It’s easy to connect the dots how MBS gets there, starting with the more biting 43% ABV; high levels of lees (residual yeasts), spice and long finish; candied apricot and almond notes; and rugged, masculine bottle shape (cognac typically comes in more curvaceous, elegant containers). The liquid itself is a bright, golden amber with plenty of viscosity, thanks to those lees.

As has become essential in whiskey marketing, this spirit also has a proper backstory: It’s a “secret passion project” of master blender Fillioux, one which he would have typically kept as his own private reserve. Whereas the true art of blending cognac is about drawing consistency year in and year out, ad infinitum, from the unpredictable nature of grape distillates, MBS is about embracing the individuality of a few rogue barrels from the maison’s 400,000-barrel cellar and never having it repeat it again. (Each bottle is individually numbered and signed by Fillioux.)

“This is something that can be approachable to those people that don’t like cognac — the square bottle, the flavours of it, everything,” says Bushell. “It’s definitively cognac, but it’s something that can be separated from the pack in order to bring people into the pack.”

And will there be a No 2? Fillioux won’t go on record, not even to Bushell.

“In a very French way, he responded, ‘I’m not going to show you all the arrows in my quiver, Jordan,’” laughs Bushell. “I’m like, ‘Well played, sir.’”

If MBS can bridge the trend gap with whiskey-loving American drinkers, it’s easy to imagine the endeavour repeating itself, perhaps even in other global markets, with equally particular tastes.

Bushell explains: “I picture this being the young urban professional that’s wanting to try new things, that maybe got introduced to single malt scotch more recently, and they want to distinguish themselves by going outside the box.

“You don’t necessarily need to understand cognac; you just need to understand your own palate. And when you understand your own palate, this is something can change your mind about an entire category.”

Master Blender’s Selection No 1 will be available in 375ml (US$45 or RM186.75) and 750ml (US$80) sizes, with a total case run of 9,300, sold exclusively in the US When it’s gone, it’s gone. Bushell recommends enjoying it neat, on the rocks (to temper the spice and bring out the fruit notes), or paired with salted caramels or a pasta with white truffles and Parmesan cheese. — Bloomberg