Cognac, keeping the same taste 250 years on

Friday April 13 2018

The Fillioux family has been tasting and blending cognac for eight generations, and claim to have maintained the taste over the years. PHOTO | NMG


What does it take to keep your drink tasting the same over 253 years? Eight generations of master blenders.

When Irishman Richard Hennessy founded his distillery in 1765, he had no idea that it would traverse the world. Centuries later, East Africans are now enjoying the drink, with the same great taste.

The Fillioux family has been tasting and blending the spirit for eight generations, and claim to have maintained the taste over the years.

Hennessy general manager for Eastern Africa, Anne-Claire Delamarre says East Africa is strategic for their expansion plans. With an office in Nairobi, they plan to grow the Kenyan and Tanzanian markets first, then venture into Uganda and Rwanda.

“Our target market is people aged between 25 and 45, middle and upper middle class, who have more disposable income. People over 45 years are more likely to be already set in their ways. Those aged 35 are looking to refine their choices,” Delamarre said.

She said they train bartenders on responsible drinking, and do not market their product to people under the age of 25.


Maurice Hennessy, in charge of global marketing, was in Nairobi this past week with his nephew Roch Hennessy.

Maurice said that they hope to make Hennessy the leading brown spirit of choice in the region. However, a quick survey of Nairobi middle class consumers showed that they associate cognac with Remy Martin, a competitor, and in general drink more single malt whisky.

The preference for single malt whisky could be due to affordability, at $23 to $25 for a 750ml bottle. At about $74 for a 750ml bottle of Hennessy VSOP and $70 for a 700ml bottle of Remy Martin VSOP in Nairobi, Delamarre says there is enough market in the region for everyone.

Roch, the business development manager in charge of the Chinese market, said Kenyan consumers are curious about mixology and cocktails.

“Kenya is open to international brands because of the high level of education and awareness. It is our third biggest market on the continent, after South Africa and Nigeria,” Roch said.


“Cognac is primarily enjoyed as a beverage.

“It can be drank as an aperitif, you can have it neat in a balloon glass to enjoy the spicy smooth taste, or with ice cubes that reveal more floral notes, or in a cocktail like a Sidecar. It’s up to you to experiment different ways of having it.”

Cognac is also used in cooking sauces, making marinades, to preserve fruits and chocolates. It is also splashed over dishes for flambés.

“Cognac, interestingly, pairs well with Chinese food. I will see how well it goes with Kenyan food,” Roch said.

Cognac, a type of brandy, is made from white grapes grown in the Charante region of France, and is named after the town of Cognac.

Because of the long process of ageing — most houses age their cognacs for twice the minimum required — it is priced higher than other brown spirits that take less time to make.

Cognac is produced by doubly (or more) distilling white wines produced in any of the designated growing regions.

Once distillation is complete, it is aged in Limousin oak casks. At this stage it is referred to as eau de vie. Master blenders then “taste” different eaux de vie and blend them to come up with the distinct blend. Representative samples of each blending are kept for at least a decade.

Alexandre Helaine, the market manager for Eastern Africa, said blending cognac is an art.

“Hennessy blenders are part of a committee that meets daily at 10am to taste the eaux de vie,” he said. The tasting is mostly done by nose, and very little is orally tasted.

“It takes 10 years to learn how to be a master blender, and we’re proud to have kept the Filloux family over the generations,” Helaine added.

Maurice says they are currently brewing what our grandchildren will drink in 20 to 50 years time.

Hennessy has the largest storehouse of cognac, with eaux de vie dating from 1800. It sells about 50 million bottles a year worldwide.

The name “cognac” was not affixed to the distilled wine until about 1783.

The French government developed rules for labelling, classifying the cognac by it smoothness.

  • V.S. (Very Superior) is aged at least two and one-half years.
  • V.S.O.P. (Very Superior Old Pale), or Reserve, is aged in wood at least four years.
  • X.O. (Extra Old, Napoleon, or Extra) is that which has been aged at least five years.

The age of the cognac is calculated as that of the youngest component used in the blend. 

Hennessy is also linked to music and art. Popular in a rather unusual genre for its kind of market, the drink is mentioned in several hip-hop songs including KC Tea (2010) by Tech N9ne, Hennessey (2004) by 2Pac, and Hennesey N Buddah (2000) by Snoop Dogg.

The cognac was notably mentioned in the chorus of the Drake single One Dance (2016).