There's an unlikely Irish connection to the world's most consumed cognac. In 1745, Richard Hennessy, an Irishman from Cork, decided to leave his homeland and join the army of Louis XV of France to fight, of course, against the British. Leaving the army a few years later, he eventually settled in the Cognac region and set up an eau de vie trading business by 1765.
Two hundred and fifty years later, Hennessy is now the world's third most valuable spirit brand by retail value.
To celebrate its 250th, the brand has launched the 250 Tour, a round-the-world showcase launching a new limited edition bottling, the Hennessy 250 Collector Blend. 51698009 was invited to a degustation with the Hennessy 250 presented by Renaud de Gironde, a professional taster for Hennessy and a member of its elite Tasting Committee.
Hennessy's exceptional rise over the last three decades has come at a time of mixed fortunes for the cognac industry. The growth of markets such as China and the US has helped to revive interest in the category. But it has also taken a beating in what were once strong markets across Europe and the UK, where whisky has sustained a long march in the spotlight.
Cognac down under
In Australia too, cognac has never really found a receptive audience. Renaud de Gironde, the nephew of Yann Fillioux, the seventh-generation master blender for Hennessy, has an understanding of the Australian market after studying for a Master of Wine at the University of Adelaide.
He has seen Australia's food and drinks culture evolve rapidly and believes cognac has a real opportunity to develop a presence here. "It's been amazing to see how Australia's palate has changed since I first came here. Even the development of the Australian beer industry shows me that people are now interested in quality," he says.
The humble but passionate de Gironde is an appropriate ambassador for Hennessy. As we taste the Hennessy XO and 250 next to four specifically paired courses, each revealing multiple layers in the cognacs, he tells us of his love for food and flavour. "I love to find unique and interesting flavours in everything. I'm not a great cook, but I love to go down to the markets, get great fresh produce and cook it simply and well. Being dedicated to analysing flavours means you look for something different all the time."
His approach is refreshing. Too often we see cognac put on a pedestal as an out-of-reach, super-premium product, an image that even Maurice Hennessy - the brand's global ambassador - is on the record as expressing reservations about.
The Big Four cognac houses – Hennessy, Rémy Martin, Martell and Courvoisier – dominate the category, accounting for the vast majority of sales, in the process doing little to make cognac easier to decode. The problem is no more apparent than on the spirit's own doorstep. French consumption of cognac has been in decline for decades, and French sales now account for less than 2.5 per cent of the world market.
With the government of China waging a continuing campaign of austerity on luxury spending – cognac's second-largest market – and craft spirits booming, it's an uncertain time for France's most aristocratic spirit.
When asked about how Hennessy should respond to some of these challenges, de Gironde explains that cognac has been through immense difficulties in the past but has always found ways to move forward.
"The industry is evolving quite rapidly. What will be the form of the industry tomorrow? I don't know, exactly. But I do know that we'll make every effort to ensure that continuity and quality will remain at the heart of what we do," he says.
Keepin' it real
In spite of its long history and perceived luxury status, Hennessy proved surprisingly agile in embracing pop culture when American rappers such as Dr Dre, Eminem and Busta Rhymes began referencing the drink as a status symbol. "We moved on that before anyone else did, and attracted a completely new consumer to brand," de Gironde says.
The US is now the largest cognac market in the world, with the reach of such acts playing a significant role in under 35s taking an interest in the category.
What about the Australian market? Spirits bars, particularly whisky, are opening up all over the place, but no such bar exists for cognac or brandy. How should we approach one of the world's most complex and fascinating spirits?
"What I'd love to see is for people to have the curiosity to discover what cognac is and see how dynamic it is, and to try the product for themselves and make their own opinion," de Gironde advises. "Don't listen to what people tell you to drink."