Who You Callin’ “Brandy”?
History, price, location and craftmanship elevate Cognac to something beyond its humble origins.
August 8, 2016
Yann Fillioux is getting ready to retire. His nephew, who has apprenticed for more than two decades, is set to step into the job.
Fillioux is about to pass on one of the hardest-to-get jobs in the world. He’s the outgoing master blender of the Hennessy cellars in France’s Cognac region. His nephew, Renaud Fillioux de Gironde, will become only the eighth master blender to oversee the production of the famous Hennessy brandy, which in 2014 eclipsed Jack Daniel’s Tennessee Whiskey as the most-enjoyed spirit in the world.
That’s eight master blenders since the time of Napoleon. To celebrate, Fillioux and his successor released a special cognac, Hennessy 8.
Each year, wine is made from grapes, then is distilled into eau de vie (“water of life.”) Each eau de vie is different. And, in Hennessy’s cellars, you can find eaux des vies that go back to the time of musketeers.
“[Fillioux is] actually the custodian of the work of his ancestors,” said Jean-Michel Cochet, Hennessy’s brand ambassador, on a recent trip to Edmonton. “When he’s in the cellar, he’s got this great eau de vie that’s been taken care of by his grandfather and before him his grandfather. It is your heritage, your family responsibility. When Yann Fillioux prepares the Paradis, he says, ‘Thank God that my predecessors have prepared the material for me.'”
EAU DE VIE
Brandy was born out of necessity; in the days when the sailing ship was the best way to export goods, wine presented lots of problems. It could go bad before it got to port, and the barrels took up a lot of space. So, the Dutch came up with the idea to distill the wine – taking out most of the water. It could be reconstituted when it arrived at its destination.
But, consumers realized that the brandewijn – Dutch for “burned wine” – was pretty darn good.
As brandy’s popularity spread, France’s wine exporters moved to control the market; since France was recognized as producing the world’s best wine, it should produce the best brandy. Distilleries still carry the names of their famous 18th-century founders, such as Rmy Martin and Richard Hennessy, an Irish military man who came to France to fight the English, then fell in love with the country and stayed.
The Rmy Martin distillery can trace its roots back to 1724, and its 1738 cognac, which sells for more than $100 a bottle, honours the year that King Louis XV recognized that brandy maker for the excellence of his work.
To be officially called a “cognac,” the brandy must come from the Cognac region of France, and be subject to rules about the type of grapes that are used. (Ugni Blanc is the No. 1 cognac grape.)
But don’t assume that all cognac is snooty; the top distillers target a variety of price points. For example, an ounce of Hennessy Richard will cost $195 at the Fairmont Hotel Macdonald. But there are bottles that can be found for less than $70 each at Alberta liquor retailers.
Sage and Raspberry Refresher
Courtesy Antosh Shetty, Fairmont Hotel Macdonald
2 oz. Rmy Martin VSOP cognac
1.5 oz. lapsang souchong tea
2 oz. fresh raspberry puree
1 sprig of sage
0.5 oz. lemon juice
0.5 oz. simple syrup
Peeled and sliced orange
In a cocktail shaker, add all the ingredients, except the orange and the lemon peel, and shake vigorously. Strain the drink and pour over ice in a highball glass. Peel half an orange, cut it into three cubes and insert in the drink with bamboo flagsticks. Garnish with lemon peel and serve.