Annual sales cognac: 67.2 million bottles (2013)
Buy wine/eaux-de-vie from: Grande Champagne, Petite Champagne, Borderies, Fins Bois
Vineyards of its own: 450 acres in Grande and Petite Champagne

 

You cannot write about cognac without writing about Hennessy. Along with names like Augier, Delamain and Martell the history of this house is an inseparable part of the history of cognac. Hennessy has over the past two centuries been one of the cognac world’s best known and valuable brands and is today the undisputed market leader thanks to its high product quality, its innovative capacity and, not least, the company’s ability to stay ahead of its competitors in the export markets.

 

P4

The first stone of this future empire was set by Richard Hennessy in 1765 when he together with some business partners formed the cognac house which his son James was to take full control of in 1813. When James, at the age of nineteen, starts working for his father, it is in a prosperous and successful business. The year is 1784 and the times are good for the eaux-de-vie from Charente. James is a quick learner and four years later he takes over the business after his elderly father.

Turbulent times in the form of revolution and war are waiting around the corner, but young James soon proves to be more fitted than most in navigating the stormy waters. The main market is the UK and business is good even during the revolution years. In 1795 James marries Marthe Martell, the daughter of Frédéric Gabriel Martell, the owner of the then most powerful cognac house, which strengthens James’ social position considerably. Neither before nor since has intermarriage between different cognac companies been a rarity in Cognac. On the contrary, this has historically been a common way of forming alliances in the industry.

With the Restoration in 1815 world trade opens up again and James immediately starts to invest in new warehouses and production facilities. With the help of his sons James Jr., Auguste and Frédéric, he also turns to the urgent task of building up a worldwide sales network. At the time of James’ death in 1842 Hennessy has already passed Martell in size and is now the market leader. With few interruptions, Hennessy has ever since maintained its leading position.

Hennessy’s first bottle label sees the light of day in 1856 and in the years that follow the company registers its brand name and logo. The labels allow the cognac companies to communicate directly with their customers and, also, in a better way than before, describe the product.

Hennessy remains a family business well into the 1900s. The house expands rapidly in the postwar period, but not even a company of this size can no longer cope with the competition from the growing number of multinational companies in the beverage industry. The more than two-hundred-year-old business remains in family hands until 1971 when Hennessy takes the big but necessary step to join forces with champagne giant Moët et Chandon. In a new merger in 1987 LVMH (Moët Hennessy – Louis Vuitton) is created, the world's largest company in the luxury segment.

Hennessy has contracts with well over 1,500 wine growers who deliver to some twenty major distilleries that the house works with. The house also has three distilleries of its own. Hennessy currently owns some 450 acres of vineyards in Grande and Petite Champagne. Besides this, the house also purchases eaux-de-vie from about seven hundred bouilleurs de cru. Hennessy only uses eaux-de-vie from the four major wine districts (nothing from Bons Bois and Bois à Terroirs).

 

P5La distillerie du Peu from 1962 is one of three distilleries owned by Hennessy.

Hennessy’s business rests on three pillars: the selection of eaux-de-vie, ageing and blending. Since the house produces and buys thousands of eaux-de-vie every year it is a huge and exacting work to assess them all. The responsibility for this rests with the members of the famous Tasting Committee (Le comité de dégustation). Since the year 1800, every weekday on the stroke of 11:00, the Committee meets to assess both new and in various stages matured eaux-de-vie and assemblages. The Committee consists of seven to eight members of different ages.

 

P6One of the committee members is Olivier Paultes who after 24 years as chief blender at Frapin was recruited to Hennessy in 2011. As Directeur des Distilleries et de la Communication du Savoir-Faire Eaux-de-Vie, he has a primary responsibility for the distillation, but he also leads the international ambassador team that travel the world to present the Hennessy range.

Hennessy has 40–45 cellars of a total capacity of more than 320,000 casks. The house purchases roughly 20,000 new casks a year, but the huge amount of casks must of course be maintained and repaired regularly. For this reason, Hennessy has its own repairing cooperage that repair about 12,500 casks a year.

Hennessy’s quality requirements for all of its cognacs are high. The VS is reduced gently in four intervals. The XO is a blend of high-quality eaux-de-vie matured for 12 to 30 years. “A real XO has to maintain high standards and should not taste like an old VSOP,” Olivier Paultes points out. For the exclusive cognacs even higher standards are set. Hennessy Paradis cognac for example, contains carefully selected eaux-de-vie between 30 and 130 years of age.

Hennessy is market leader by a wide margin and is almost as large as all other producers combined. 99.7% of the sales are exports (figure for 2013). If you count sales by volume, the US is the biggest market, while China is the biggest market if you count sales by value. The VS quality sells extremely well in the US (36 million bottles or 50–55 % of the total sales volume in 2013), while no VS whatsoever is sold in Asia. Other important and growing markets are Vietnam, Nigeria, India and the Caribbean.

This is an abridged version of a translation of pages 64–69 of the Swedish book Cognac – kungen av eau-de-vier (Cognac – the king of eaux-de-vie) © Stevali Production and Gunnar Svedberg, 2014.
© Gunnar Svedberg 2015-11-04

 

 

 

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