A star Hennessy rep helps introduce a $39,000 cognac to California—and the world.
By Otis Conklin | Photos by Manny Espinoza
Oscar Schindler used Hennessy as a bribe to save lives during World War II. When Barack Obama was elected 44th president of the United States, it was Hennessy who made the official limited-edition bottle to mark the occasion. Bruce Lee drank it when he wasn’t distributing beat downs as Cheng in The Big Boss. For good measure it stars in smash hit “The Humpty Dance” and roughly 2.3 million other hip-hop anthems.
But none of these would be the best way to understand and experience it.
That was with a tasting that happened earlier this year in Saratoga. Two major reasons account for that magic.
Number one, the restaurant that hosted the tasting was Michelin-starred destination Plumed Horse, the epicurean playground of one Peter Armellino. His prowess was in full play, starting with a stunner of a starter: an airy Parmesan-black pepper soufflé designed to be dunked in an incredible Dungeness crab-sea urchin uni fondue. From there it was sublime California white sturgeon with smoked eggplant, unreal roast filet with cauliflower “grenobloise” and burnt onion jus and Valrhona chocolate ganache with white chocolate namelaka, port-soaked currant and cassis foam, all paired with Hennessy cognacs that had even more layers of flavor to explore.
Number two, Hennessy and Dom Perignon Private Client Director Sten Lilja led the guided pairing, piloting a deep dive into the history and spine-tingling complexities of the planet’s biggest and best cognac brand.
Lilja came to Hennessy after seven years repping Louis XIV and more than a decade in beverage consulting and brand management, and time spent debuting some of New York City’s hottest clubs, including 1 Oak and Bungalow 8.
“I take a lot of pride in my job,” he says. “It’s amazing to expose people to new things, to open their minds and palates to cognac, to different complexities, aromas, to pairing with food and explain how that works—I’ve always been on this quest help people taste with their mouths, not what they see or see other people drinking because it’s cool. I want them to drink and eat from a real place.”
As he gave his talk, a striking—and exceedingly rare—bottle of Hennessy stood watch from a nearby table.
It represents one of the last cognacs Yann Fillioux, the seventh generation of his family to serve as master blender for the House of Hennessy, will create. That means the eighth generation of the Fillioux family (Yann’s nephew, Renaud Fillioux de Gironde) is set to take on his uncle’s rather epic responsibility. Yann and company celebrate the event with the $39,000 Hennessy 8, a blend of eight carefully selected eaux-de-vie. The outside of the bottle is as beautiful as the nectar inside: One of only 250 Baccarat decanters by famed industrial designer Arik Levy, it is an elaborate tower of metal and wood fashioned from barrel staves that looks like a small monument.
With Hennessy 8 in mind, Shakers threw two sets of eight questions at Lilja.
What is most humbling about working with something so carefully crafted and aged?
Knowing that each of the Fillioux Master Blenders—spanning over 250 years and eight generations of savoir fare—are represented in this blend.
What would surprise people most about the Fillioux family?
Their dedication. Our current cellar master, Yann Fillioux, has been the master blender for Hennessy for over 50 years.
How has your role as part of such a time-honored company changed your outlook on life—and luxury?
I have a much greater understanding for the history, heritage, and care that goes into creating and maintaining a luxury brand over time.
What’s most empowering about improving your palate?
Your palate is like any other muscle in your body. The more you concentrate on it the better it works. All it takes is a short moment of focus every time you experience something.
What’s hardest for everyday drinkers to understand about something like Hennessy 8?
It is the savior fare of Hennessy 8, consisting of a blend that represents over 250 years of Hennessy history and heritage.
What’s your favorite obscure fact about Hennessy?
Hennessy was the only medicinal cognac prescribed during Prohibition.
Greatest aha moment you’ve had while drinking cognac?
Creating a tasting method which not only allowed me, but others as well to explore deeper into the vast array of flavors, textures and aromas [that] cognac offers.
Speed round—of another 8! Very short and simple answers are this idea. What’s your favorite place to drink cognac?
Not just after dinner.
Favorite toast to give?
The toast is the tasting experience. The final words before the celebratory sip are catered around the evening, attending guests, and the host. So it’s constantly changing.
Weirdest cocktail craving?
I often get a bit too creative with cognac infusions and old-fashioned cognac variations.
Life philosophy that has served you best in the spirits industry?
There is no reason to speak poorly about another brand or person. You never know who you will end up working for or with in the future.
Favorite quote on drinking?
“There cannot be good living where there is not good drinking.” Benjamin Franklin.
When do you feel most alive on the job?
During the experience of taking guests through a tasting.
What’s the most under-appreciated aspect about Hennessy?
That even though Hennessy is the largest cognac house in the world, each cognac is still carefully crafted by families with generations of expertise.
Favorite Hennessy pop culture reference?
There are too many to list. Hennessy as maintained if not increased its pop culture presence for over 3 decades.
More at hennessy.com