The Secret: How Hennessy’s Elite Tasters Select Cognac Worthy of $2.8K Bottle
Originally published in Real Clear Life.
There are sippable brandies — and then there are the kinds of cognac that sell for thousands of dollars and send rappers into rhapsodies.
Hennessy inspires a particular kind of fandom among collectors and casual drinkers alike, who will shell out for limited edition bottles like the Paradis Imperial ($2,800).
So what goes into determining such a coveted spirit? A palate that’s forged over a lifetime of preparation and a lot of tasting of cognac samples.
Olivier Paultes is a member of the famed Hennessy tasting committee. He reveals some of the hard work that goes into crafting cognacs.
It helps to have Cognac in your blood.
Born and raised in Cognac, Paultes says that when he was as young as 10, he helped with the grape harvest to make pocket change. As a teenager, he got firsthand lessons in making spirits.
“When you are 14, 15, you have a lot of friends who have parents who own distilleries,” Paultes explains. “Distillery work is 24 hours a day. Sometimes, the parents go out to dinner or to see their friends. We sleep in the distillery and we learn how to distill.
“Here begins the passion for distillation and for good product,” he adds.
The product of a grandfather and a great-grandfather who were also master blenders, Paultes became France’s youngest master blender at the age of 25. He held that title with Cognac Frapin for 25 years. Soon after leaving the company, he was approached by Hennessy to join their famed tasting committee.
A place on the tasting committee is treated as an honor, not a job.
Hennessy’s tasting committee is a six-member team, headed by Hennessy’s seventh generation master blender Yann Fillioux, that meets every day at 11 o’clock.
The two newest committee members, which includes Hennessy’s first female member, are only allowed to observe during tastings… for a decade. They joined the committee last year.
“They need ten years to learn, so it’s forbidden for them to talk,” Paultes says simply.
On a typical day, the committee will taste between 50 to 70 samples, but sometimes it can be as many as 100.
Of the 10,000 samples the committee tastes each year, only 10 on average have the potential to be blended into Paradis Imperial.
While on the lookout for stars for Paradis Imperial, they are also tasting for liquids that will be blended in the full range of the Hennessy portfolio, from the $200 V.S. blend on up.
“Not every eau de vie has the potential to age 50 or 60 years,” Paultes says. “It’s like wine. Some wines are good when they are young, and some are good when they are old and mature.”
Tasting happens in a room no one else is allowed in.
Sacred at Hennessy, the tasting room is only accessible to the six committee members and to two people entrusted to set up the room with samples. No other employee is ever allowed in.
“Some people have perfume,” Paultes explains. “It’s forbidden to use perfume on the tasting committee because it disturbs the tasting.”
The room itself is very quiet. Paultes describes it as “an old room with old chairs, all leather.”
“You feel something special, like eight generations of master blenders and tasting committees. You have all the past in the room.”
They will spit during tasting but not eat until the tasting is over.
Paultes will have two coffees in the morning, but will not eat breakfast. He does brush his teeth in the morning, while some other members don’t.
Tastings are conducted in the morning because that’s when one’s palate is most pure.
Only water is provided during the tasting, which is always followed by a large lunch.
Tasting is not just… tasting.
“It’s like food,” he says. “If you have very good oysters and very good chocolate, and you blend them, you can imagine it’s not very good.”
“Just because you have two very good eau de vie, you can’t blend them. Only the experienced can do this.”
Paultes offers this example for understanding how the committee looks for elements for blending: “Imagine an orchestra with 100 musicians. Imagine you have no conductor. It’s impossible to listen.”
“It’s the same with the master blender with one hundred eau de vie.” A master blender is, in short, looking to create harmony out of multiple different players.
Just because a spirit is old, doesn’t mean it’s good.
“Many people compare wine with cognac, and many people think the older it is, the better it is,” Paultes says.
“When we see the evolution of the eau de vie, there is a moment when it reaches a point of elegance. It can be after 30 years. It can be after 40 years. Each eau de vie has a different change.”
It’s the tasting committee’s job to gauge when an eau de vie can still age in wood, or it’s reached its best expression and it should be taken out of casks to stop aging. If the wait is too long, there is the danger of yielding unusable liquid.
When you find a star liquid, you know it.
New eau de vie will smell of fresh white flowers. By contrast, something that’s been aged for 50 years will have spicy aromas like pepper, chocolate and cloves.
As for Paradis Imperial, its characteristics include hints of orange blossom and jasmine and touches of oak and apricot.
Coming across something worthy of a $2,800 cognac is rare but memorable.
“It’s a great moment,” he says. “Cognac must be fine and elegant. You have to smell the concentration of the wine. You have a lot of aromas of flowers.”