The Case for a $38,500 Cognac
Transitioning a business from one generation to another is never easy—succession plans are one of the most important aspects of operating a family business. But what happens when the company is 250 years old and has been run by the same two families for seven generations? In the case of Hennessy, it means setting a succession plan in place years in advance and commemorating its first new master blender in 25 years with a $38,500 limited-edition cognac, Hennessy 8.
A New Master Blender
Richard Hennessy founded Jas Hennessy & Co. in 1765, and when it came time to pick a master blender for the House of Hennessy in the early 1800s, he turned to Jean Fillioux. More than 250 years since its founding, the Hennessy and Fillioux families are still deeply involved in the Cognac, France–based company, now part of luxury conglomerate LVMH. Hennessy’s most recent master blender, Yann Fillioux, is the seventh member of the Fillioux family to serve in that role. In March, the company announced an eighth member of the Fillioux family would be taking over the role when Yann Fillioux retires—his nephew, Renaud Fillioux de Gironde.
For a company with a history like Hennessy, the process of choosing a new master blender naturally took more than a few months. De Gironde was tapped to be one of the seven members on the Hennessy tasting committee more than 14 years ago, when the company first started considering him for the role. “I’ve been here not even 10 years, and it’s been the biggest issue from the very beginning—how do we prepare for the future?” Hennessy CEO Bernard Peillon says. “It’s only been a year and a half or so that we’ve feel comfortable enough to know that he has the passion, the commitment and has learned to be trusted with this. It’s not a perfect science, but we believe he has the talent to do this.”
De Gironde will spend the next several years apprenticing for his uncle, who will retire when he feels the time is right. “In a few months I will have been with Hennessy for 50 years, always in the tasting and blending field,” Fillioux says. “I’m still there because I think continuity is important. When you receive this heritage from previous generations, you must transmit it [to the future in] the best possible way.”
To commemorate the announcement and celebrate Hennessy’s 250 years in business, the company released a limited-edition blend called Hennessy 8. It’s a melding of eight eaux-de-vie—clear grape brandies that are aged and blended to make cognac, some more than 200 years old—and it pays tribute to the past generations of Fillioux family members who worked for the company. “Without their work we couldn’t make such a cognac,” de Gironde said at a February tasting of Hennessy 8. “Each eau de vie has a strong personality and great character. What is a challenge is how to make them play together.”
The blend, a collaborative effort between Fillioux and de Gironde, has a strong, mature fruit flavor but a surprising lightness with citrusy undertones. “It has a subtle elegance,” Fillioux says. “When you’ve tasted everything in the cognac field, what will still bring you emotion is elegance. Aging is simple—you just have to wait. It’s our job to reveal a blend’s elegance. You cannot create it if it’s not there.”
Although the cognac is special, the real appeal of Hennessy 8 is its appearance. Housed in a custom-designed Baccarat crystal carafe created by artist Arik Levy, the bottle and its case are striking. Each of the 250 Hennessy 8 that were made are signed and numbered by Levy. And with a €35,000 price tag (roughly $38,500 at the current exchange rate), the bottles are collectors’ items for true cognac fans. But the release of Hennessy 8 also means something more—a celebration of the past 250 years and the future of the business for the Hennessy and Fillioux families.
“The first thing I felt—and continue to feel—is the weight of responsibility,” Peillon says of joining a company with such a strong family legacy. “When you’re trusted with a company like Hennessy, you immediately get the sense that you have to be part of a continuum. It cannot be about you; it has to be about Hennessy. Time is quality; it takes time for eaux-de-vie to express their full potential. There are very few businesses where the idea of time is so present.”