Bernard Peillon, chairman and CEO of Hennessy, on unveiling the stunning new crystal decanter of Hennessy Paradis Imperial, the maison’s jewel in the crown, as well as a precious bespoke travel trunk produced in collaboration with Louis Vuitton, amid magic and modernity in China’s most dynamic city
(March 4): In today’s fast-paced world, when time seems to move faster than usual and age-old traditions are continuously being swept aside by unrelenting tidal waves of technology and innovation, it is heartening to know that sturdy, relevant bridges still exist between the past and the present. After all, as appealing as the idea of artificial intelligence, data and tech is in the quest for a modern-day utopia, it would be a tragedy indeed when the future forgets to honour the past.
It was, therefore, a great pleasure recently to embark on a journey that melded the two worlds so beautifully. Hosted by Bernard Peillon, chairman and CEO of celebrated cognac maison Hennessy, a cherry-picked coterie of guests and international media travelled to Shanghai to discover two exceptional creations released in celebration of what is termed the jewel in Hennessy’s crown collection of cognacs, the Hennessy Paradis Imperial — a new crystal decanter designed by the celebrated artist and designer Arik Levy and a bespoke Hennessy travel trunk produced in collaboration with Louis Vuitton.
Cognac has always been loved by the people of the Middle Kingdom, where it is perceived as a luxury beverage and status symbol. It was reported that China imported no less than 26.2 million bottles of cognac last year — which were doubtlessly exchanged as gifts (particularly among the business elite), opened and enjoyed at important occasions and even occupied choice spots in living spaces, displayed much the way a prized vase would. Thus, the choice of China’s most dynamic city as the venue for the unveiling of Hennessy Paradis Imperial’s new decanter came as no surprise.
Shanghai’s skyline may change dramatically with each passing year, but the city’s openness to the world and zeal in embracing innovation have never been in question. And it also has its roots embedded in a glorious past — a past that enjoys storied links with the maison, for it was in this very city, 160 years ago, that the first shipment of Hennessy cognac arrived in China. “As a young man, I lived in New York City,” says Peillon. “As a European, a Frenchman, if you had to go to only one city then, it would be New York… because of the energy levels, the feeling that anything is possible. But now, Shanghai is this city — the city of the future. It is the most dynamic, cosmopolitan city in the world and, yet, there is also this idea that it represents a bridge between the past and the future. China is also a very large market for Hennessy and this is to honour and signify to our friends here that if we have to do something, China is clearly at the top of our list. Also 160 years on, I thought this occasion would be a beautiful reason to come back to Shanghai.”
For such a grand event, it was imperative that the venue reflected the occasion, and the choice of the new Kerry Hill-designed Amanyangyun resort in the city’s Minhang district proved to be the right one. Set amid a relocated camphor forest and bamboo groves, the resort is made up of Ming and Qing Dynasty houses interspersed with 21st-century courtyard dwellings that typify Aman’s famously minimalist style. “At Hennessy, the past, present and future are deeply interconnected,” says Peillon. “All projects, products or collaborations with artists and designers have a historic dimension with a vision of the future.”
Accompanied by Hennessy’s recently appointed eighth-generation master blender, Renaud Fillioux de Gironde, and with Levy in attendance, Peillon and his team unveiled the two new creations at a specially constructed pavilion. The first, Levy’s stunning interpretation of Hennessy Paradis Imperial’s decanter — its first since the blend was created 10 years ago by the legendary Yann Fillioux, the seventh in an unbroken line of the cognac house’s master blenders for more than two centuries — could best be likened to a visual masterpiece, a contemporary jewel — all flawless facets set off by curvilinear beauty.
Levy, a long-time collaborator and friend of the maison, seemed pleased with the final result. “I’ve been working with Hennessy for over 10 years and we’ve created many different, fantastic projects — all of them a special journey. Not only did I learn how to drink cognac... I didn’t know before as I’m just a surfer,” the world-famous designer let slip self-deprecatingly. “But the first time I tried Hennessy Paradis Imperial, I was struck by the beauty, the experience, the knowledge hidden within, the elegance and how contemporary it was. These words, these impressions were the starting block for me… The challenge was how to bring the carafe, the decanter, to the same level as the Paradis Imperial.”
The inspiration behind this exceptional spirit was, in fact, based upon the original order placed in 1818 by the Russian Imperial Court to the first Hennessy master blender, Jean Fillioux. Seven generations later, Yann Fillioux paid the ultimate tribute to his ancestor by creating Hennessy Paradis Imperial. Given the pedi-gree of its provenance, only an average of 10 eaux de vie out of 10,000 are deemed elegant enough to make the grade for Hennessy Paradis Imperial. Each eau de vie is then raised to reach its “point of elegance” before the master blender deems it suitable to be part of Hennessy Paradis Imperial.
Levy’s decanter, on which he worked closely with a team of master crystal cutters, is a poetic paradox of curvature and tension, with facets that capture as well as release light — all of which serve to enhance the liquid amber within. “We love to use the word ‘craft’, but what we are showing here is a fusion between craft and science, for craft alone cannot do it, and vice versa,” says the designer.
“This is also where emotion, or what I call ‘emotional ergonomics’, comes into play to bridge hand and machine, computing and feeling, between closing your eyes and feeling a form and being able to remember the taste. And this is how this handcrafted decanter, with its engineering, its cutting, its light-deflection and reflection, comes alive once you have it in your hand. As an artist and designer, I am bound to deliver the truth and the precision of every act I am doing. There is no one line that should not be there, and there came that moment when you cannot add or subtract anything from the creation.”
Peillon concurs: “The lines speak of tension, the way light reflects and magnifies the beauty of the blend and elevates the pleasure of enjoyment. To arrive at this level of dialogue is what the artist requires. This is the ultimate expression of who we are and what we create.
“Just like Shanghai represents a bridge between past and present, tradition and innovation, Hennessy Paradis Imperial is a blend of absolute modernity, born of a respect for a heritage and a savoir faire that has spanned 200 years and eight generations of master blenders. And regarding the decision to reinterpret the carafe, I felt we needed to continue to elevate the way we introduce and represent ourselves… to get closer to perfection.”
The second was the unveiling of a bespoke travel trunk designed to hold four magnums of Hennessy Paradis Imperial, created by Louis Vuitton’s master craftsmen in its Paris ateliers. “We are part of the same group, of course,” sayd Peillon, referring to luxury goods conglomerate Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton (LVMH).
“But this [collaboration] is not by chance. We, the two maisons, also share the same values: of honouring craftsmanship, of refinement, attention to detail, excellence and creativity as well as of [honouring] two families — the Vuittons and the Hennessys, both travelling the world to expand, both visionaries.”
Present + future
For a maison built on founder Richard Hennessy’s spirit of conquest, Peillon likewise continues to lead the house to expanded presence and success — in more than 130 countries and counting. A consummate professional of the wines and spirits industry, the highly affable 63-year-old began his career in Bordeaux in 1979 and has clo cked up four decades in the business, working for a score of champagne houses, including Ruinart and Moët & Chandon, before taking up the top position in Hennessy in 2007. “Since the beginning of my career, I have always been in the field,” he says. “I greatly appreciate having first-hand experience of how things work in the markets and to understand motivations and expectations of the different people I encounter. The most important lessons I’ve learnt since then? Humility, curiosity and to never take anything for granted!”
Peillon also stays true to his personal modus operandi of being always “15 minutes ahead of the times”, a philosophy inculcated in him by Comte Robert-Jean de Vogue of Moët & Chandon, where he previously worked. “Cognac has seen fantastic growth,” says Peillon. “But it remains niche in comparison with spirits that do not have supply constraints such as whisky and rum. The challenge is to find a good balance between preserving singularities specific to cognac in order to highlight its excellence and its provenance from wine as well as staying in tune with consumer tastes and expectations.”
Besides the expectations of the consumer, Peillon also chose, interestingly, to pay particular attention to key partners and allies during this trip where three influential winegrowers and distillers from the Cognac region, all of whom supply to Hennessy, were invited as his guests to accompany the Hennessy delegation to Shanghai and see first-hand the impact of Hennessy on the Chinese market and the role it plays in culture and tradition.
“What is important, besides showing them how strong and well appreciated Hennessy is in China, is to see the competition, the field and environment in which we present ourselves,” he explains.
“We have this expression from our work — it is not a very nice one, I think — called ‘a share of the throat’, which explains the limit of a customer. For example, if you go to a bar and order a drink, you are not going to order a cognac, a gin, a scotch, a wine and a bottle of champagne. The consumer will have to choose. Being based in Cognac, you might not necessarily realise this and, if you don’t come to the field, it will not be obvious that you enter into competition with all these categories as well [as other cognac brands]. And how the consumer eventually arrives at this decision is based on several tangible elements, chief of which is price. It’s a battlefield [out there].”
From the macro-standpoint, Peillon shares that Hennessy’s two largest markets remain the US and China, although “our strategy for many years has also been to be attentive and to further develop all regions worldwide as many other developing markets are flourishing, such as Mexico, the Caribbean, South Africa, Nigeria, Cambodia and Malaysia, among others”. To avoid the pitfalls of complacency, he cautions, “Always look ahead. It is like climbing a mountain. Being on top allows you to see what else there is to conquer. And you need to stay curious and in tune with your time. It is important to know how to connect with today’s era and its constantly evolving challenges and tastes.”
Prior to the unveiling of the decanter and Louis Vuitton trunk, a special performance was organised to help prime the guests’ senses as to the raison d’être and working philosophy of the maison. To put things in a visual context, Paris-based Zen Japanese dancer Miyoko Shida Rigolo was specially flown in to perform an exquisite, almost-hypnotic dance using only the withered ribs and fronds of date and coconut palms as well as her immense sense of control and precise physical movement to convey beauty, harmony and balance — the same qualities embodied in each glass of Hennessy.
Beginning with a single feather, a ballet of balance began, where bone-like fronds magnified a dance sequence that was at once mystical as it was magical, like watching a shamanistic ritual or perhaps a primal dance — raw, powerful and totally enrapturing. As Miyoko continued to balance frond after frond, all the while never letting the feather float away, I felt almost as if I was watching a Hennessy master blender gradually tending to and raising his barrels of precious eaux de vie to the same points of elegance as the dancer and her feather. In a way, this performance also elo-quently expressed the cognac house’s belief that all things in life are, somehow, interconnected and how these connections are as important as they are fragile.
This was followed by a four-hands dining experience, created by Amanyangyun executive chef Fred Shi and Jerome Tauvron of Blanche, chef-owner of one of the historic French Concession’s most exciting contemporary restaurants, in a specially constructed lakeside pavilion on the resort grounds. Both chefs worked in tandem with their teams to prepare a feast worthy of the occasion, which included luxurious ingredients such as sea urchins, black truffles and matsutake mushrooms, but served in a contemporary style.
As the night wore on and after more sips of the liquid gold, Peillon shared the memory of a particularly profound moment: “Symbolically, since we are here for Hennessy Paradis Imperial, I had given carte blanche to the former Hennessy master blender, Yann Fillioux, to create a cognac of absolute elegance according to his own vision. When he asked me to taste Hennessy Paradis Imperial for the first time in the Grand Tasting Room, it was only the two of us. The first tasting gave me the unforgettable feeling of a dream come true.” I had to agree. Ensconced in exquisite surroundings, regaled by convivial company and with more than a glass of Hennessy Paradis Imperial in hand, any dream, no matter how sweet, would be hard-pressed to beat our reality that night.
Diana Khoo is editor of the Options desk at The Edge Malaysia
This article appeared in Issue 871 (Mar 4) of The Edge Singapore.