Full disclosure: my trip to France to visit Hennessy was part of a press tour for The Globe and Mail financed by LVMH.
Barrels of Hennessy eau de vie.
I am in the most important room in the Hennessy cognac empire. Their inner sanctum. Their Holy of Holies.
The Founder’s Cellar is a dark room, illuminated only by a few spot lights. To help protect its precious artefacts. The air is filled with a delicious smell of fermented fruit, a familiar smell for wine-makers. All around me, in oak barrels big enough to sit in, lies Hennessy’s treasure: their finest eau de vie. This is their magic elixir, the distilled wine spirit that is blended to create Hennessy’s cognacs. Nothing here is younger than fifty years, some stretching back to 1800. Before the phylloxera bug wiped out all but a few vineyards across Europe. Before the telephone. Before the typewriter.
These barrels contain the eau de vie that previous generations of master blenders identified as special. So special they are kept here to age and mature even longer than most that go into making Hennessy’s cognacs. Here they will rest and through evaporation slowly give up their “angel’s share,” up to 90% of their volume every hundred years. As the spirit evaporates, it leaves behind a more concentrated, richer liquid. And once it reaches its pinnacle—it is evaluated regularly by the Hennessy tasting committee—it is transferred to glass demijohns where it will sit still longer, sealed tight against too much oxidation. Here it will lay and wait to be blended in “prestige” cognacs.
This room is a testament to patience and time. All of these spirits could have been blended over the decades to make remarkable cognacs. But previous generations knew, their tastes heightened to almost superhuman levels, that left to mature and age, these eaux de vie would become transcendental. But they also knew that they would never taste these cognacs.
Imagine if your life’s work was something you’d never see come to its fruition?
Eaux de vie in statis in glass demijohns.
We are by nature impatient. We want results as soon as possible. Perhaps we are willing to wait a few hours, a few days, maybe a few weeks. But not months. And certainly not years. In another era, however, people were willing to wait lifetimes. And not just cognac makers, of course. People like stonemasons, working on cathedrals, spending their entire lives adorning buildings that would not be complete until long after they was dead. They would have to abandon some sense of self, certainly some sense of time. Not to mentioned the modern preoccupation that their lifetime mattered above all other lifetimes. They were but one small part, one tiny piece of a greater whole.
I am not religious and I am not a big cognac drinker. But I am deeply fascinated, deeply drawn to the thought of those who see their lives as one chapter in a much bigger story. For me, that story is not the glory of a God or a great tipple, but the ability of people. Human endurance, creativity and supreme craftsmanship. And above all else, selflessness and patience.