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A Life Spent in the Service of Cognac

Hennessy master taster Renaud de Gironde reveals the passion and commitment behind the label.

Published: April 16, 2014 (Issue # 1806)



  • Hennessy brand ambassador and master taster, Renaud de Gironde.
    Photo: for SPT

Like many things in Russia, drinking cognac is not as straightforward as it first appears. For starters, you could be drinking cognac, or find yourself drinking konyak. While both are popular alcoholic drinks enjoyed across the country, the differences between the two go much further than just the spelling.

Konyak is a general name for brandy in Russia, with the country having the legal rights to sell under the same name. Armenian brandy, Ararat, or Armenian konyak as it is known in Russia, was especially popular during the Soviet era. Even Winston Churchill was a rumored fan with claims that he requested Josef Stalin to send him cases every year after tasting the tipple during the Yalta conference in 1945. In fact, Russian President Vladimir Putin repeated a similar gesture last year, giving British Prime Minister David Cameron a bottle of the same Armenian brandy Stalin supposedly gifted Churchill. While konyaks popularity in Russia could be attributed to its lower price point, it is more widely known for its questionable ingredients, with the media regularly reporting police seizures of counterfeit bottles around the country.

Cognac, on the other hand, has stricter production rules. Not only must it be produced from the vineyards surrounding the French town of Cognac, the spirit must be distilled twice and aged for at least two years to carry the cognac appellation. It also has a trendier fan base with its praises sung by rappers such as Busta Rhymes, Kanye West and Snoop Dogg. While rapping royalty may have helped catapult both the popularity and sale of cognac in recent times, praises for the brandy were sung long ago, especially in Russia for one particular brand.

According to archives by cognac brand Hennessy, in 1818 Empress Maria Federovna asked cognac distillery Maison Hennessy to produce an exceptional cognac as a birthday present for her son Tsar Alexander I, after which point, the royal family continued making regular orders.

Now, almost 200 years later, Hennessy brand ambassador Renaud de Gironde has arrived in St. Petersburg for the first time on a whirlwind press tour, launching a collectors edition of the distillerys Hennessy X.O. in a bottle by Tom Dixon at the Four Seasons Lion Palace hotel. If living in Cognac, France, surrounded by vineyards and being a descendant of the Fillioux family, master blenders for seven generations, wasnt enviable enough, de Gironde also holds the coveted title of being one of Hennessys few master tasters. Thats right, de Girondes is paid to taste some of the worlds best cognac every day.

We believe that you need ten years of daily practice to be a good professional Hennessy taster, says de Gironde. Practice means that every day, except when I am travelling, I spend about an hour to an hour and a half tasting our various eaux de vie. Every morning, every day of the year.

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ALL ABOUT TOWN

Saturday, Aug. 30


Break out the tweed and channel your inner Englishman during the English Hunt Picnic this afternoon organized by the Bagmut stables from Krasny Bor in the Leningrad Oblast. Equestrian stunts, English archery and classic hunting fashion will all be available to visitors hoping to live like the characters in Downton Abbey if only for a day. Tickets for the event cost 7,900 rubles ($219.40).


Bookworms will have their chance to swap out well-read classics for something new for their bookshelves at Knigovorot, a free book exchange that will be held in the Yusupov Garden on Sadovaya Ulitsa today. Come for the chance to get a new book or take the opportunity to discuss the literary merits of your favorite authors with fellow fans.



Sunday, Aug. 31


The Neva Delta International Blues Festival wraps up this afternoon on Vasilevsky Island with a concert featuring not only some of Russias best blues bands but international stars as well. Admission is free for all three days of the festival, which begins on Aug. 29, and the shows starting at 5 p.m. each day.



Monday, Sept. 1


Today marks the beginning of Lermontov-Fest, a fall festival celebrating the life of one of Russias most remarkable poets who, in a fate eerily similar to Pushkins, was killed in a duel at the age of 26. Organized by the Lermontov Library System, the next several months will see art exhibitions, concerts and public lectures focusing on the Lermontovs short yet prolific career. Check the Lermontov Library Systems website for more details.



Tuesday, Sept. 2


Join expats and practice your Russian during the Russian Clubs weekly meetings every Tuesday night at 7:30 p.m. The club is free to participate in although you need to be a registered member of Couchsurfing.



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