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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 konyak’s 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 collector’s edition of the distillery’s 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, wasn’t enviable enough, de Gironde also holds the coveted title of being one of Hennessy’s few master tasters. That’s right, de Gironde’s is paid to taste some of the world’s 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, Oct. 25


AVA Expo, the eighth edition of the event revolving around all things pop, returns to Lenexpo this weekend. Geeks, nerds, dweebs and dorks will have their chance to talk science fiction and explore a variety of international pop culture. Tickets for the event can be purchased on their website at avaexpo.ru.



Sunday, Oct. 26


Zenit St. Petersburg returns home for the first time in nearly a month as they host Mordovia Saransk in a Russian Premier League game. Currently at the top of the league thanks to their undefeated start to the season, the northern club hopes to extend the gap between them and second-place CSKA Moscow and win the title for the first time in three years. Tickets are available at the stadium box office or on the club’s website.



Monday, Oct. 27


Today marks the end of the art exhibit “Neophobia” at the Erarta Museum. Artists Alexey Semichov and Andrei Kuzmin took a neo-modernist approach to represent the array of fears that are ever-present throughout our lives. Tickets are 200 rubles ($4.90).



Tuesday, Oct. 28


The Domina Prestige St. Petersburg hotel plays host to SPIBA’s Marketing and Communications Committee’s round table discussion on “Government Relations Practices in Russia” this morning. The discussion starts at 9:30 a.m. and participation must be confirmed by Oct. 24.



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