Behind the Bar Stick People

Talking Cognac with Hennessy's Oliver Paultes

Oliver Paultes

The making of cognac has long been tasked to elder statesmen. So when Olivier Paultes was named master blender of Frapin at just 25 years old, it took the industry by surprise. Two decades later, when he joined the most prestigious tasting panel in France, Hennessy’s Comité de Dégustation, nary an eye was batted. His legacy had already been secured. As director of the distilleries for the world’s largest cognac brand, Olivier is now one of those esteemed personalities in need of no surname, joining other noted eau-de-vie enthusiasts, such as Nas and Beyoncé.

But he’s not letting his ego get the best of him. Fresh off the heels of Hennessy’s newest American release, Master Blender’s Selection No2, the soft-spoken craftsman talks about the future of a notoriously traditional category.

Although big booze brands have struggled for years to maintain consistency across their core lineup, it turns out that connoisseurs, more than ever, are valuing the singular nuance that separates one matured cask from the next. Whiskey makers are more than happy to satisfy this growing demand. After all, it requires less work on their part. They can just omit the tedious task of blending, send an individual barrel to bottle, slap a different label on it and call it a special release.

Cognac makers are not so lucky. Producing their spirit requires a complex blend of eaux-de-vie, sometimes sourced from several distilleries, aged in various subregions, with the distillate often transferring between barrels during the maturation. In short: Don’t expect to see a single-barrel cognac any time soon. Recognizing that the American markets were thirsty for something individualized, Paultes was instrumental in steering Hennessy toward a creative workaround.

“With V.S., V.S.O.P. and X.O., the tasting committee has to produce liquid with exactly the same consistency,” he says. “With the Master Blender [series], you’ll never find it again in the market. That’s the point.”

The initial release debuted in autumn 2016 as a commemoration of the brand’s longstanding history with the United States, its very first export market. Although it was the brainchild of Yann Fillioux—Hennessy’s seventh-generation master blender, who subsequently retired—it took the push of a younger, more experimental mindset to fight for it as a continued release.

Oliver Paultes.

Enter Paultes. Comparisons to orchestral music are constant in cognac. And while an X.O. is an exquisite composition of classical symphony, Paultes views the Master Blender series as improvisational jazz.

“Every year, we have to taste about 10,000 samples,” Paultes says of his tasting committee obligations. “We make an inventory for stock, and we have to see the evolution year after year.” During that process, he regularly encounters eau-de-vie with characteristics primed for individual expression. Nonetheless, they must be blended down to fit time-honored flavor profiles. To allow these notes to exist independently would seem like a sensible departure. All it required was a break from 250 years of tradition.

“We decided to make a blend of these eaux-de-vie at a specific point of elegance,” he says. For the second release, they all happened to blossom in one particular grape-growing region. “It’s a really interesting product because it’s all from Petite Champagne. You get a lot of fine and elegant aromas. We discovered them last year. They carried enough elegance on their own that they were befitting of their own special blend.”

And they were ready, then. “It’s like wine. In Bordeaux, for example, some are good young; some need 20 to 30 years to age. This is exactly the same with eaux-de-vie. Sometimes they only have so much potential to age.”

Cognac is rightfully guarded of its heritage. The region has long been synonymous with premium spirits of the world. But to compete in an era of rapid innovation, the category must make some concessions to modernism.

Although he has now been in the game for 30 years, Paultes retains an experimental exuberance. “You will never have another blend like this,” he says of the newest Master Blender release. Whereas generations of cognac makers before him would lament such an admission, Olivier declares it with pride.