The highly anticipated collaboration between Hennessy V.S.O.P Privilège and Refik Anadol broke new ground when he became the first person to observe the Hennessy Tasting Committee at work in its historic seat of Cognac, France. Using neuroscientific research methods and machine intelligence—specifically a specialised electroencephalogram (EEG) used for laboratory research—to collect sensorial data, the acclaimed international media artist was able to capture the moment in time to create a contemporary masterpiece to celebrate the new iconic V.S.O.P Privilège blend.
Equipped with sensors on their heads, master blender Renaud Fillioux de Gironde and his Tasting Committee members savoured a selection of eaux-de-vie specially made for Hennessy V.S.O.P in a generations-old ritual—letting Anadol track, record and collect their every move, emotion and sensation, including their blood pressure, brainwaves, body temperature and heart rate, as data in real time.
“In our craft, we are constantly classifying, describing, and trying to find exactly the right words to convey our feelings and experiences,” said Hennessy master blender Fillioux de Gironde. “We were all very intrigued to see what elements technology might bring to light.”
The convergence of the heritage of savoir-faire with the Los Angeles-based creative’s new modes of expression merged the past and present in what Anadol described as “a near-future experience, in real time.” Filtering the raw data—two centuries’ worth of living memory—through sophisticated analytics, the contemporary artist and his team, back at his California studio, transformed the data set into a harmonious dialogue of pigments and light—an “architecture of memory” that was consistent across subjects at a specific point in time.
“Emotion lives in the senses, on the skin, in the heart, and in the mind—and with this hyper-sensitive equipment, we are able to trace everything, down to the movement of the glass. You can see heritage and savoir-faire become visible and observe how the material actually becomes the wisdom,” Anadol explained. “With help from machine intelligence, we embarked on a journey through gene memories and dreams. Neuro-scientifically, the Tasting Committee is the source of memory, dreaming about the future.”
The result culminated in a stunning abstract, dreamlike artwork—a three-dimensional data sculpture masterpiece named Sense of Heritage—which was used as the design of the Limited Edition bottle, and which is also translated into an immersive audio-visual installation in Shanghai. “Unique collaborations like this have always been something Hennessy looks for as we try to innovate but at the same time preserve our heritage and history,” says Moët Hennessy Diageo Malaysia and Singapore managing director Thomas Bouleuc.
We sat down with Renaud Fillioux de Gironde, Hennessy’s 8th-generation master blender as he unpacks the context, meaning and significance behind Hennessy V.S.O.P Privilège’s unconventional experiment with artist Refik Anadol.
What led you to become a master blender?
I was born and raised in the area of Cognac, where my family has lived since the beginning of the 19th century as the master blender for Hennessy in charge of the quality of its cognacs. After finishing my studies, I travelled and was then offered the opportunity to join the maison where I have been learning for the last 19 years. I have discovered it was much more than a family tradition but a real passion of what I want to build and contribute to.
How does one train to be a master blender?
Basically, there's only one training and that is tasting, again and again. Before this (Zoom) meeting, I was in the tasting room where I join the rest of the Tasting Committee every morning. To become a true member (of the Tasting Committee), you need 10 years of daily practice to become a “real Hennessy taster”. And to become a master blender, I have also spent a lot of time with my uncle (also a master blender) to understand from him everything about making cognac and making the right decision.
How big is the Tasting Committee team and what is its function?
I've got five other persons around me every day while tasting. The idea of having this Tasting Committee is always to prepare for the future. Some have been tasting for 20, 30 years, while others for less than 10 years, and even a lady who has been tasting for a year. A large percentage of our efforts is about training future tasters to make sure that when they make the call for Hennessy, they will be making the right decision which is key for us in the process of quality. My role is to make the final call but I need to have my team around.
What skills are essential for a Hennessy master blender to be equipped with?
You first need to be passionate about quality. There's only one thing that really matters: the quality of the product at the end of the day, and you need to be obsessed with that. You need to have the passion not just about the product but about quality. You also need to be extremely patient to learn, to do things, to taste. All these things are key and one thing that maybe nobody thinks about is the rigour—you need to be extremely rigorous, to be always ready to say no when it doesn't match exactly the quality expectation that you have. And if you do that, then you can have the freedom and creativity to craft and share your vision.
When tasting the eaux-de-vie, what goes through your mind, your palate your senses in the first instance? And how do you record all that?
Each glass that I taste is a new adventure. You never find two samples that are exactly the same. Each time, you ask anew: how can I assess this quality? The next part is how do I assess what I recognise and that comes from the first 10 years of your career at Hennessy learning what is good for Hennessy and forgetting your own personal preference about what is good for Hennessy—by good, I mean you learn in your mind how to read a glass and what elements to accept. You cannot learn by heart the more than 10,000 samples that we taste every year. I write down my tasting notes of how I could read each of the samples.
When I make a blend, I’ll go back to my tasting notes as there’s no way to learn by heart the thousands of batches that we've got in our system. So it's really a way of reading the samples; it is not instinct. It has to be rigour, repetition and work. You know, a lot of people believe that blending is magic. But it only works if you have been very rigorous and consistent in your daily tasting so you put hard work, concentration and precision in your tasting, and then it's easy to make a blend.
How do the tasting notes for the V.S.O.P differ from other cognacs like the V.S or the X.O?
Each cognac within the Hennessy range has its own personality, style and character. X.O is not an older version but a totally different style where the eaux-de-vie spends a lot of time in new barrels at the early stage of their life—it's more about intensity, richness. And the V.S.O.P, it's more delicate and subtle. We are very proud to have these different personalities and the V.S.O.P personality is an interesting way to discover cognacs because it's somewhat easy to discover and to approach.
Tell us about the experience of working with Refik Anadol using modern technology to measure and capture your emotions during the tasting session.
The beauty of my job is the diversity of projects and the energy you get from all of them which is incredible. Working on Hennessy V.S.O.P with Refik Anadol, I didn't know what to expect at the beginning but his energy and excitement were very contagious. I was a bit scared at first because he arrived, placing a helmet on my head for the tasting session with sensors and so on. Thereafter, he explained the results from the waves and lines that were generated onscreen, showing how I perceived things with a diversity of emotions and excitement. If I had no excitement, he said the line would be flat. It's amazing to realise what happens in all our minds when tasting. By the end of the project, I was really excited to see what would come from it, looking at my brain, blood pressure. It was a really different experience but definitely very exciting.
The encounter with Refik and his creation for me was also a way to realise that tasting is about emotion. Because when you taste Hennessy cognacs, Hennessy V.S.O.P, it brings all of us—whatever our culture and background—emotion. You realise through his art piece with all the lines and volume, you feel alive because you feel and perceive things. It is a very good illustration of the purpose of Hennessy V.S.O.P. The collaboration with Refik Anadol was for me a very good reminder of how full of life we are especially at the moment when we cannot do everything we want.
Was it challenging to integrate the tradition of cognac with the modern art of Refik Anadol?
Cognac may seem to be very traditional, but we're always looking for new technology to help us analyse and understand things, and to make a better call. With Refik, we share the same philosophy and way of thinking: how can we always do better? And to do better, you cannot remain stuck in the past, but know the good base or foundation that you have and want to keep, while building on it and improving on it each time. Whatever I have learned and received as the heritage from my predecessors, my role is not just to keep it as it is but always to try to do better by being open to new technology and ideas to help me do better.
This kind of collaboration or exchange with a personality is a way to open your mind to see things from a different perspective—to see tasting and blending through a different eye, and it always gives me new ideas on how to do things. When Refik did the measurements with our brain and so on, it was interesting to see for the Tasting Committee, though there were some differences, we had relatively similar responses with everyone around the table doing the same tasting. The technology was able to identify the consistency which was reassuring not just for the future, but also saying what we do works.
What do you value most in the heritage of Hennessy V.S.O.P and the Hennessy maison having worked there for almost two decades?
Hennessy V.S.O.P represents the bond here even after 100, 150 or even 200 years that we still have one major focus: quality which it encapsulates very well. At Hennessy, transmission, continuity and legacy are key because I am not here for the short term but about how can I contribute to build the future. Generations before me have been doing this job, precisely making the right decisions; and my job is to continue that and to add something to make it even better. The idea is always to think in the long term, not just for the next 6 months, a year, but in the next 40, 50, 100 years.
The 2021 Hennessy V.S.O.P Privilège Limited Edition by Refik Anadol is available at selected participating outlets and e-retail partner in Malaysia. Each purchase of the Limited Edition bottle is entitled to a special invitation of the pop-up activation located in One Utama Shopping Centre Old Wing, Ground Floor, from 25th to 27th June 2021, to give local enthusiasts an immersive sensorial experience of Anadol’s work. Register via a microsite: hennessy.vip/refikpurchase to book the slots.