Gambling | The Smart Money

C’est la vie

At the Hennessy Gold Cup at Newbury, the skills and perseverance of a master cognac blender match those of master horse trainers.

November 25 2011
Jamie Reid

If you’re lucky enough to back the winner of the 55th Hennessy Gold Cup at Newbury Racecourse on Saturday November 26, you might like to splash out on a bottle of the sponsor’s exotic new cognac, Hennessy Paradis Impérial. The luxuriant blend, which retails for £1,600 a bottle and is available by the glass in such agreeable London watering holes as Claridge’s and The Savoy, was launched in Russia earlier this year. The story of its provenance and the man who created it is fascinating, with intriguing echoes in the world of racing.

On December 24 1818, the Dowager Empress of Russia, Maria Feodorovna, placed an order for a cognac “of the finest quality” with the Hennessy family, to present as a gift to her son, Tsar Alexander I. The delivery, comprising two tierçons (oak barrels) of “white champagne eau de vie” and two tierçons of very old “gold-coloured eau de vie”, arrived by ship the following spring and was stored in the wine cellars of the Winter Palace, on the banks of the Neva. Fortunately for Hennessy, the Tsar was more than satisfied with his gift and French cognac, like French wine, cuisine, porcelain and tapestry, became an indispensable element of Russian court life right up to 1917.

The man responsible for composing the Tsar’s consignment was Hennessy’s first master blender, Jean Fillioux. His skills have been passed down over seven generations of the same family to the current master blender, Yann Fillioux. The silver-haired 64-year-old had the task of creating Paradis Impérial, the idea being to blend a brandy inspired by the one Russian royalty commissioned nearly 200 years ago. The result of Monsieur Fillioux’s labours, a subtle and amber-coloured cognac, was unveiled at a glamorous banquet in St Petersburg in June.

“The inspiration came from looking through our archives,” he explains. “The challenge was to find a combination of elegance and great age, but if you blend exclusively more or less exceptional cognacs from the 19th and 20th centuries, it’s likely you will get an exceptional outcome. I feel that, in a way, my ancestor was in a more difficult position than me. He was not lucky enough to have the example of six generations before him.”

Fillioux, a keen sportsman and shot who enjoys hunting wild boar on his estate near Royan, joined Hennessy when he was 19 years old, and 45 years later avows that his is still a wonderful job: “We always taste at the same time, between 11.15am and 12.30pm, four days out of five, and we taste maybe 40 to 50 samples in a session. All the people around the table really enjoy being there.”

And aficionados of jump racing will really enjoy being at Newbury on Saturday, where the comparison to the role of a master blender is the spectacle of a great trainer continually refining and polishing his craft. That describes Paul Nicholls, who first won the Hennessy Gold Cup as a jockey back in 1986 and 1987. Twenty years later he saddled the mighty Denman – truly racing’s equivalent of an exceptional eau de vie – to score his first Hennessy victory, repeating the achievement two years later.

His big hope this year is the up-and-coming chaser Aiteen Thirtythree, already a dual Newbury course winner, who runs in the Denman colours and may bring home the cognac for 2011 at 10-1 with Victor Chandler.