Global brand ambassadors aren’t essentially sales people but are typically great public speakers with top communication skills and are ready to influence the way people experience a brand. Their work drives brand knowledge and brand intimacy. Catching up with Fabien Levieux during his recent visit to Lagos, he is a phenomenal ambassador for the brand, with a great sense of humour too!
With 8 generations of master blenders from the same family, Hennessy is over 252 years of quality craftsmanship in a bottle. Over 2 centuries worth of history and tradition is succintly articulated during the conversation with Fabien as he elucidates the Hennessy brand and the Art of Living.
In Conversation with Fabien Levieux begins now…
ALM: In your experience as a global brand ambassador for Hennessy, what do different people find to be the most surprising about the Hennessy brand?
FL: It depends on where you are in the world, we ship to about 143 countries. We ship to America, Asia, Europe, Africa, Australia, next step should be to the penguins in the south pole *laughs *. It is very easy to surprise many people because the consumption methods are very different in many places. In Asia, they go “err cognac with dinner? Then you go to Europe and say I put ice in my cognac or I use my cognac in cocktails and they go “are you crazy, cognac is sacred”. Then you go to America and say “I put ice in my cognac’ and they say yeah “we’ve been doing this since 1803”.
So every country will have a different approach and what is great about Hennessy is that you have many ways to surprise people. Cognac with dinner in America is very surprising, not always well received, cognac in cocktails for the rest of the world is very surprising. Most people still believe all over the world that the traditional way of taking cognac is neat, by the fire, in a snifter on a cold day, but do you know what a cold day is in Nigeria? *laughs*. But, if you go back to the 19th century, the way to enjoy cognac is any way you want, usually mixed, as classy cocktails in the 19th century were made with cognac. Enjoying cognac neat by the fire with a cigar is a 20th-century image. The art of tradition is what I like to surprise people with, telling them that cognac in mixtures is okay, cognac is not sacred, you can have respect. It is a hot day so, Hennessy VS, ginger ale and ice is perfect and this is good cognac, high quality, really really prestigious, even though I’m mixing it. Cognac is completely free, you can do whatever you want as long as you enjoy it. Remember, Hennessy is not just 40% alcoholic liquid in a bottle, it is everything but that. It is an art of living as long as you enjoy it.
ALM: What has inspired your career path?
FL: It has to do with the history of my family, I come from a very strong French traditional family, where gastronomy, the art of living, enjoying fine wine and fine spirits were part of my family, so we grew up in that atmosphere. It was logical for me to end up in wines or spirits and I’m pretty happy to have ended up with the largest, most powerful and biggest cognac brand in the world.
ALM: How is Hennessy best enjoyed according to manufacturers instructions?
FL: Your way! That’s what we like to say, so far for most parts of it, it is still a free world. Enjoy it the way you like.
For example, Hennessy XO neat, not my cup of tea, because Hennessy is a cognac with a robust structure, big texture and oakiness – rich in flavour and spice so it’s too spicy for me. I’m a wimpy guy. I like my Hennessy XO with ice, in a white wine glass with lots of ice and give it a couple of swirls and this is great.
I like my VSOP classic cocktail.
I like my VS mixed with ginger ale, tonic water, cranberry or whatever. But some people like my ex-boss liked Hennessy XO neat, he liked VS neat.
There’s no rule, well there is one rule and that is “that there’s no rule”, its taken any way you like it as long as you enjoy it. That’s the art of living we promote.
ALM: Which of the Hennessy brands would be best for a new convert?
FL: I don’t think you should try Hennessy XO neat because its a big, powerful and intense cognac. You might be offset by the power of the flavour, you want to start working with mixing it! Again, I can guarantee you would like Hennessy with ginger ale, lime and ice, its something you can make at home. Its super nice and easy, but take a good ginger ale, I mean if you’re going to take the best of cognac why not take a good ginger ale?
ALM: If you weren’t doing this what would you be doing?
FL: That’s a very good question, I would be more in the technical side of things. If I hadn’t gone to business school, I would have kept on going in the grape growing and winemaking business or the elaboration process because I think there is magic to end up with the flavours in a bottle of cognac that comes from the grape. Actually, when you go to school you learn that it’s not magic but chemistry. From grape growing to winemaking to the distillation process, the maturation process then blending, at the end of the day discovering flavours like leather, coffee, tobacco, prunes, in a bottle of cognac.
ALM: What are the three largest misconceptions about your work?
FL: That I get paid too much!
And that I don’t believe in what I’m saying. Most people believe that of course, I’m trying to sell them something, I cannot understand the market of expanding sales, although I’m a part of sales, ask me how much a bottle of cognac is? I don’t know, I just don’t deal with money. So the common misconceptions are that I’m trying to sell you something. No, I’m trying to explain something to you, that this is good and you’ll enjoy it just the way I’m enjoying it. Even at home, I barely have anything else but cognac because I like it and I also get a good deal off it *laughs*. Hennessy is the H of LVMH, we have other spirits, wine and champagnes. But I have to admit I think cognac tastes better. So if they tell me I’m talking about this because I’m paid for this, I say no, its because I believe it and on top of it I make money off it and its great.
Some other people think that it’s always easy, that I spend my time enjoying a cocktail in my hand and I never work. Sometimes you want to be home watching a football game with a pizza and a beer. But no, you have to make sure that guests are welcomed with cognac. They want to learn, have a good time and you’re also there to make sure they just have a good time.
ALM: Is there anything left for you to learn about cognac or Hennessy?
FL: No, I don’t know everything. I’ve been in the cognac business for 20 years and I’m still scratching the surface. So when people come to me saying they want to learn everything about cognac in 2 days, I tell them” yeah it’s going to take a little bit more time”. Cognac is still a moving industry because we are still researching how we can improve the quality of the grapes, of the wine, we still do research and development which is important to Hennessy. We are still discovering new things day after day and whenever we find ways to increase the quality of the grape or the wine or of the distilled spirits then Hennessy will talk to the grape growers partners and try to improve and we are still working towards that.
Usually you would take the distilled spirits and put it into a barrel and it sits, we understand now there is a bigger notion of control, which type of barrel, the age of the barrel. So it’s very very technical. But it’s true that I do know more than the average person.
ALM: What’s a typical day for you like?
FL: Er well, it starts about 10:30 meeting journalists *laughs*, but it depends where I am.
It starts between 2 places in the world, well one is the cognac region, where Hennessy is located, which is where I live and I was raised. And because I travel about 15 weeks a year so it could be Asia, America, Africa, Europe..anywhere. When I’m travelling it could be meeting with the press to make sure they get the right message, meeting with key people, key opinion leaders, key customers or just having fun making sure that our guests have a good time and spread the word. I could also be doing seminars, teaching people, training people and when I’m home I welcome guests. I bring people directly to the vineyard, the winemaking places, the distilleries and we also show them what the Art of Living that Hennessy symbolizes is about with lunches or dinners.
ALM: Do you live on a vineyard?
FL: At the end of the tip of a tiny village which is about 10 miles northeast of Cognac and there is no road anymore, only vineyards and woods and forests surrounding the house. It’s very very quiet, too quiet for some people, but life is about balance, travelling which gives the excitement, and then having the quiet peaceful life in a nice village.
ALM: What’s the name of the village?
ALM: Do you think being French has shaped your appreciation for cognac?
FL: French people appreciate the Art of Living, so we are talking about two hour long meals enjoying fine dining, France is famous for its wines and foods, so being French, wines and spirits is kind of a part of our DNA. Although it doesn’t limit the appreciation to French people, you can obviously be from Nigeria and enjoy a good drink.
ALM: Do you ever get drunk?
FL: Of course not, I mean cognac is about appreciation
ALM: What’s your perfect cure for a hangover?
FL: What’s a hangover *laughs*? Honestly, this is a very serious and almost touchy subject because we heavily promote responsible drinking. You don’t drink cognac, by the way, you enjoy cognac and with moderation.
ALM: What are your three favourite African cities?
FL: Africa is big and the culture is wide. First would be Lagos, honestly coming from Courbiac, there’s a lot more energy, after about 3 to 4 days I may get overwhelmed, but it’s like New York.
I like the climate of Nairobi Kenya, and then Cape Town, South Africa
ALM: If you were to make one Hennessy cocktail stop, which would it be?
FL: Are you kidding? Every cocktail will find at least one person in the world who would enjoy it. Remember the 1920s Sidecar, lemon juice, triple sec and cognac. Originally it was one third of each, if you try it now you would freak out because its super acidic, so the proportions have been adjusted and now it tastes really good. But in those days, the original recipe is the way the Sidecar was enjoyed, so I think every cocktail will find its audience and I hope everybody will enjoy what they find.
ALM: What’s your favourite Hennessy cocktail?
FL: There’s one that I pretty much created, its one measure of Hennessy VSOP, half a measure of triple sec, and half a measure of cherry liquor. Then on ice with a couple of cherries, an orange peel, give it a couple of swirls and voila!
ALM: Do you find a difference between the way Africans consume cognac in comparison with the rest of the world?
FL: Well yes of course, compared to Europe, which is a slow to act kind of place, meaning more traditional. So its very difficult for European people to consider putting ice cubes in cognac or mixing it. These mentalities are very difficult to evolve, but in Africa you are a lot more open to many consumption methods, it could be Hennessy XO on the rocks, it could be a classic cocktail.
ALM: There are different age groups that consume Hennessy, how do you speak to each of them?
FL: Usually, in the normal world the older you get the more money you make, so it’s usually common to see younger people enjoying Hennessy VS , they also may start discovering spirits and they might use it as a cocktail and then slowly with a bigger purchasing power and brand familiarity they might move to VSOP, or a classy cocktail. They’ll try to look for the purest flavour as they get more mature and have more money and then move to Hennessy XO, first on the rocks before dinner and then neat after dinner. It has to do with age, maturity and purchasing power.
ALM: Does Hennessy appeal to people as alternative investment options?
FL: That’s a question I get a lot of times like “how long can you keep a bottle of cognac” and I usually reply “you can not”. You have to enjoy it and go buy another one. There is no point, cognac is blended to be enjoyed with your friends.
My brother tells me “Life is Short, Enjoy it while it Lasts”, it might be later than you think and its actually very true. So the truth is don’t keep cognac, it might outlive you and you don’t want that. So there’s no purpose in speculating the price of cognac in the future.
ALM: Complete the sentence, I never leave home without…….
FL: Underwear *laughs*.
I never leave home without wanting to come back. I have a big family, 1 wife, 2 kids, 3 cats, 2 dogs and 1 horse. So it keeps me busy. I would like to believe that they need me there and that they want me to come back.
ALM: Complete this sentence, I never go into a meeting without …..
FL: A good cup of coffee, because I’m an on-off kind of person. If I’m not on, I’m super off, so coffee is really really great for me
ALM: What are you doing in Nigeria for the next few days?
FL: Talking with people from the trade, retailers, make sure they understand the concept of Hennessy. What Hennessy is all about, the art of living rather than the 40% alcoholic liquid in the bottle and of course the nightlife, cause Lagos’ nightlife is amazing. This is going to be a lot of fun because this is where real life and consumption is, we call it market visits and have fun with the locals. It’s interesting for me to see how people interact with cognac and how they enjoy it. It makes me feel good to know people are having a good time and that I’m having a good time with them too.
Life is all about sharing. At a table over dinner, we just don’t share a good meal, but ideas and opinions.
‘In Conversation with’ by ASPIRE Luxury Magazine celebrates stars, influencers, celebrities and public figures, shining a spotlight on their lives and the incredible stories they have to share.