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Making Cocktails With Hennessy

Benjamin Smith,
Benjamin Smith, the business development manager for Africa and the Middle East for cognac maker Hennessy, during his visit to Kenya in November 2019. PHOTO | COURTESY 

Cognac maker Hennessy is betting on bartenders in Nairobi’s high-end nightclubs as it seeks to establish itself on the palates of more luxury drinkers.

Marketers of the Hennessy cognacs have held two trainings for bartenders in Nairobi this year, where at least 100 of them have been trained on making cocktails. Hennessy considers cocktails a fast growing aspect of the city’s night scene.

The most recent training ended recently and was timed to give Hennessy more kick as the festive season nears, when gifting and drinking will be part of the festivities.

One of the key trainers was Benjamin Smith, Hennessy’s business development manager for Africa and the Middle East. He is an Australian-born executive who had flown from France for the training.

“If we get the bartenders on board and they fall in love with Hennessy, that really helps the desirability for consumers. You can feel it: When you are at a restaurant or bar and when the person serving you is really passionate about something, it’s infectious. And it makes such a huge difference in the experience,” he told BDLife.

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“We do see certainly a cocktail scene emerging in Nairobi. We spotted it last visit, when I was here in June,” said Mr Smith, who has been handling Hennessy sales for the region since 2018.

“We have the cocktails as a big opportunity. Certainly, people are understanding that Hennessy can be drank all the way through a meal as well,” he added.

Hennessy is on the shelf of drinks for alcohol consumers with a fine taste, and its local competitors include Martell, Remy Martin and Courvoisier.

Cognac is sold as either VS (very special), VSOP (very special old pale) and XO (extra old), with their age and price often increasing in that order.

Hennessy has been encouraging consumers to mix cognacs with other drinks for variety in taste.

“It’s a beautiful product when taken neat. But you can also have a lot of fun with playing around,” said Mr Smith, who has been working in the premium spirits market for more than 15 years.

With the festive season here with us, Mr Smith believes cognac is a good choice for anyone who would wish to gift another — for the statement it makes.

“As a gift, it can be given to somebody that really appreciates a luxury product: Fine quality, handcrafted spirit,” he said. “More and more cognac is starting to be a gift of choice for loved ones, which is really pleasing to see.”

Kenya, he said, lags behind South Africa and Nigeria in consumption of cognac in Africa. As such, Kenya is one of the markets where makers are keen on widening its reach.

To boost sales, cognac makers has been educating retailers on their products as well as encouraging sellers to spruce up their displays.

“We’re putting a lot of energy into the way our products are displayed in stores, for instance in beautiful visual display units. We want to make sure that when you buy a bottle of Hennessy, it’s the whole experience,” explained the sales head. An area of strength for their products, he said, are nightclubs.

“Hennessy has traditionally been very strong in the night channel. It is a product of choice with nightclubs, and that’s such a strong part of the strategy. We want to keep working hard in that space,” he said.

In the trainings for bartenders, trainees were taken through the history of the cognac, how it is made and the popular cocktails that involve the liquor.

Bartenders also had a chance to taste the neat cognac, as the trainers believe this is important in the process of mixing with other drinks and additives to create cocktails.

“We had a great mixologist on hand that helped us create some of the classic cocktails,” said Mr Smith.

I asked whether there is a cognac cocktail Mr Smith would recommend for Kenyans.

“We don’t want to be too prescriptive in terms of how it’s done,” he replied.

However for VS (very special), “it is absolutely fine if it is a beautiful neat.” “I love it with ice; ice all-out cognac I think is a must-add; because ice just takes away a little of the heat and allows you to taste some of those more subtle characters,” added Mr Smith.

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