Tuesday 24 April 2018

Hennessy Ambassador Jean M Cochet - 'You could end up an alcoholic working in the drinks industry'

Jean Michel Cochet (63), is Maison Ambassador for Hennessy. He lives in Sigogne, south-west France, with his wife, Anne, and their cat. They have four children, Emilie (35), Camille (33), Claire (31) and Guillaume (21)

Jean Michel Cochet, Maison Ambassadeur for Hennessy. Photo: Philippe Garcia
Jean Michel Cochet, Maison Ambassadeur for Hennessy. Photo: Philippe Garcia

The day starts with the alarm, and most of the time, not extremely early, around 7am. I'm not really a morning person, but, with a little bit of training, I know how to wake up. My life is divided in two different ways. When I'm travelling for work, it can be totally hectic. You go to bed at night, then you wake up at 3am and you're ready. But a normal day would be when I'm here, at home, with my wife, Anne.

We live in a house in the countryside, in Sigogne, near the city of Cognac. It's a small village in the middle of vineyards, and it's fairly quiet. We have four children, but they are all grown up. It's just myself, Anne, and the cat at home. The first thing I have to do in the morning is feed the cat. He is very impatient. I brew the coffee, and then my wife comes down. I have a typical French breakfast - bread, butter and jam. I check the email on the iPad and then I read the news on that, too. At that hour of the morning, I'm not listening to any radio. Anne is a water-colourist, and she practises her craft and coaches other artists.

It takes me about 20 minutes to drive into work. I am Maison Ambassadeur for Hennessy. It's this notion that we have in France for long-standing, traditional companies, which are considered almost like a family. Some people have been working there for many years, because sometimes it's from father to son, or father to daughter. The idea is that everyone has a common interest, rather than a corporation or a factory. It stems from the origin, because the Hennessy company was created 250 years ago by Richard Hennessy, an Irishman, and now we see the 8th generation, with Hennessy family members on board. This notion of lineage and heritage and legacy is deeply embedded in our company. I'm not from the family, but I've been with the company for almost 25 years. Of course it's a job, but my feeling is that it's not a job, but rather that we are all part of it. My job is to share the passion that we have for Hennessy, and that is not a passion for drinking; rather, it's about the history of the family, the way things are done, and, of course, the complexity of creating this great cognac.

I start work at 9am. I have a team and a budget to run and management to do, so it's rather classic work. But if I'm not travelling the world as an ambassador for Hennessy, we often host visitors in our reception centre. They are usually trade partners and distributors, and they can be from all over the world. We conduct tasting sessions and try to make them more familiar with what we do. This involves spending time in the vineyard and describing the process. Cognac is the result of the distillation of white wine. The spirits spend time in barrels, and the maturation process can be anything from two years to 100 years. When people visit us, they taste the components that we blend together to make the cognac.

We have a lot of artists' programmes. We create musical events; one-off concerts with artists who normally wouldn't perform together. The idea is that we are blending, and we are also communicating that our cognac can be blended in cocktails. It is impossible to change what's inside the bottle, so we play on presentation. We ask artists to design new labels for limited editions. We have several programmes. In Ireland, we just had the second year of the Hennessy Portrait Prize and also, the Irish writing competition for the literary award has been in existence for many years. A lot of the current respected, well-known writers were part of it, including Sebastian Barry, Dermot Bolger and Deirdre Madden.

I enjoy my job, but you cannot do it if you only drink water. If you tried to fake it, it would show immediately. It's not an issue of being drunk every night, but you have to be careful. Of course, you could end up an alcoholic working in the drinks industry, but in the same way, if you are a taxi driver, you could end up in an accident. It's a case of how you manage your drinking. I do a lot of business in China, and that can be tough. They never drink alone, and when having a meal together, you don't sip your wine at your own pace. The ritual is that when every new dish comes in, the host will greet everyone with a glass of wine. The toast is not about a taste, but more like a shot. They end up drinking too much. It's not easy to say no, and this can be dangerous, but it's a cultural thing. Alcoholism is a disease and we have to fight against it, but basically, if there is civilisation, there is less tendency of overdrinking. In many parts of Europe, it's frowned upon if you are drunk.

I get home from work at 7pm. We chat with the kids through Skype or WhatsApp. They are mostly spread around France. Then it's mealtime. Being French, we enjoy a nice dinner. In my spare time, I like to sail - last year I sailed to Scotland - and I like reading about sailing, too. I enjoyed Theo Dorgan's book about his sailing adventure. I go to bed around 11pm. We don't have music or a radio in the bedroom. It's either reading, or the other. I don't know about other French men, but I don't wear pyjamas. I usually fall asleep very quickly. When you get older, sleep is not always consistent. You have times in the night when you're half asleep and your mind wanders. I feel very privileged, because we are happy together. Some of our friends have issues or they are divorced, but we make the most of it. We take love and we bring love. There are moments in life when I might have been down and reflecting too much on my own condition, but I try to improve things, and keep an optimistic view of things; I try to be positive without being unrealistic. There is always something positive, even if it's only the cat.

In conversation with Ciara Dwyer

Hennessy celebrated its 250th anniversary worldwide last year

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