LAST Nov. 20, we found ourselves in the Santa Maria Ballroom of Radisson Blu Cebu, seated in a room full of cognac enthusiasts, ready to be treated to a five-course dinner by executive chef Roberto Kunitz. The invitation was for a Hennessy X.O. appreciation dinner, and we confess that we felt a bit like posers because up until that evening, when we heard “X.O.,” it was the Beyoncé song that first came to mind and not the cognac. Of course we didn’t dare admit this to the 50 mostly male guests, a mix of cognac connoisseurs and just plain cognac-curious.
While it was an evening of appreciation for most guests, it was one of discovery for us. They say your first experience is vital in forming your opinion of anything, and if that’s the case, it was a good thing our cognac experience started with Hennessy X.O. Although on second thought, maybe we should’ve worked our way up because, cognac-wise, it can only go downhill from here.
Reverence for the brand
The evening’s guest of honor, Jean-Michel Cochet, Hennessy’s Ambassadeur de la Maison (Ambassador of the House) who flew in from his home in Cognac, France, promised us that with more knowledge about Hennessy and Hennessy X.O., our appreciation of both the brand and the product would grow. That certainly seemed to be the case for us and for most of the guests. It was hard not to show some reverence for Hennessy X.O., especially after learning that Ku Lung, the founder of kung-fu, gave orders to be buried with 200 bottles of it. Too bad for him, his tomb could only accommodate 48.
As we also learned later that evening, X.O. did not stand for hugs and kisses but rather, for eXtra Old cognac with some bottles having been aged as long as 30 years. The history behind it is even older and goes back to 1870 when Maurice Hennessy, the great-grandson of the founder of the house of Hennessy, invented the cognac for his own enjoyment and that of his friends.
If that’s the story behind Hennessy X.O., then the dinner stayed true to that spirit of camaraderie between Maurice and his buddies as, for the most part, the evening felt very much like a guys’ night out, albeit one where everyone was more dressed up than usual.
Japanese businessman Shige Onda traded his trademark striped polo shirt and backpack for a barong Tagalog and lamented that he should’ve come more dressed down after seeing Spanish Consul Anton Perdices in a linen shirt and khakis. The latter cheekily retorted that the attire said “business” and this was his office attire on Fridays, so he wasn’t breaking any dress codes.
Winglip Chang and Jun Selma, who sat next to each other and had been mistaken as brothers by one guest, were yin and yang with Winglip dapper in his suit and Jun rock-star-reminiscent in his leather jacket.
Speaking of contrasts, Glenn Soco shared with us and Hennessy marketing manager Gio Robles that evening that he had partnered with Kenneth Cobonpue and Michael Dino to rebrand the old Cobonpue-designed Z Bar as a new cocktail lounge that they were playfully calling Morals and Malice.
The conversation was about contrasts, but the dinner was completely complementary. As Cochet told host Blinky de Leon and the rest of us, the five-course dinner that we were about to enjoy was made using recipes specifically designed by Hennessy’s Château de Bagnolet to be paired with Hennessy X.O.
Jean-Michel led a tasting of Hennessy X.O., teaching us to drink it neat and on the rocks—not more than three ice cubes, he cautioned. We alternated having the X.O. both ways as we enjoyed chef Roberto’s soup with pan-fried foie gras and bacon, followed by king prawns in their own bisque and ginger vanilla confit. For our main course, we had spiced beef in a rich pepper jus, while a few opted for the sea bass, which we hear was also quite tasty. A chocolate and custard pudding was brought out for dessert before dried fruits were served to end the meal. We’re no experts, but the chocolate seemed to be the best thing to pair with the Hennessy X.O. Then again, we are always partial in thinking that chocolate is the best part of every meal.
Restaurateur Joel del Prado, who was seated across the table from us, was all praises for the chef; Italian furniture designer Carlo Cordaro also came over to ask us where chef Roberto was from. Germany, we told him. When an Italian compliments your cooking, then you must be doing something right.
At the end of the dinner, we got a chuckle out of seeing Jean-Michel of the House of Hennessy exchange a few words with Mr. Hennessy himself, Michael Hennessy, that is.
Stuffed from dinner and slightly woozy from the X.O., we were ready to call it a night. Marco Anzani, Jurgen Pesch, Gerry Montanus and Christophe Calligaro, however, were not. A friend of theirs was about to leave Cebu, and they wanted to give him a proper sendoff. It looked like their evening was just beginning.