GILLES Hennessy is striding around his modest hotel room in something of a flap. It is 11.30am, his hair is still wet from the shower, his suit does not fit well and he is frantically trying to light a cigarette. 'Sorry,' he says. 'Buggers forgot to wake me up.' The man whose name is on one of the world's most famous cognacs is not looking, well, he's not looking very XO. And he does not appear very French. 'Four years at English prep school,' he explains. His accent is clipped and gentrified. It's the kind of accent you only get at English public schools. 'But I can do a ridiculous French accent if you want. For effect,' he offers. Mr Hennessy is in Hong Kong to meet sales staff and visit outlets. This accounts for his tardiness, for which he is profusely apologetic. The night before he had been in a bar that sells vast quantities of his cognac. 'I got back at 4.30am. You know, you can train yourself to sleep shorter hours. I can take catnaps during the day. Half a minute and then I'm off again. Today is an exception. As I said, buggers forgot to wake me.' 'Bugger', a very British word, is a word Mr Hennessy likes. There is one question that has to be asked of Mr Hennessy. It's the question about those advertisements. The ones with the beautiful but apparently brainless woman with the provocative posterior who purrs, 'Oooh, he's so XO'. 'I have been asked that question a thousand times,' he says. There is a brief silence. Is he going to get angry? This was one of the subjects the public relations people said he would not want to get into. 'How can we produce an advertisement without a woman in it? Is every advertisement with a woman in it sexist? Women, I believe, are stronger than men and capable of making up their own minds. I also happen to think they are nice to look at and if that is wrong then I am sorry. 'Goodness me, it's not as if our advertisements feature a bunch of gays or anything.' He points to the figures. Mr Hennessy - and this is easy to forget as he drops drole one-liners - is a big businessman interested in big profit. In 1989 Hennessy Cognac was comparatively nowhere in Asia. By 1993 the region accounted for 48 per cent of its business, and Hennessy is now Asia's joint number one cognac (with Courvoisier). With echoes of C. J., Reggie Perrin's brolly-and-bowler-hat boss in the British comedy series The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin, he adds: 'We didn't get where we are today without successful advertising. It's not the most important thing, but it plays a part, and those advertisements have been - still are - rather successful.' Gilles Hennessy is seventh-generation Hennessy family. His mother is half-Irish and his father French. The founding Hennessy was his great, great, great, great-grandfather Richard, an Irish Catholic who signed up to serve Louis XV and then, in 1765, decided to become a cognac merchant. The story goes that he was injured in battle and was given large doses of cognac to ease his pain. Its medicinal qualities were exceptional, but Richard realised its potential went further. 'After one year he was sending out 13,000 cases a year and within another 12 years that figure had increased nine-fold.' It was not actually cases, but casks, or barriques, that were rolled onto barges for the journey down the Charente to the ships that waited at La Rochelle to take the booty to far-flung places. The fortunes of the Hennessy company were tied to those of France. The Napoleonic Wars meant an increase in military consumption, the fall of Napoleon coincided with an economic surge, and in the 1870s the vine disease phylloxera cut shipments by 60 per cent. Gilles Hennessy never wanted to do anything other than join 'the firm'. He spent two years learning to taste, although he admits he is no connoisseur, and then worked his way through the ranks. Pancho Villa, the Mexican revolutionary and guerilla, said the only 'gringo' word he liked to hear was Hennessy. The company's biggest market is America, something Villa would not have appreciated. Asia demands special analysis; the company draws a distinction between those countries influenced by Chinese culture and those marked by Japanese civilisation. 'For the Chinese, cognac replaces champagne at celebrations. XO (it stands, incidentally, for Extra Old) is the one they want. They appreciate the prestige. In Japan people prefer to drink cognac in clubs or restaurants. It's not a festive drink for the Japanese.' Hennessy has been shipping its cognac to Japan since 1868. Doing business in Asia is no problem for Gilles Hennessy, despite the many occasions on which clients and distributors decide to have a laugh by trying to drink him under the table. They never succeed. He is rumoured to be able to knock off a bottle and still get up for work the next day. 'It's a question of being intelligent and doing some homework. That means reading a lot about every country I visit. It also means eating the food. I am amazed at the number of businessmen who go to China, refuse to eat Chinese food, refuse to drink Chinese drinks, and then wonder why things don't go well.' China is on the agenda this time, after three days in Hong Kong and one in Macau. Mr Hennessy will be in Zhuhai, Chongsan and Panyu. China is a difficult market. Hennessy has been shipping its cognac there since 1859, but import tariffs are running at '150 per cent plus plus plus', which is why Hennessy the company, and Mr Hennessy the vice-president, are interested in the country's protracted negotiations with GATT (the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade). 'There is talk of a 55 per cent reduction, but that is not good enough. We want to see the duty down to 30 per cent.' There is another reason for his visit. Paradis, the younger cognac, has been given a new bottle. Designers and public relations people have fussed over it like parents with a first baby. It lines are finer, it is less dated, it is 'modern, but still classic'. 'When we redesigned the bottle it was a gut feeling. We could have paid a marketing firm a small fortune to go out and ask questions. But all I really had to do was ask a few people at the office. They liked the new bottle. I liked the new bottle.' Mr Hennessy is surprisingly self-deprecating. 'I think our clients like to meet the man whose name is on the bottle, but I am not really the person to judge. They might think I'm an idiot, but I like to think my visits are important.' Hong Kong is fifth on Hennessy's list of markets. Mr Hennessy spends much of his time in the territory hanging around in nightclubs and karaoke lounges. There are a couple of karaoke bars in Paris, he has heard. He has an apartment in Paris, but his real home, home for his wife and four children (two girls, two boys), is the modest eight-bedroom Chateau de St Brice near Cognac. Gilles Hennessy is the quintessential European, free from affectation and bamboozled by the activity around him in Hong Kong. 'The harbour is disappearing,' he exclaims (he can see it from his hotel window). 'What are they doing to it? Perhaps next time I come back I will be able to walk to the other side.' His company's bread and butter is in Asia, so much so that he has called himself, tongue firmly in cheek, half Asian. 'Vietnam has exciting prospects,' he enthuses. 'Asians know more about good cognac than Westerners. 'Westerners know more about wine. I started drinking wine when I was six or seven years old, like all French people do. It shocks the Americans.'