Cognac is often depicted as something stodgy old men drink while smoking cigars and talking politics – not exactly something approachable and certainly not something youthful in any way. Honestly, up until this point we haven’t paid a lot of attention because of it’s slightly elitist reputation. Then, at a recent tasting session, a member of our panel and trusted friend shared something special from his “secret stash” – the Pierre Ferrand 1972 cognac. We approached the first sip slowly, expecting something sharp, hot and dusty. Instead, we were blown away by its delicate and complex character, a marrying of the grape flavors of wine and the barrel flavors of a fine bourbon. It was one of those “Ah Ha!” moments and we realized that it was important for us to both reconsider and really explore cognac.
Our newfound interest in cognac lead us to a presentation and tasting of Hennessy Cognac with House Ambassador Cyrille Gautier-Auriol. The house of Hennessy was founded in 1765 by Richard Hennessy and today is the largest volume producer of cognac. Each cognac is a blend of eau de vie from the Cognac region’s grapes, double distilled to preserve the flavor and freshness, and aged in French oak for at least two years.
Hennessy Black ($40) is Hennessy’s answer to an alternative to vodka and tequila, in terms of a lighter, more approachable cognac for people who tend to lean toward white spirits. Hennessy Black is a blend of 35-45 different eau de vie aged in French oak barrels previously used for cognac for at least five years. This relatively short time in the barrel lends a lighter color and faint oak notes on the nose. The nose is light with a hint of the white Ugni Blanc grapes used to make the eau de vie, which also comes through in the taste. This is clearly a grape-based spirit, with bright white wine notes coming through and just a hint of oak. The overall taste is soft, with no real heat to speak of. Hennessy Black finishes clean and is really enjoyed best mixed with cola, ginger ale, or a little sugar and lemon.
Hennessy VS ($30) is the entry level product in the classic Hennessy line of cognac. This blend of 40 different eau de vie spends up to 8 years in French oak, giving the nose subtle sweet, vanilla, oak notes with a hint of grape. VS (Very Special) has a smooth entry and nice mouthfeel, with strong spice and hints of vanilla and oak. With a younger cognac like VS, Hennessy recommends drinking it on the rocks, with a splash of soda, ginger ale or cola, or mixed in a cocktail.
Hennessy Privilege VSOP ($50) has a smooth but stronger flavor than VS, with heavier wood on nose. VSOP (Very Superior Old Pale) is a blend of 60 different eau de vie with the oldest being 15 years, and the youngest 4-5 years. It is aged for up to 15 years in French oak, giving it a deeper, richer color and oak notes on the nose and palate, but also lending more complexity to the spice and grape notes. Because the flavors are more balanced and mature, VSOP can stand alone neat, on the rocks, or with a splash of soda.
Hennessy XO ($100) is where things start to get noticeably more refined and elegant. XO is a blend of 100 different eau de vie aged for up to 30 years, with the youngest being 10 years old and the oldest 30 years. It was originally created as the private blend for the Hennessy family. The nose has lovely toffee and spice notes. The first sip has a bit lighter mouthfeel than VSOP with distinct wood and spice on the palate.
Hennessy Paradis Extra ($500) is the Hennessy we (almost) wish we didn’t love so much – when are we going to spend $500 on a spirit? That said, if you have an opportunity to taste Paradis, you will not be disappointed. For a blend of 200 eau de vie (the youngest is 25 years old) aged up to 130 years, the fresh apricot, grape and vanilla notes on the nose and fruity, grape-forward taste with a hint of oak is surprisingly bright and easy to sip. Paradis is a delightful mix of bright, fresh fruit and lush, sophisticated oak.
Richard Hennessy ($3,000) is the masterpiece of the Hennessy collection of cognac. Even the bottle itself is a hand-crafted crystal decanter that takes 40 hours to create. Richard Hennessy is a blend of 100 eau de vie aged up to 200 years, with the youngest 45 years old and the oldest 200 years. This is a more savory cognac, with slightly floral and savory, mushroom notes on the nose. There is some heat on palate, with a more savory flavor with hints of mushroom, subtle vanilla, and some grape notes in the finish.
As we continue to explore cognac we’re finding that its unapproachable reputation is fairly unfounded. We plan to explore cognac and and are working on a complete in-depth report and exploration on how cognac got its reputation and what some of the cognac houses are doing to change this. In the meantime, we were impressed with Hennessy and what they had to offer.