We’ve been highlighting cognac and brandy recently, and I knew if we were going down this path then we should probably take a moment to check in with the undisputed king of Cognac: Hennessy. A brand name that is recognizable around the world — if not for their own accomplishments, then certainly for the part they play in (literally) the most valuable company in Europe.
Hennessy is arguably one of the most recognizable brands in all of French cognac, and it was founded by… an Irishman.
Richard Hennessy was born in County Cork, Ireland in 1724. At the age of 19, he decided to leave Ireland and join the Irish Brigade of the French Army fighting for King Louis XV of France and earning a significant sum of money in the process. While living in France, he learned about cognac production and decided to start using some of his money to invest in the business remotely… without much initial success.
In 1765 Hennessey, along his wife Ellen and their son James, settled into an estate in the Charente area of France. With the help of some investments from bankers in Paris, he opened his own trading business and began trading cognac out of his house. At that moment in history, the trade in distilled spirits was booming, especially within the British empire, and his background as an Irishman gave him a distinct advantage in negotiating deals and drumming up business compared to the native French population.
James eventually took over the business and properly named it “Jas Hennessy & Co” in 1813, the name it retains to this day. The business expanded beyond trading existing stocks of spirits and started blending its own versions under the supervision of master blender Jean Fillioux, sourcing finished stocks of cognac from distilleries around the region and blending them specifically to cater to their client’s tastes. Hennessy became the leading exporter of brandy in the 1840’s, and by the 1850’s the Hennessy name was on one of every four bottles of cognac sold internationally.
Hennessy was the pioneer of some practices within cognac and other French spirits that we still see to this day, including using ratings and gradings for the quality of their spirits. As the story goes, in 1817 King George IV (who was not yet King) asked Hennessy to create a “very superior old pale” cognac, a designation that had only been applied to sherry but which started the tradition of labeling certain bottles as “VSOP”.
In 1944, Killian Hennessy joined the company, the fifth generation of Hennessy family members to do so. He had intended to become a banker, but instead spent his life helping Hennessy become an international luxury brand. In 1946, he worked to introduce Hennessy to the Chinese market, which would later become the world’s second largest purchaser of cognac. More importantly, in 1971, Killian would be the one to close the deal merging Hennessy with French champagne giant Moet Chandon. Eventually, Louis Vuitton would be added to the triumvirate, thus creating LVMH. This corporate behemoth has grown and expanded over the years to become the biggest luxury goods brand in the world and, as of 2023, is currently the most valuable company in Europe with a $500 billion valuation.
- Learn More: What Is Cognac?
Hennessy does not make their own cognac. They started life as a blending and trading house, and true to that history they remain committed to finding delicious sources for their spirits and blending them to perfection. In this case, Hennessy uses spirits sourced from a reported 40+ different distillation runs and distillers and blends them together to create the finished product we are enjoying today.
As is traditional with cognac production, this spirit starts life pretty much the exact same way that any French wine would. Cognac is made from 100% French grapes grown specifically in the region surrounding Cognac, 90% of which are the ugni blanc variety known for their high sugar content and high acidity. These grapes are harvested, crushed, and pressed to extract the juice from within the delicious fruit. One thing to note is that the use of mechanical presses is forbidden in this style of spirit, since that has a tendency to produce a bitter flavor.
Once pressed, the grape juice is fermented to create a mildly alcoholic liquid that is then batch distilled twice in traditional copper pot stills. This creates a fragrant and fruity eau-de-vie (or “water of life”), which is the term for the raw distilled grape alcohol.
This is the point at which Hennessy obtains the spirit and starts applying their own magic. The newly created eau-de-vie is placed into new French oak barrels, which impart a significant level of flavor and color into the spirit. There it sits for at least two years, slowly being mixed and blended together over time as similar tasting stocks of spirits are combined together until the final batch is ready for bottling.
I like that this seems to be a nice mixture of nods to the history of the brand with some modern design cues.
The bottle is shaped like a very traditional cognac bottle — specifically, the bell-like profile of a wide body, gently sloped shoulder, and a long neck. It’s the same style of bottle that has endured for ages, and inspired modern brands like Maker’s Mark in the process. I especially appreciate that they took the time to embellish some minor touches into the glass bottle, like the embossed “1765” (for the date it was founded). Capping off the bottle is a knurled synthetic and cork stopper.
On the front of the bottle, the label also looks like it was taken straight out of the 1940’s. It’s not — the 1940’s version of the label was actually chunky and blocky and not at all appealing — but it has a mid-century vibe. The paper the label is printed on is yellowed and looks aged, and the printing on the label is done in black and metallic gold ink. It looks classic and sophisticated, in a slightly dated kind of way.
On first whiff, this smells like a sweet, fruity, well-saturated spirit. I’m getting some dried raisin aromas combined with some nutmeg and baking spices, a bit of vanilla, some dried apricots, and a bit of orange citrus. What I’m not getting is a lot of walnut or significantly earthy components, like you might find in a spirit that has been aged longer than two years.
Taking a sip, the first flavor actually surprised me: orange citrus. And not a dried orange, but more like a juicy, fresh orange slice. Immediately following that is some banana, and then some dried fruits like raisins and apricots. As the flavor develops, there is some brown sugar, sweet with some hints of depth and complexity that adds a bit of saturation to the weight of those flavors. That’s followed by more traditional barrel maturation notes like vanilla, caramel, and baking spices. Near the finish, some dark chocolate and coca nibs give just a hint of bitterness, but on the finish itself the predominant flavor is just dried raisins and brown sugar.
My biggest fear with adding ice to a spirit is that the lighter, fruity components of the flavor will get lost in the mix. Typically, those flavors are less likely to hold up to the cold and the dilution compared to the barrel maturation flavors…. and that’s, unfortunately, exactly what has happened here.
Those lighter, fruitier flavors are the elements that come directly from the distilled wine. They are also the reason why you’d pick this over something like a sweet bourbon. The fact that they almost completely disappear from the picture means that all you are left with are French oak barrel flavors like brown sugar, baking spices, dark chocolate, and vanilla. All fine flavors, but not really what makes me pick this specific style of spirit over another. There is a bit of sweetness and dried raisin to the flavor, but it is a very small component of the larger story at this point.
When you think about it, a sidecar is just a French twist on a margarita. It has most of the same ingredients, just swapping lemon juice for lime juice and cognac for tequila. But while a margarita is supposed to be slightly sour, a sidecar is intended to be a more balanced cocktail. And while we do get a more balanced cocktail here, it also is missing something.
What’s making this balanced and delicious are the barrel maturation flavors — vanilla, brown sugar, caramel, dark chocolate. But these are, honestly, flavors that can come from just about any spirit. The reason why I would use a cognac for this cocktail is to get some of the dried fruit flavors incorporated into the cocktail as well… and that just doesn’t seem to be happening here. This is sweet and delicious, but without the complexity that I would have wanted.
Among the world of spirits snobs, Hennessy sometimes gets a bad reputation. But that reputation comes mainly from the fact that it’s such a popular spirit brand. People like it, people drink it, and I can certainly see why.
This is a great example of a young cognac. There are a lot of good barrel maturation flavors, as well as a bit of fruity awesomeness from the raw wine that went into the still, and that’s a great combination that is certain to be a crowd pleaser. But there’s a long way to go here to really be something excellent.
What’s missing from the flavor profile is the complexity and the buttery flavor that can be found in some other brands and some more mature bottles of cognac. This spirit hasn’t had enough time for the components to oxidate and esterify and mature in the barrel — a process that develops those more earthy, nutty, complex flavors that are prized by cognac drinkers.
What I’m really getting at here is that this tastes pretty good as-is, but there’s so much potential. I can’t wait to get my hands on a bottle with a bit more age on it and see what happens.
|Hennessy VS Cognac|
Classification: Cognac Brandy
Proof: 40% ABV
Price: $39.99 / 750 ml
Product Website: Product Website
Overall Rating: 4/5
A lot of barrel maturation flavors — vanilla, baking spices, dark chocolate, brown sugar — with a fruity and sweet accompaniment.