Before I tried Hennessy for the first time, my knowledge of the spirit didn’t extend much beyond song lyrics and the notion that this particular brand was a luxury item. When Baku, a high-end Japanese restaurant in SouthPark, hosted a tasting with House of Hennessy Ambassador Marc Boissonnet, I raised my glass to the educational opportunity. Here are my takeaways for the novice cognac drinker:
(1) Hennessy is made from wine.
Cognac is a variety of brandy made from white wine, traditionally very dry and thin. The spirit is distilled twice and aged in French barrels, which impart flavor. “As far as Hennessy is concerned, we do everything possible to reflect the origin — the grape, the wine, the terroir, where it comes from,” says Boissonnet. And like wine, the price can vary drastically. Bottles of Hennessy can run anywhere from $35 to $5,000. At Baku, a flight of three types of Hennessy costs $25.
(2) All Cognac adheres to strict rules.
Similar to champagne, in order for a spirit to bear the name “Cognac,” it must meet very specific legal requirements. These requirements include being produced in the wine-growing region surrounding Cognac, France, using specific grape varietals, being twice distilled in copper pot stills and must be aged in French oak barrels for a minimum of two years (though most cognacs age much longer than the legal minimum).
(3) Simple is best when drinking Hennessy.
Boissonnet explained that in France, cognac is enjoyed “very plain,” simply sipped. A long drink, he said, does justice to Hennessy and cognac in general. His suggestion? Add some bubbles: “Doing it in a nice Burgundy glass with a solid ice cube and a dash of sparkling water … that’s a way to enjoy it.”
(4) Hennessy’s recipes have been in use since the early 1800s.
I tried three variations of Hennessy (VSOP, VS and XO), and the earliest of the three was first produced in 1817. Hennessy VS was first imagined as a recipe in 1865 and XO in 1870. Though the core spirits of the brand obviously have staying power, Hennessy produces variations on the assemblage, such as Hennessy Paradis (believed to be the preferred drink of former North Korean leader Kim Jung-il), Paradis Imperial and Hennessy Black. The brand also has different flavor profiles for its markets across the globe.
(5) Look for Hennessy cocktails made with fresh ginger.
Though it’s best to drink it straight, cocktails are still made with Hennessy. As far as trends go, Boissonnet pointed out that the bartending industry is cyclical; old trends tend to repeat after a number of years. Be on the lookout for cocktails with fresh ginger: “A few years ago we talked about sazerac, and a few years ago we had a lot of mint juleps with Hennessy VSOP. Now we are into using fresh ginger.”
Don’t be afraid to make your own Hennessy cocktails at home.
Photos: Katie Coleman. Photo of Marc Boissonnet, courtesy of subject.