From the princes of rap to titans of industry, Cognac confers status. To mark the launch of the Hennessy 8 limited edition, Susan Skelly clinked glasses with brand ambassador Maurice-Richard Hennessy.
When it comes to symbolism, this year’s limited edition Hennessy 8 Cognac is all but drowning in it.
First there is the liquid gold itself – a blend of the eight eaux-de-vie (the building blocks of Cognac) that pays homage to a Cognac-making dynasty that has been blending Hennessy since the early 1800s. The decanter, made from hand-blown Baccarat crystal, is an architectural montage of eight crystal rings, again a nod to the eight master blenders: the current one, Yann Fillioux, his six predecessors, and his nephew Renaud Fillioux de Gironde, to whom Yann will hand over the baton.
The Hennessy 8 Cognac is cradled in a unique trunk designed by Paris-based Israeli artist and designer Arik Levy. Using oak staves from the Hennessy cooperage, Levy has created an object of 25 layers of wood, each symbolising 10 years of history, with copper inlays that nod to the metal tools used during the distilling process. With the bottle, the ensemble weighs in at 60kg.
The 250 bottles that make up the limited-edition cache represent the 250th anniversary of the House of Hennessy, founded by Irishman Richard Hennessy in 1765. Only 100 will be released this year, each with a price tag of €35,000 (A$52,750), individually numbered and signed by Arik Levy.
So, what does it taste like?
We put that question to Maurice-Richard Hennessy, an eighth-generation Hennessy who is a global ambassador for the brand (now part of the LVMH conglomerate), one late-autumn day at the Sydney bistro of chef Guillaume Brahimi. The occasion: an elegant repast hosted by Hennessy for fashionistas, foodies and spirit aficionados where fat white tulips tumbled from squat glass vases in a sea of gold-stemmed tulip-shaped glasses.
“It is elegant, extremely elegant, without bravura.” It doesn’t show off? “It doesn’t show off. Exactly! Voila!”
Gourmet Traveller Wine’s spirits editor Franz Scheurer offered his more formal tasting notes.
“The Cognac itself is ultra-smooth, with roasted hazelnuts on the nose combined with crystallised grapefruit peel. On the palate, it is instantly mouth-filling with some rancio and wood-forward characters that slowly dissipate into a raisiny, white chocolate and lily of the valley fragrance with a long, dark and sweet finish that seems to go on forever.”
Its maker, Yann Fillioux calls Hennessy 8 “absolute perfection … it is a master blender’s dream come true,” he says.
So what might it most resemble in the Hennessy Cognac portfolio? “You could say it is somewhat like VS,” says Hennessy. “But VS is much younger. [Hennessy 8] has the quality of a very old, concentrated Cognac, but without the exuberance of a Paradis Imperial…”
Limited-edition Cognac is part of the Hennessy strategy (collectors love it) … and a necessity.
Says Hennessy: “Production is limited; it takes 100 years to make 100-year-old Cognac. The fact is, we have a stock of old Cognac, but we have to bring it out slowly and leave other Cognacs to age so that during many dozens of years we will always have the amount necessary. We can’t make a large amount. Even Cognacs not known as collectors’ items, like Paradis Imperial, take time.”
Cognac is one of the main agricultural products of the Charente, a department in south-west France. The Charente is home to six crus, or growing regions. Hennessy draws its eaux-de-vie from four of them: Grande Champagne, Petite Champagne, Borderies and Fins Bois. Named for the town in the Charente, Cognac is a brandy – a distillation of grapes. Some 75,000 hectares are planted with the grapes that will become Cognac – colombard and folle blanche, but mostly the acidic, aromatic ugni blanc.
There are more than 300 brands of Cognac produced in the region, two dozen produced in significant quantities. Hennessy distils its wines twice, taking the “heart” from the second distillation and leaving it to age in French limousin oak barrels. What Hennessy does differently from other producers is to age separately each eau-de-vie, then blend, rather than the reverse. Other factors in the end result are: ageing time, barrels used, and the origin and quantity of the eaux-de-vie selected.
Hennessy has a capacity of some 300,000 barrels busy ageing in the region, shared among 50 chais (warehouses). Each is marked with batch number, vintage, growing area, name of vine grower and the number of barrels in batch.
There’s a tasting committee whose members have responsibilities for different parts of the process: oak-barrel ageing, relationships with wine growers, distilleries, winemaking process. Every day the group of eight meets to taste from 40 to 80 eaux-de-vie and decide on, for example, whether the batch needs to be transferred from young to seasoned barrels to control the oak influence. The committee, Maurice-Richard Hennessy tells us, tastes 10,000 Cognacs a year. “Ten that are considered outstanding are separated, aged and monitored until they have reached their summit of excellence, their summit of balance,” he says. “That could take from 30 to 100 years.”
The oldest vintage in stock, he says, dates to 1800. The US is the biggest market for Hennesy, in volume, with Hennessy VS being the biggest seller in that market. The Asian markets remain the most committed and notable collectors – “Cognac goes especially well with Asian food,” notes Hennessy, adding that Nigeria and South Africa are “amazing markets”, with Kenya and Cameroon growing.
According to Hennessy, the tulip glass has always been the best vessel to taste Cognac neat. It is the glass used by the tasting committee and master blender to taste the eaux-de-vie every day. Some claim it “better respects the aromas”.
Hennessy’s most unlikely ambassadors have been American rappers, who incorporated the lexicon of Cognac into their lyrics. Artists such as Kanye West, Eminem, Snoop Dogg and Tupac Shakur. By default, they introduced a new generation to the premium spirit.
“We did not ask them,” declares Hennessy, whose preferred Cognac tipple is XO on the rocks. “They started it and carried on doing it, and it was very useful. We love to entertain them … we have received a lot of artists and DJs in our [Friends of the House] château in Cognac [Château de Bagnolet].
“Rappers are artists. These are tough guys, they are people living a tough life when they are young. Coming from poor families, they have dreams: ‘When I am grown-up I will have a Bentley …. Cristal … Dom Perignon …’ That’s what they tell us in their songs. It’s the love. Why do they love to rhyme the word ‘Hennessy’? Because it is poetic.”
Or poetry in motion, as converts to the liquid gold that is a fine Cognac will attest.
This story first appeared in Crown Resorts’ Crystal magazine, September-December 2016