Hennessy is a drink with a history buried deep in the roots of France, and a future as diverse as you can make it.
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If you’ve never encountered it before, let’s start with the basics.
Hennessy is one of the leading brands of cognac on the market. In fact, it’s one of only four brands of cognac that make up over 90% of the cognac imported from France, where it’s made, to the U.S. every year.
Cognac is pronounced con-yak, but in French, so imagine the classiest con and the happiest yak, and you’re onto the spirit you’re looking for.
Cognac is a brandy (so it’s a double-distilled wine-based spirit, aged for at least two years in oak barrels). And whereas brandy can be made anywhere, and is, cognac can only be made in a handful of regions surrounding the area itself named Cognac, in France.
Right from the start then, Hennessy is something special. Protected from imitation, it’s a cognac that America has taken to its heart.
Like various grades of wine and whiskey, cognac comes in a number of ages, blends, and price-ranges, depending on how special the blend is deemed to be.
Cognac doesn’t earn the name cognac until it’s been doubled-distilled in copper, and aged at least two years in Limousin oak barrels, right there in France. To tell how aged and enriched your Hennessy is, all you really need to do is read the label.
- V.S. (Very Special) or ✯✯✯ (three stars) on the label means you have a blended cognac in which the youngest brandy has been aged for at least two years in an oak cask.
- V.S.O.P. (Very Superior Old Pale) or Reserve on the label means your Hennessy is a blend in which the youngest brandy is aged for at least four years in an oak cask.
- Napoléon on the label? At least six years in oak.
- XO (Extra Old) As of 2018, the minimum age of the youngest brandy used in an XO blend is 10 years in oak.
- XXO (Extra Extra Old) Hennessy will have been oak aged for at least 14 years.
Whichever level of Hennessy you have in your hands then, you’ve got something that’s taken a while to get to you. On the way, it’s developed from a relatively thin white wine, distilling to smoothness, taking on the flavor of the oak barrel, reducing in volume and intensifying in taste.
What you have by the time you open the bottle is a living history in liquid.
Flavorwise, it is rich, warming, mellow on the palate, and with a smooth, spiced character that only comes from that region in France where it’s made. If it comes from anywhere else, you can call it brandy – but you can’t call it cognac.
It’s a drink that has traditionally demanded a little ceremony to unlock the best of its secrets. The perfect glass, the perfect temperature, and not a little reverence, to savor the notes of its distillation, its oak-aging, and all the miles of time and distance it has traveled to become itself and to get to your hand.
These days, there are purists who still do all this, and there are modernists, who enjoy their Hennessy in a variety of ways, including spectacular cocktails.
How you perfect your pleasure with Hennessy will depend very much on what pleasure feels and tastes like to you.
So how should you drink Hennessy to make the most of its powers and pleasures?
How French are you feeling?
Back home in the old country, there’s never a question of doing anything to Hennessy. It’s a rich, delicate, multi-layered creation, made for sipping, and sipping only.
If you’re going to have your Hennessy in the French, traditional style, you need to choose between one of three types of glass.
- the tulip glass,
- the balloon glass, and
- the wobble snifter (yes, seriously, that’s what it’s called. It’s worth mentioning that we measure shots of spirit by the jigger, so…).
You choose your glass based on how you want to take your pleasure.
- The tulip glass is a bell-shaped, long wine glass. The shape allows the unique layered aromas to play on the surface of your cognac when you sip it.
- The balloon glass has only a short stem and a large body. That’s to allow the one thing the French will do with their Hennessy, which is to warm it. If you’re mystified by warming alcohol, think about the difference between a salad and a gumbo – many of the flavors locked inside a cognac like Hennessy have every chance of sliding past you as you sip it. By warming it up, you release flavor compounds and complexities that take the drink to the next level.
- The wobble glass or wobble snifter is actually designed not to be put down on any surface. Like the balloon glass but without a stem, the point of a wobble glass is that you have to keep it in your hand because you can’t put it down. That means it’s the heat of your own hand that opens up those flavor compounds and complexities. Many people at this point talk about the intimate connection between the drink and the drinker – you almost incubate the flavors out of it, and potentially, depending on the warmth of your hand, you unlock particular flavors unique to you in that moment.
The Classic Way
All of this speaks to the most traditional way to enjoy Hennessy – usually after a good dinner, with just a very few of your closest friends. There should be comfortable chairs and twilight, abysmal weather outside to look at from the safety of a warm and cosy room.
The low buzz of familiar, comforting conversation, a warm fire in the hearth, and a sense of ruminating about life, death, love, poetry, the state of the world and how best to put it right.
That’s a very traditional environment, but it’s one in which Hennessy has worked superbly for a hundred years or more, sparking memories, dreams, perhaps even loves from years gone by.
But that’s by no means the be-all and end-all of how you can get the perfect pleasure out of Hennessy. Especially since cognac makers as a breed and Hennessy in particular have spent read hardcore currency in diversifying their brand away from any sense of dusty old traditionalism.
If you want to drink your Hennessy that way, you absolutely can. But by the same token, you absolutely don’t have to anymore.
If you’re not ready yet for the good dinner and the buzz of amiable conversation, you can head for the nightlife so chic it squeaks, and you’ll find Hennessy waiting for you at whatever level of the social strata you party on.
Hennessy has been around long enough to have been part of – and to influence – cocktails for generations. So check out creations like a Champagne Bowler, a classic Sidecar, or a Japanese Cocktail, and what you’ll find are generations of interpretation of the complex Hennessy flavors and aromas, mixed and matched with unusual partners to bring out the layers in the spirit.
That’s a tradition of its own, which goes on to this day. Like the little black dress, the tailored suit, or the Cadillac, if you create something timeless, it will always be good, however often it’s re-invented and re-engineered. That’s what you find with Hennessy in bars and mixology labs across the country today.
Hennessy’s opening boldness is like a confident smile. Its nutty, woody notes suggest a ruggedness to its history, despite a smoothness on the tongue and the palate. The spiciness is a film star grin, and the floral notes it develops are an almost-laugh trapped in liquid. Modern cocktail makers are re-inventing the nature of the Hennessy cocktail by pairing it with whole new generations of flavor profile.
There are cocktails like the East Side Press, that add egg and ginger to a Hennessy cocktail, and even though it sounds like a bilious nightmare in the making, it cleverly connects flavor nodes in your brain and your soul and ends up elevating everything – including your night on the town.
There are people who add cold, unsweetened tea and simple syrup to a Hennessy, and again there’s no way on earth it should ever work, and again, it’s positively transcendent. Some people take an aged cognac and add pineapple and cranberry juices to it, and the cognac should probably struggle for the life of its woody flavors, but it doesn’t – it soars.
This is the point about Hennessy – it plays almost ridiculously well with others, so cocktail makers will continue to find new ways to accentuate its various notes, bringing out some, damping down others. One thing it’s safe to say though – you can have a heck of a night going from one Hennessy cocktail to another!
The Sipper’s Banquet
If you’re going to make a drink like Hennessy, you’re going to attract people who want to dissect it, understand it with the intellect, the nose, the palate, and in a real sense the imagination. You can find – or start! – a Hennessy tasting session somewhere near you.
If you want to enjoy a special cognac on every level, peel away the layers of its complexity like veils, you can do that with like-minded souls long before you hit the traditional zone.
Once you’ve tasted Hennessy, there’s every chance it will have a special place in your heart. If it does, and you want to experience that in a social setting somewhere between the nightclub and the armchair, you can find fellow enthusiasts planning tasting menus, pairing Hennessy at various temperatures with dishes that bring out its best.
What’s the perfect temperature for Hennessy?
There isn’t one – it plays well with everyone at all temperatures. Traditionally, it's been seen as being at its best when hand-warmed, but these days, you can find Hennessy coming straight from the freezer just as often.
The pleasure is in the exploration, the finding out of the perfect temperature, the perfect place, the perfect Hennessy preparation for you.
Wherever the joy lives in your heart – go there. Look around, familiarize yourself, and wait maybe ten minutes for the temperature to adjust.
The Hennessy you want will be with you soon.
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