Though I certainly think of myself as a scholar of spirits (like Scotch and rye whisky), until recently Cognac remained a considerable gap in my libation habits. However, I rectified the problem by sitting down for a chat and tasting with Hennessy’s Ambassador, Cyrille Gautier Auriol.
Cognac is a type of brandy produced in the region surrounding the town of Cognac, France. In order to be properly called Cognac, white wine (from a list of specified grapes) is twice distilled in copper pot stills to produce eau de vie. It must then mature in French oak barrels from Limousin or Tronçais. The vast majority of Cognacs are blended from a number of eau de vie; forty go into the approachable Hennessy VS, whereas over one hundred are selected for the sophisticated Hennessy XO.
Hennessy VS is golden, with a vanilla nose. It has a sharp palette of robust spice, fruit, and soft wood notes. The finish is smooth, but with a hint of cinnamon. Auriol likes to compare VS to a sporty convertible suitable for twenty-somethings; it’s a luxury, but it’s an approachable one.
Hennessy Black is a smoother, milder version of the VS. It is intended for premium cocktails.
Hennessy VSOP is the darkest of ambers, with a complex nose of fruits, honey, and spices that a sentimental man might associate with Christmas. The palate is subtle and velvety, with notes of cloves, cinnamon, and more fruit. The finish warms everything from the cheekbone to the chest.
Hennessy XO is a translucent ochre, with a rich nose of ripe fruit, chocolate, and black Cavendish. The palate is powerful and elegant, with notes of fruit, black pepper, and rich oak. The finish, of vanilla and cinnamon, lingers long after the glass is emptied.
Though Cognac is produced according to exacting specifications, it is not, surprisingly, a fussy drink. Auriol advises that Hennessy VS is served mixed in long drinks and cocktails as often as it’s served neat, Hennessy Black is intended for cocktailing, and even the sophisticated Hennessy VSOP is unashamedly mixed with ginger or Angostura bitters.
Appropriately enough, Auriol and I finished off our tasting with a cocktail dubbed the Hennessy ‘Capitalism’, because the barman at the Trump Hotel in Toronto has a sense of humour. You can make yours at home with a half ounce of St. Germain Elderflower liqueur, an ounce of Hennessy XO, two peels of burnt orange added for zest, and a generous portion of Veuve Clicquot Rose, all shaken together. However, you’ll probably have to head to the Trump if you want yours garnished with gold flakes.
Hennessy VS, Black, VSOP, and XO come in 750 mL bottles and retail in Ontario for $59.95, $75.60, $94.95, and $237.90, respectively. The Hennessy ‘Capitalism’ can be purchased at the Trump Hotel in Toronto for $85.