Hennessy: 250 Years of Cognac and Culture
There was a long–standing myth about cognac. For years people thought that cognac drinkers were either silver haired white dudes or rappers. While those two groups like cognac, it’s a spirit that many people enjoy. It wasn’t until recently that cognac has been brought back into the spotlight. The credit for this goes to millennials for craving cognac in their cocktails, though it looks like Gen X is getting in on it as well. Without a doubt the best selling cognac in the world is, Hennessy.
When anyone thinks of an iconic spirit brand, Hennessy has to be on top of the list. It’s mentioned on television shows, in music, online, basically anywhere and everywhere. Hennessy is so intertwined with culture, most people don’t realize how much of an influence the cognac has had around the world. It’s not something I thought about until I was invited to Maison Hennessy in France. I got up close and personal with the brand’s 250 years of history.
Hennessy is made in Cognac, France, where all cognac is made. It’s a charming town of about 22,000 people. I found the town to be incredibly tranquil. There were very few people strolling through the streets, but all of them greeted me with a quick smile and “bonjour”.
The vast majority of residents work in the cognac industry from the distillery to the bottling factory. Hennessy is the only cognac house that employs and trains coopers (a maker of casts and barrels). I had the opportunity to watch a cooper build a barrel from start to finish. It’s a unique art form to see in action. The cooper was only 25 and has been learning how to build barrels since he was 14 years old. It’s a tradition that has been passed down from other family members who have also been coopers at Hennessy.
While visiting the vineyard was a thrill, when I entered a cellar that contained eaux de vie from the 18th century it took my breath away. Eau de vie, means “water of life in French”, it’s a clear and colorless brandy that is used to make the cognac. The smell of it filled the cellar. It reaped of history and elegance. I imagined the royalty who inspired what was in some of the barrels. Hennessy V.S.O.P. was created in 1817 by a request from the future King of England, George IV, while their exquisite, Paradis Imperial, was inspired by Tsar Alexander I of Russia. The cellar that we visited is so important that a security guard had to come and unlock it. The eaux de vie is dispersed in various cellars so that if there is a catastrophe all is not lost. After all, Hennessy has the largest reserve of eaux-de vie in the world.
The Hennessy Tasting Committee gets together every day for an hour to taste a selection of eaux de vie. This is how they decide what it will be used for V.S., V.S.O.P, X.O. or Imperial. Sitting around and sipping eaux de vie sounds like a cush job right? The committee does work that is even more crucial. To ensure the quality of the cognacs, the committee members work one on one with farmers in the community to ensure that their eaux de vie is up to par. Hennessy has been working with some of the same farmers for many years. They are big on tradition from the start to finish with their cognacs.
On my last night in Cognac, I had the pleasure of attending a dinner at the Hennessy home, Château de Bagnolet. Our host for the night was the ever charming, Maurice Hennessy. Over a four course meal, he shared the history of his family and stories of celebrities who have been to the chateau . Having dinner at Bagnolet is a unique experience that is for invited guests and Hennessy’s clients. If you ever get invited, do yourself a favor and say yes.
What I think has made the brand, Hennessy, so successful is that it embraces people from all walks of life. Their cognac is to be enjoyed by everyone, whether they are a king, rapper, business woman or stay–at-home mom. Also while some iconic brands have a bit of sexism or racism in their history, Hennessy has a long history of supporting people of color and advocating for women’s rights.
To stay on the forefront of pop culture, Hennessy is always collaborating with celebrities, artists, and musicians. This has helped the spirit stay legendary. It’s hard to find someone who doesn’t known about Hennessy or as it’s affectionately called “Henny”.
Next time you are in the countryside of France make cognac one of your stops. Hennessy recently built a new state of the art visitor center so you can go on a sensory journey with the cognac. Don’t forget to experience a cognac tasting, that’s the best part.