Spirits Review: Hennessy V.S. Cognac

15 06 2018

By Dan Steeves

There is something about sipping on an exquisite fine spirit that provides a sense of sophistication and high class. It wasn’t always like that for me though. What was once an exercise of trying to stomach such liquids in the presence of my older and wiser siblings, a rite of passage you might say, eventually grew into an appreciation of their flavours and aromas once I was finally able to see past that burning sensation in my throat. I slowly gained a preference for whisky, single malt scotch, aged tequila and brandy, and these have been staples in my liquor cabinet ever since. When I was recently sent a sample bottle of Hennessy Cognac for review, I was pleasantly surprised and excited at the opportunity to taste and write up a spirit, instead of a wine, especially a bottle from one of the most iconic and best known Cognac producers (a place on the podium it has rightfully earned).

The unmistakable bottle shape of the Hennessy Very Special Cognac

Cognac is a type of brandy, a spirit made from grapes and the distillation of wine, that is produced is the Cognac region of France, just a short drive North from the famous Bordeaux wine region. The art of distilling the traditionally neutral and low-alcohol wines from the region has been practiced for hundreds of years and was originally done by Dutch merchants as a means of prolonging the life of the wines for transport to other markets. By law, Cognac must be produced using a specific copper pot still (the Charentais pot still, which is named after the Charente river that passes through the region). The base wine used for the production of Cognac can be made from up to eight different grape varieties, with the most popular being Ugni Blanc (more broadly known as Trebbiano). Grapes are grown at high yields which produce rather simple and, frankly, boring base wines with high acidity and low alcohol. The low alcohol levels in the initial wine mean that the finished spirit must be heavily concentrated through the distillation process to meet the legally required minimum alcohol levels for the spirit, which in turn also means a significant concentration of the aromas and flavours as well.

No additives (chaptalisation, sulphur dioxide, etc.) or other shortcuts are allowed in the production of the base wine so as to keep it as pure as possible and prevent any potential off flavours and aromas being emphasized in the final spirit. After distillation, the spirit (also known as the “eau-de-vie”, or “water of life”) is then placed into oak barrels for maturation for a minimum of two years before it can be called Cognac. Similar to the large Champagne houses, Cognac producers each have a signature style and character that is dutifully replicated every year through masterful blending of various aged eaux-de-vie, such that finished Cognacs are non-vintage (or, more accurately, multi-vintage) creatures, each classified according the age of the youngest spirit in the blend. The three main designations are V.S. (Very Special, 2 year minimum aging), V.S.O.P. (Very Superior Old Pale, 4 year minimum aging), and X.O. (Extra Old, 6 year minimum aging).  If only all legal alcohol designations had such cool acronyms. Although these minimum aging requirements are relatively low, it is very common for the blends to have eaux-de-vie with an average age far exceeding the minimum.

A five star label on the Hennessy V.S. (originally called the three star)

Cognac is dominated by a small handful of large producers that account for over 90% of the production in the region. Although all of these top producers are well known (Remy Martin, Courvoisier, Camus, etc.), Hennessy is the most well known and popular producer, especially in North America, where it has been exported for over 225 years and is the #1 market for the brand. Hennessy has also been at the forefront of Cognac innovation,  being one of the first spirits producers to offer its product in bottles rather than shipping oak barrels and also being the creator of the amazingly named Very Special, V.S.O.P and X.O. designations. Hennessy sets a benchmark with all their Cognac, be it the Very Special or Extra Old,  and thanks in part to the largest collection of eaux-de-vie in the world has created some of the most premium Cognac in the world. It’s no wonder it is part of LVMH (Louis Vuitton Moet Hennessy) group representing all of life’s luxuries.

Straight up goodness – my favourite way to enjoy a glass

The Hennessy Very Special Cognac is the producer’s entry level offering, featuring oak maturation of the eau-de-vie lasting between 2-5 years. I would consider V.S. to be the gateway Cognac: it really shows off the flavour and character of Cognac, and its fair pricing can get many hooked and start them jonesing for something even better – a V.S.O.P., or even that iconic X.O.. It can be enjoyed neat or on ice and, if you’re a cocktail fan, it’s a perfect base for a whole slew of mixology staples. I decided to take both roads, to first try a glass by itself to get a good sense of the flavours and aromas and then to dust off my bartending skills and craft a couple classic cocktails. On its own, the Hennessy V.S. offers intense aromas of vanilla, butterscotch, orange zest, fresh pear, and a zing like a  newly opened package of Maynards Sour Cherry Blasters. On the palate it is powerful and spicy with flavours of vanilla bean, grape flavoured Fun Dip, almond, oak, and resin. The flavours persist for a long finish carrying lingering vanilla and menthol notes, but what stands out overall is the spirit’s impeccable balance. Thanks to its generous helpings of citrus and fruit, the V.S. is great with cocktails featuring complementary citrus flavours, so I decided to try two old French cocktails: The Sidecar and the French 75.

The Sidecar

The Sidecar was created in Paris after World War I and is likely the most popular Cognac cocktail out there.  It is a mix of Cognac, Triple Sec and lemon juice, and its light sweetness is perfectly balanced by cleansing acidity. It goes down all too easy and is a fantastic digestif to enjoy after a meal. Add 2oz Hennessy V.S. Cognac with 3/4oz Triple Sec and 3/4oz lemon juice in a shaker with ice. Shake well and strain into the cocktail glass of your choice and garnish with an orange twist.

The French 75

The French 75 has reigned supreme as the king of all Champagne cocktails since its inception, but it is debatable whether it is made with the inclusion of Cognac or Gin. You really can’t go wrong with either spirit in the mix, but when made with Cognac it definitely gives the resulting beverage a fuller, deeper flavour profile. A mix of Cognac, lemon juice, simple syrup and Champagne (or any dry sparkling wine), it is refreshing and poised and is an ideal start to any gathering with friends. Add 1.5oz Hennessy V.S. Cognac with 1/2oz lemon juice and 1/2 oz simple syrup in a shaker with ice. Shake well and strain into Champagne flute or tall cocktail glass and top with 4oz of Moet Imperial Brut Champagne (keep it in the family) and a lemon twist.

I hope you’re able to give these cocktails a try this summer. Prepare for good times as your day will most certainly get better if you do. Cheers to all those fathers out there on your celebratory weekend – and if you’re someone scrambling to find an appropriate gift for any such fathers before Sunday, a homemade Hennessy Cognac cocktail set would be a pretty sweet place to start!

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