Hennessy: A Brief History
Born in 1765 at the hands of an Irish military man named Richard Hennessy, the Hennessy brand name has managed to stay quite relevant for over 250 years. Purchased over time by other high-end brands like Moet et Chandon, Louis Vuitton, and even having connections with Christian Dior, Hennessy stays fixed in the lap of luxury.
Background on Cognac
Many will call Hennessy a brandy; however, it is technically a cognac. Brandies, generally speaking, are any distilled spirit made from fermented fruit. Cognac is a type of brandy made from grapes or wine.
Made in a region called Cognac, France, Hennessy is officially a cognac. By rule, cognac must be double distilled utilizing a copper pot still. Cognac is often a blend of multiple Eaux-de-vie (literally meaning water of life but referring to the distilled wine product with very fruity flavors). Cognac will spend time aging in Limousin or Tronçais oak casks and the finished product must be 40% ABV.
Cognacs are Expensive...For a Reason
The reasoning behind the higher average price point can seem elusive but can really be pinned down to one thing: specificity of ingredients. Cognac must be made in the Cognac region of France. It is required to be made from white wine grapes grown in the region.
While other spirits can be made with inexpensive products like wheat, barley, or other cheap grains and products, cognac requires the premium ingredient of grapes grown in a very specific place. In addition, cognac features blends of multiple types of fermented product varying in age. Simply put, cognac is expensive because it is made from expensive things.
Hennessy narrows the ingredient list down even further by using the Ugni Blanc grape exclusively. The Ugni Blanc is described as fruity, with some citrus notes, lending itself to being ideal for production into the Eaux-de-vie blends that will become cognac.
Supply and Demand
In addition to expensive base ingredients, cognac is finding another reason to have a higher average price point than other spirits. It is the old rule of supply and demand. If demand outweighs supply, then the supplier can charge more for its product.
Cognac producers, including Hennessy (who happens to make 40% of the total cognac supply), have started having to hold back supplies as the demand has risen to almost impossible proportions. For fear of running out, cognac makers are limiting supplies being sent out and are allocating supplies to places like China who consume it most.
With that said, Hennessy does ensure to produce offerings that are affordable to “normal” people. With the Hennessy VS and newer Hennessy Black renditions, Hennessy makes itself available to those who cannot afford a multi-thousand dollar bottle.
The Big Boys
Speaking of bottles of Hennessy that cost thousands of dollars, let’s take a look closer at a couple of those offerings. Do not fear, there is no charge for just talking about them...I hope.
Coming in just under the $1000 price point, Hennessy Paradis is named after a traditional cognac term. The term “Paradis” is used to describe the special hiding place cognac producers have to keep their oldest, most prized vintage cognacs. Imagine a cellar filled with old, dusty barrels teeming with aged cognac. This is Paradis.
Given its name, one could assume that this blend features many old, prized Eaux-de-vie amongst its ingredients. It would appear that the more finesse and consideration a cognac requires, the higher its price may be. With that, let’s look at the older, wiser, more expensive (about two grand more expensive, that is) brother to Paradis: Paradis Imperial.
Hennessy Paradis Imperial
The Paradis Imperial comes with a ton of historic strings attached. This blend traces its roots all the way back to 1818. At the request of the Dowager Empress of Russia, Hennessy created this special blend as a gift for her son - a certain Tsar Alexander I.
How does this relate to the current Paradis Imperial? Well, master blender (and apparent history buff) Yann Fillioux decided he would like to recreate this once made masterpiece. After much research and utilizing some precious and old Eaux-de-vie, he was able to recreate the one time gift to the Tsar.
As we can see, rare blends, hard work, and historic background can really ramp the price of a cognac up quite a bit.
Everyone wants to know what the most expensive bottle of Hennessy is. Well it’s not a secret! Richard Hennessy tops the charts at a whopping $4000+. As described by Maurice Richard-Hennessy, one time CEO of the Jas Hennessy & Co., it is a blend of the Grands Siècles (a unique and special blend of 100 Eaux-de-vie) some of which may date back to the 1800s.
Its namesake is obviously THE Richard Hennessy, founder of what is now the most popular cognac and largest producer in the world. Created in 1996, to honor the legacy of Richard Hennessy, it features blends from 40 - 200 years of aging. All that aging means only one thing - it is expensive...and probably quite a good cognac.
The Alphabet Explained
If we have all had a moment to catch our breath from some of those prices, let’s talk about the letters that spell out some mysterious code on the bottles. In reality, it is not that tricky of a code. If you look at the price chart below, you can see several Hennessy varieties followed by some letters. These letters are utilized throughout the cognac industry, so you may see them on other brands of cognac as well. Let’s look at what those letters mean:
Hennessy VS: Very Special; this indicates that the youngest in the blend is at least two years old.
Hennessy XO: Extra Old; Be sure not to call anyone XO out there! As of April 2016, this means that the youngest in the blend is at least ten years old.
Hennessy VSOP Privilege: Very Special Old Pale; indicates that the youngest in the blend is at least four years old; however, these are often far older blends.
Hennessy Brand Average Prices
$17.99 - $19.99
$33.99 - $38.99
$49.99 - $52.99
$74.99 - $82.99
$199.99 - $229.99
Hennessy pure white
$94.99 - $139.99
$39.99 - $46.99
Hennessy VSOP Privilege
$51.99 - $58.99
$799.99 - $999.99
Hennessy Paradis Imperial
$2399.99 - $2799.99
$3799.99 - $5499.99
Hennessy VS Limited Edition
$39.99 - $49.99
Master Blender's Selection No 2
$94.99 - $99.99
As you can imagine, the cognac community is quite tight-knit, given its small regional requirements. The majority of the more popular cognacs originate around the same time frame (early to mid 1700s). Here is a list of alternatives to Hennessy that are quite popular in their own right and similar in price point.
Typical Price Point
1738 Accord Royal
As we have seen, cognac does have a higher price point than many spirits on the market. However, the time, ingredients, and creativity involved in the process explain why we should expect to pay a little more when searching for a good cognac.
Hennessy Cocktail Recipes
While a cocktail may not be the first thing that comes to mind when discussing cognac, specifically Hennessy, it has become more and more popular to blend the more affordable cognacs into a tasty drink.
Hennessy recommends utilizing their VS or Black blends in cognac-based cocktails. Naturally, these recipes do not suggest using the $4000 Richard Hennessy. Here are some recipes to enjoy cognac in a new way.
The ice goes in a shaker. Cognac, lemon juice and triple sec also go in the same shaker. Shake very well. Strain it into the glass and do not forget to express the orange peel after pouring.
The Mint Julep
First use your muscle to muddle one sprig of mint, with the simple syrup and bitters into the bottom of your glass. Take the muddled mint out. Now, pour ice into the same glass. In goes the cognac, whilst stirring. Add the mint sprigs as a garnish.
The Old Fashioned - Cognac Style
Put the sugar cube in the bottom of an old-fashioned glass. Splash it with the bitters and the little soda water, then crush it up into the bottom of the glass. Add two ice cubes and 20 ml of cognac and stir. Add one ice cube and 20 ml of cognac and stir. Add last ice cube and 20 ml of cognac and stir. Garnish with the twist of orange peel.