From a Soldier's Hunch to a Love Affair with Royalty: How Hennessy Put France's Cognac on Tipplers' Map
At the age of 20, Hennessy left Ireland in 1724 to join the army of King Louis XV. But many might have thought the boy was cut out for a different job. He was.
Bottles of Cognac are stored at the Hennessy factory in Cognac, southwestern France. (Reuters)
To honour the newly drafted treaty of Limerick with England in 1691, the Irish forces under Patrick Sarsfield left their motherland for France. So now the French had in their army an Irish brigade proudly marching on. One of the warriors among them was Richard Hennessy, the youngest son of Lord Ballymacmoy.
The boy at the prime age of 20, left Ireland in 1724 to join the army of King Louis XV. But he sustained injuries in the Battle of Fontenoy. Many might have thought the boy was cut out for a different job.
As he settled in the Cognac region of France to let the injuries heal, Hennessy's eyes fell on the specialty of the landscape around. Although French brandy was already in demand among drinkers around the world, anything from the Cognac part of France with its supreme varieties of grapes was special and treated with supreme respect. Soon brandy distilled from the grapes of the region came to be known as Cognac.
In 1765, leaving behind that brief stint in his life as a soldier, Irishman Richard Hennessy started a distillery in France to distill brandy, with perhaps little hope that it would become the most popular Cognac in the world. His ambition was to export the new drink to England, Ireland and a little beyond. That was all.
It was James Hennessy, Robert's son who made the cognac a global legend. Take a close look at the bottle and you can read "Jas. Hennessy" on the label, Jas being a short name for James.
It was a milestone in the history of cognac when Hennessy finally touched the shores of the US in the 19th century, claiming international recognition. Soon the Prince of Wales, later to become King George IV of Great Britain, being an ardent cognac connoisseur himself, asked Hennessy in 1817 whether it could create something special for his court. A "very superior old pale" cognac alias Hennessy V.S.O.P was born (now you can see the initials in so many bottles. Well, it started it out with a King's request to Hennessy).
More royal requests came by.
Empress Maria Federovna of Russia wanted to gift his son, who would later become Czar Alexander I, on his birthday with a special cognac. Any idea, Mr. Hennessy? Soon Hennessy found its home in frigid Russia as well, pampering the thirsty souls in royal courts and aristocratic mansions.
The Cognac's unabated thirst to conquer the world knew no bounds as bottles of Hennessy 3-star traveled with Paul-Emilie Victor in 1949 to the far end of the planet — the Arctic.
The only challenge Hennessy had to face during its 250-year-old journey was the Prohibition era. But it survived on the grounds that it had 'medicinal properties' and was hence available in drugstores in the US.
Today, Hennessy comes in different expressions. Ranging from VS (Very Special) through X.O to VSOP, the system of classifying cognac according to its merit began at Hennessy and was later copied by many other brands in the industry.
Mark my words, it will burn a hole in your pocket if you don't understand the nomenclature. For example, make sure that you’re loaded before you place an order for the 250-year-old anniversary bottle named after founder Richard Hennessy. And sip slowly if you get anywhere near an offer, enjoying each molecule of the manna.
So, what goes into the legendary cognac?
Grapes (Ugni Blanc) harvested from the soil of the Cognac region, surrounding the river Charante put their unique signature on Hennessy. The chalky soil colludes with the sunny temperate climate of the region, perfecting its vineyards. Hennessy uses only the eau-de-vie from the first four crus for distillation.
Once the grapes are pressed, the juice extracted will be allowed to ferment for a couple of weeks after adding special yeast cells. The fermented liquid is distilled using traditional Charentais copper stills to create an eau-de-vie that has around 70% alcohol. They repeat the distillation, in true blue cognac style. After that, the distilled wine is ladled into casks made from planks sourced from nearby Limousin or Tronçais forest.
It's time to begin the fine art of blending.
Nearly fifty (some have 100) eau-de-vies are blended to create the precise tone and tint of Hennessy that the connoisseurs all of the world fawn over.
You can imagine how meticulous the work behind is when you learn that it takes ten years of apprenticeship on the Comité de Dégustation (Tasting Committee) to become a professional Hennessy taster in the company. Once qualified, you become part of a group where your only job is to evaluate each eau-de-vie that goes into Hennessy Cognac.
Hennessey's premium expressions like Hennessy VS, Hennessy Black, VSOP Privilege, Richard Hennessy etc can be enjoyed neat or mixed in drinks.
For the Winter season, Hennessy has thrown in an assortment of cocktail ideas. You can check a couple of them out to fortify yourself against approaching cold.
The Hennessy Honey
1.5oz of Hennessy
0.2oz of acacia honey
1.5oz of hot water
1 slice of lemon
In a glass add Hennessy, honey and water. Stir to dissolve honey. Add a slice of lemon.
The Hennessy Winter's Spirit
1.5oz of Hennessy
1.5oz of hot water
0.2 oz of sugarcane syrup
2 lemon supremes(without the peel, pith and skin)
1 thin slice of ginger
1 orange twist
In a glass add Hennessy, sugar, lemon, and ginger. Top with hot water and garnish with an orange twist.
(Manu Remakant is a freelance writer who also runs a video blog - A Cup of Kavitha - introducing world poetry to Malayalees. Views expressed here are personal)
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