In 1745 the Irish ship captain Richard Hennessy, a fleet officer of the French king Louis V, discovered the region of Charente and the city of Cognac during battle. Enchanted by the beautiful French countryside, he chose this spot to create Hennessy 20 years later. He was known to have shared that it was only thanks to his family’s acquaintances and to the contacts he has made during his travels around the world, that the Hennessy cognac could reached hundreds of points worldwide so fast.
This is the power and importance of the network of contacts – as rated 3 centuries ago.
The facts speak for themselves. Hennessy became a supplier of cognac to aristocratic and royal homes in Europe, including the French King, the Russian King Alexander I, the English King George IV, and so on. The first quantities of cognac for the United States left in 1794, after which the drink reached shores of India, Russia, South America, Australia, China and Japan. By 1860, a quarter of all cognacs in the world bore the name of Hennessy. By 1865 Richard Hennessy’s cognac had reached all continents.
In 1813, Richard’s son James gave the company the name it still bears today: Jas Hennessy & Co. Since 1765 and to this day, eight generations of the family have maintained and developed the brand, unsurpassable quality and prestige of the alcoholic beverage. To ensure its sustainability, in 1971 Hennessy united with Moët & Chandon, setting up the Moët Hennessy group. This led to a massive development and a doubling of sales over the next 15 years. In 1987, the brand joined in alliance with Louis Vuitton, launching LVMH – the most significant French luxury group.
Behind this story are hidden many years of tradition, the life work of entire families, and a passion for maintaining the highest quality of drink. This can be traced “live” if you visit the Hennessy headquarters in Cognac – the only place in the world where cognac is made. Visits are organised to the cellars and the Hennessy Space. Located in the company’s oldest cellars, where wood-beamed ceilings and blackened walls testify to long years of existence, this space offers an interactive walk through the company’s history, as well as information about the whole process of the creation of the fragrant amber drink. Hennessy’s guests also have the chance to visit a small contemporary art gallery, as well as an elegant boutique. The visit of Hennessy ends with a professional tasting that completes the magic of a world where traditions dominate for more than three centuries … And no doubt – finding out all its intricate details may leave you in dismay.
Photo credit: Dmitrij Rodionov
The cognac goes a long way from the vine to the consumer. Only white grapes of the variety Ugni Blanc – aromatic and especially adapted for distillation – are used for its production. In order to ensure the exclusivity of its flavours, Hennessy grows grapes in 4 protected and controlled regions: Grande Champagne, Petite Champagne, Borderies et Fins Bois, spread over 600 hectares of vineyards and more than 2,500 vine growers. Following double distillation in copper vessels, largely identical to the first ones of three centuries ago, the cognac is stored in oak barrels. To date, they are still made by hand and their master is one of the most revered workers in the company. He himself comes from the family who has been responsible for this task for over a hundred years. The master personally selects the most suitable among the two-eyed oaks – mostly in the French forest Tronçais, sown for the needs of the Louis XIV fleet. Of course, the company plants new trees for each one they cut down. The planks of these oaks are then dried for three years. Then the boards are split and tightened with metallic hoops by hand. The whole process hasn’t changed for centuries. No machines, no modern technology. Ropes of special fabric wrap the barrels – if there are parasites that can attack the barrels, they will first appear on those ropes. In the barrels, the smell of cognac is enough to leave you dazzled – you do not even need to drink.
Over 300,000 barrels of brandy are kept in Hennessy’s reserves. Each year, from April to September, every day at exactly 11 am, a committee of seven tasters tests each vintage that matures in the oak barrels and decides how to sort every one of them. Those which are ripening go to glass-faced decanters (dames-jeannes), dressed in a knit wicker, so that no light can penetrate and damage the drink. The oldest ones have kept cognac since 1800. This is Hennessy’s gold, it’s kept under lock.
Masters of the tasting group are Hennessy`s successor (currently a seventh generation Hennessy, who will hand over the baton to his nephew – the 8th generation, in June 2018) and Maître Yann Fillioux – responsible for the development and ageing of the drink. Six generations of the family, since 1802, have had the most responsible task, the one of preserving the style, taste and quality of production. These are the people who make the ‘assemblage’ (blends). In time, the crops change in taste. The unique task is to combine different age beverages, to always achieve the same taste and quality of each blend: VS (Very Special), XO (eXtra Old), Hennessy Paradis in the famous bottle-carafe X. Oh, Paradis Impérial (19th-century cognac assemblage), Richard Hennessy, named after its creator. It has gathered 250 years of knowledge and it’s placed in crystal decanters, each with its own number and a price tag of over EUR 3000.
An absolute leader in cognac trade, today Hennessy is sold in over 130 countries around the world. Annually, more than 50 million bottles reach different corners of the planet and enchant with the flavour the precious drink. According to the company’s statistics, due to the specifics of the product and its production, almost 6 million bottles of cognac evaporate every year. What a loss for the connoisseurs of this amber treasure! But, as traditions dictate, this is the risk of preserving quality.
Text and photos by Aneta Nedyalkova
Cover photo by Yulia Belousova