What is Cognac?

BarChick is fresh back from a trip to Cognac in France (it’s halfway down the West coast, just above Bordeaux), where we got busy learning about the beautiful spirit and how to have good cognac chat. Killer in a cocktail and found behind every bar; cognac is classic for a reason. And who better to learn from than the world’s number one, Hennessy? Pour yourself a glass and read on.

What is Cognac?

Cognac is a type of brandy. What’s brandy? Basically it’s a kind of ‘burnt wine’ produced by distilling wine. Typically it’s an after dinner drink, but we won’t judge if you crack some open sooner.

For a brandy to be called a Cognac it’s gotta pass some serious tests:

It has to have been aged for a minimum of two years.
It has to be double distilled in an alembic still (that’s two vessels connected by a tube).
It’s got to have a good grape game, and it has to come from the Cognac region. 98% of cognac is made from Ugni Blanc grapes (low in sugar but high in acidity) which lend themselves well to the distillation process.

Why Hennessy?

Hennessy is the world’s no.1 selling cognac, and for good reason, it produces 40% of the world’s cognac. Not only is it super old, founded in 1765 by an Irish guy called Richard Hennessy, but these guys have kept it in the family for 250 years and it’s been run by eight generations of the Hennessy family.

What’s Bagnolet? Aka the home of Hennessy

It’s not a type of cheese, it’s a pimp house which Richard’s grandson brought for his wife back in 1840 and it has been in the family ever since. No one from the Hennessy family lives there but it’s always full of guests. It’s beautiful, old school and has the best games table known to man, but you can only stay there if you’re VIP, like BarChick.

How to drink Hennessy Fine de Cognac and what it tastes like:

Floral, fruity and rounded. Give it a sniff and you’ll get hazelnut and nougat, but when you sip it expect flavours like Viennese coffee, candied citrus and bergamot. Basically, damn good.

Straight up

Go badass and sip it straight as Hennessy Fine de Cognac is perfect on its own. Hennessy represents the good life so of course hip hop is dripping in Hennessy shout outs, with everyone from Nas and 2Pac to Kanye West to Notorious B.I.G sipping it neat. Well, if it’s good enough for Ludacris, it’s good enough for us “grease don’t pop on the stove no more, moved on up, double shot of Hennessy filled my cup”.

Mix it up

If you’re yet to pop your cognac cherry, cocktails are a good place to start. With those sweet flavours it’s no surprise that 80% of cognac ends up getting shaken or stirred, here are some of the best.

Cognac Fun Facts

During Prohibition it was classed as a medicine so people could still carry on drinking it. Genius.
20 million bottles of cognac are lost every year through evaporation, this is called the angel’s share. Lucky angels.
Only 5% of cognac is actually consumed in France.
The Chinese can’t get enough of the stuff and are the biggest consumers.
It takes 9L of wine to make 1L eaux-de-vie.
Hennessy has the largest reserve of rare eaux-de-vie in the world.
Hennessy Paradis Imperial and Richard Hennessy are the big dog bottles, and it would be considered cognac treason to drink them any other way but neat. You’ve been warned. These bottles start at £1,500.

Wanna get really geeky? This is how they make the stuff:

Squishing & fermenting

After the grapes are picked they are squashed using low pressure presses, making grape juice. The grape juice is put into fermentation tanks and they add in some yeast - this eats up all the sugar then it dies and sinks to the bottom of the tanks (called the lees). It‘s then poured into pot stills which are enclosed in brick kilns.

Distilling

The brick kilns are heated up and this separates the alcohol from the liquid. From heating it up you get vapours that rise up through the swan’s neck and pass through to the condenser coil. The collected liquid is called the ‘broullis’, it’s distilled AGAIN and only the heart of the 'broullis' (the really good stuff) is kept; the heads are too high in alcohol content and the tails are flavourless.

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The Eau-de-vie

It is the name given to the liquid that collects in the barrel once the wine has been distilled twice. So, the eau-de-vie in the barrel at this point is 70% abv - too strong, even by BarChick standards. A load of the original liquid has been lost along the way; to put in in perspective it takes 9L of wine to make 1L of eau-de-vie. The liquid that has battled the odds now stays in the collecting barrel all summer before it is piped into specially selected French oak ageing barrels. Literally, the water of life, Hennessy Fine de Cognac is a mixture of 60 different eaux-de-vie, which have been selected for their floral and fruity aromas.

Maturation (more than just ageing) & Tasting 

It’s in these French oak barrels that it gets its golden colour and oaky flavour. The barrels are marked with the vintage (grape), cru (vineyard) and date (you know this one) and are stored in large, damp warehouses. Once a year the renowned Hennessy tasting committee lead by Yann Fillioux comes along for a sniff and a taste. Every single batch of Hennessy eau-de-vie is tasted that's about 3,500 batches - that's one helluva party.

Blending

The Hennessy family might have the name but it’s the Fillioux family who have got the noses. It’s kind of a family affair and these guys have been blending it for seven generations, passing down the memory of taste and aroma. Hennessy is the only major cognac house to sample all its reserves annually. When it reaches its peak it is blended with other batches of eaux-de-vie, it’s bottled and boom – that’s cognac, done.

Meet the Family

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