Hennessy recently celebrated its 250th birthday. (And yet it still feels like a new kid on the block, since Martell just reached the big 3-0-0.) Like all purveyors of cognac, it will always be associated with France, but there’s a little more to the story: The founder was an Irishman turned French soldier, Richard Hennessy.

We salute this cultural collision with a concise guide to cognac, including a special St. Pat’s Day cocktail from Hennessy’s master mixologist Jordan Bushell for those who can’t handle another pint of Guinness. (Note: The cocktail includes Guinness, but hey, other things too.)

A 2013 analysis found that rappers had name-dropped Hennessy 141 times, more times than any other liquor of any type.

Before the drink, there was a place. Located roughly 250 miles southwest of Paris on the Charente river, Cognac is surrounded by wine-producing countryside. Thanks to a population under 20,000, you likely never would have heard of it without a certain type of brandy that is unique due to France’s…

Rules and regulations. In 1909, the French government decreed cognac could only be produced in an area around Cognac. They also mandated:
The wines used must come from specified grape varieties.
These wines must be distilled twice in copper pot stills.
Following the double distillation, it must be aged at least two years in oak barrels made of wood from France’s Limousin and Troncais forests.

Once these steps are complete, we’re finally ready to actually make cognac.

IMG_6041Martell’s Château de Chanteloup is famed for tame deer; these critters weren’t so lucky.

All about the blend. The initial stages create an eaux-de-vie (literally “water of life”). Only after the combining of an eaux-de-vie with at least one other eaux-de-vie is cognac created. This is the master blender’s challenge: mix one liquid years in development with something else years in the making to produce a superior 80-proof end result.

A label’s unique character. Individual brands each have a particular take on cognac. (Hennessy only uses the Ugni Blanc grape, for example.) One of the pleasures of exploring cognac is discovering which approaches suit your personal palette. Or just go by which company has the nicest chateau. (Martell has a particularly impressive offering, with a herd of deer on their estate so tame they come up and eat from your hand, should you be into that sort of thing.) 

IMG_6230 Hennessy offers a chance to behold a timeless fortune of sweet booze.

The codes of cognac. As you look at bottles, remember:

“VS” means “Very Special” and guarantees at least two years of aging. (Since the elements of cognac may be different ages, the youngest included must hit the two-year minimum. The same principle applies, for the record, to blended Scotch.)
“VSOP” means “Very Superior Old Pale” and guarantees at least four.
“XO” means “Extra Old” and guarantees at least six.

That said…

Cognac can get much older. In 2012 a customer at London’s Playboy Club broke a bottle of Clos de Griffier Vieux from 1788 valued at $77,615. And the most expensive bottle of cognac is reportedly an 1805 Massougnes put on the market in 2015 for $231,200—let’s be careful with that one, people. Indeed, cognac is considered…

Acceptable for an Emperor. Napoleon visited Courvoisier warehouses and declared his artillery companies should get “wine in the evening and cognac in the morning”; legend has it he brought several casks with him to exile on the island of St. Helena. Napoleon III proclaimed Courvoisier “Official Supplier to the Imperial Court.” In 1910, Courvoisier created Napoleon Fine Champagne to “celebrate our unique relationship with France’s first emperor.” Even so…

IMG_5864Napoleon died in 1821, but his cognac of choice lives on.

Cognac does not need to stand alone. If you’re new to cognac and don’t feel like breaking the bank, it’s perfectly fine to get a bottle of VS for about 30 bucks and treat it like whiskey by adding a little water to open up the taste. Or use it as an element of a cocktail. Nas suggests it as part of the Hennessy “Big Apple” recipe. And that iconic MC is hardly unique since…

It’s the rapper beverage of choice. A 2013 analysis by Complex.com found that rappers had name-dropped Hennessy 141 times, more times than any other liquor of any type. (Rémy Martin also did southwest France proud with a solid 59 mentions.) It makes sense foreign musicians love it because…

Cognac is for everyone but the French themselves. A staggering 97 percent of cognac production is exported. On behalf of the rest of the planet, merci.

And finally, the cocktail.


Irish Noir
1 oz Hennessy V.S
.5 oz Crème de Cacao white
8 oz Guinness
Garnish: None
Glass: Collins
Method: Hennessy and crème de cacao to glass and finish with Guinness. Top of the matin to you.

Lead photo credit: Twenty20/@korotkoffoto