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How to appreciate cognac, according to Maurice Hennessy

The idea of drinking cognac often brings to mind a gentleman in a mahogany room, sitting in an armchair in front of the fireplace and warming a glass of cognac in his palms. That image has since been outdated, with more women as well as a younger crowd beginning to enjoy the drink.

Yet most feel intimidated to start trying it thanks to the notion of the spirit being an upper-class one. While it’s certainly not the cheapest liquor around to savour, it’s definitely one you should add into your repertoire.

For those unsure of how to begin, let Maurice Hennessy, the global brand ambassador and eighth generation member of the Hennessy family tell you how.

Maurice Hennessy
Maurice Hennessy is the eighth generation of his family in the business.

Cognac is a variant of brandy, made of distilled white wine. All cognac is brandy, but not all brandy is cognac — the name stems from the region it was produced, much like Champagne, Tequila, and the likes of it. The distilled wine is then aged in barrels and given the name eaux-de-vie. The resulting cognac is a mix of variously aged eaux-de-vie, blended to a particular flavour profile by the brand’s cellar master.

You might have noticed some confusing acronyms when presented with a selection of cognac. These have been classified according to their age and quality: V.S. (Very Special) is aged for at least two years in French oak, the V.S.O.P. (Very Superior Old Pale)’s youngest eaux-de-vie in the blend must be aged for at least four years, and the X.O. (Extra Old) at least six years.

“There’s no definition of a good cognac other than the fact that it gives you great pleasure,” says Hennessy. Theoretically, a good cognac is made up of a good blender, cognac stock, age, and time. “With cognac, we blend hundreds and thousands of cognacs coming from various estates, because we want the consistency in taste,” he explains.

Purchasing from over 1,600 wine suppliers, Hennessy maintains a strict quality control over the grades of the wine. “If some suppliers have not done well, Hennessy doesn’t buy from them,” he adds.

Maurice Hennessy
Cognac has always been seen as a stuffy drink — not anymore.

Approaching a glass of cognac

“Cognac is very versatile,” says Hennessy. Drink it neat, with a splash of water, or on the rocks. But also determine the type of cognac you’re having. Hennessy himself loves the Hennessy XO on the rocks with a bit of water, depending on the ice. In fact, ice is the most important part of the cognac to him. “It’s more difficult to find the perfect ice than cognac, at times,” he declares. “The perfect ice is one that is so cold that it doesn’t melt (as quickly).”

The fact is, there is no right or wrong. Hennessy likens cognac to a violin — there isn’t just one way to play it. “Cognac isn’t there to please you — drink it the way you want to.”

As for the vessel you pour your precious liquid into, he suggests a tulip glass if you’re drinking it neat. “But if you don’t have it, you can use a nice wine glass,” he suggests. More importantly is that you really take your time with it. “I like to say my favourite way to drink cognac is in moderation because I don’t think it’s right to overdo it.”

Cognac is, after all, a limited production made in only one region of France. The Hennessy Paradis Imperial is made up of eaux-de-vie which is over 100 years old, so do take the time to savour it. “Don’t drink it as though it was a glass of beer,” he cautions.

Maurice Hennessy
Use a tulip glass if you’re drinking cognac neat. Otherwise, a wine glass works too.

The art of picking and sipping

With so many varieties of cognac available, which one should a beginner pick? Hennessy recommends starting with the Hennessy V.S.O.P. “or Paradis Imperial if you’re feeling very rich.” The reasoning behind this is that they are easier to drink as they are subtle and flowery. “If you started with the X.O., you might find it spicy, which some people may not like.”

When you pour it into your tulip glass, first use your eyes to appreciate the colour, then “nose” the liquid. Nosing the liquid basically means lowering your nose into the glass and really take a good sniff out of the cognac, discerning the flavourful notes.

Then, take your first sip — a small one to “prep” your taste buds for the different melody of flavours in the spirit. Then, take your next sip and let the liquid roll from the front of your tongue to the back, allowing your tongue to really pick up the different flavours all the way through. That, is how you taste cognac.

Maurice Hennessy
“There’s no definition of a good cognac other than the fact that it gives you great pleasure,” said Maurice Hennessy.

Busting the myth

One myth that Hennessy wishes to dispel was the general consensus of how the colour of a cognac should be like. “Most people believe that if it’s old, it will be darker than the young cognac. That is not true at all.”

He points to the Paradis Imperial for an example. “It is very light in colour and is very old — much older than the X.O., which is darker,” he says. He went on to explain that the colour comes from the wood in which it is aged in. Younger barrels give more colour, hence after ageing cognac for just two or three years, you get a liquid which is darker in colour. Meanwhile, with a very old barrel, you can have very little colour even after 20 years. “The colour is pretty, but it doesn’t mean a lot.”


How to appreciate cognac, according to Maurice Hennessy

PohNee Chin

Editor, Kuala Lumpur

Poh Nee is the editor and writes about travel and drinks. When she's not living out her holiday dreams via Google Earth and sipping on an Old Fashioned down at the local bars, you can find her snug at home bingeing on Netflix and mystery fiction.