A lesson in Cognac

Food24 enjoyed a day with Hennessy Cognac.

08 Jun 2015

If someone were to ask you what came to mind when you thought about Hennessy – what would you say?

Those who know their drinks would know that it’s not an Irish whiskey, but rather a premium French Cognac. Like Champagne, only Cognac from the Cognac region in France can be named as such.  Not only is Hennessy the biggest Cognac house in France (with  43% of the world’s market share) but it’s also the world's best Cognac.

I associated Hennessy with sophistication, luxury, special occasions – a drink to enjoy after dinner served in a brandy balloon glass with a warm fire and a cheeseboard.  After spending a day with Moet-Hennessy Market Manager Patrick Madendjian at top Cape Town restaurant La Colombe, I came away with a much more contemporary feeling for this historic French drink.  I’d like to share some of that journey with you today.

Before we begin you should know that with Hennessy must enjoy it any way you see fit. Don't feel confined by the long history of the drink.  There are many who strongly feel you should respect the liquid and not ‘tamper’ with it, but there are no rules. It’s you who will ultimately be enjoying the experience, so, if you are trying it for the first time perhaps ask how best to drink it, but after that, it’s your call.  

Cognac's recent history also makes for interesting reading. The very first cocktail ever made in Louisianna, the Sazerac, was in fact made with Cognac. Today American Bourbon is also used in the Sazerac. Cognac is also the most rapped about liquor in the world, and Tupac himself has used Hennessy in his lyrics before.

Hennessy are celebrating 250 years in 2015 – and all of the Hennessy 250 celebrations are faithful to their proud association with art and music. 

So, let’s go back to the very beginning.

You wouldn’t have been entirely wrong in thinking Irish. Richard Hennessy was an Irish officer serving in the French army of King Louis XV when he founded the Maison of Hennessy in 1765, and his vision to create the best Cognac in the world was born. 8 generations later Maurice Richard Hennessy is still actively involved with the brand.

The most important thing to understand when it comes to appreciating the quality of the Cognac is the eaux-de-vie  (pronounced: oh-de-vee) - which in French means water of life. It is the clear, colourless fruit brandy that is produced by means of fermentation and double distillation.

Hennessy get their eaux-de-vie from the top 4 sub-regions of Cognac, and they own the most valuable stock of eaux-de-vie on the planet. This stock is so valuable that it is uninsurable.

Every morning at 11am a group of seven or eight skilful blending experts, known as Hennessy Comité de Dégustation (Hennessy’s Tasting Committee) – lead by master blender Yann Filloux who is a seventh generation Master Blender at Hennessy – come together to taste, smell, discuss and decide which eaux-de-vie (technically the spirit before it’s aged into cognac) will be used to create the next blend.

If you have tried any of the Hennessy range of Cognacs you will realise straight away you are drinking something special.  From the Very Special (From about R450 a bottle) , to the Hennessy XO (R1900 a bottle) – to the Hennessy Paradis (R7900 a bottle) that we had the privilege of drinking last week at La Colombe .

The Hennessy Paradis was first blended in 1979 – and is named after the part of the cellar where the best barrels of eaux-de-vie are kept, the ‘Paradis’.  The Hennessy Paradis for example could have up to 100 blends of eaux-de-vie blended into it  (the youngest 25 years old and the oldest 130 years old) - some of them distilled as far back as 1890. That’s incredible history.

The Lunch

To start off our Hennessy Paradis and foie gras pairing lunch at La Colombe we were invited into the kitchen of chef Scot Kirton to make the starter and dessert with him and his team. This, I could tell, was going to be no ordinary lunch.

For the starter we pan-fried foie gras and citrus glazed Alaskan snow crab, hazelnuts and Hennessy jasmine tea.This was also my first taste of the Hennessy Paradis.An unbelievable combination. The food alone was magnificent - but when combined with the Hennessy Paradis, it just exploded into your taste buds.

Then came the most genuinely refreshing palate cleanser I have ever experienced. Paper thin balls, filled with a citrus flavored palate cleanser  that just popped in your mouth.

Oak Valley pork, apple and Hennessy Paradis - confit belly and shoulder, sous-vide loin, smoked apple purée, Pommes Anna, apple and Paradis jus followed next.

And then the dessert. Bitter chocolate and Hennessy Paradis cremeux, Foie Gras gelato on a toasted kumquat cake with naartjie and foie gras caramel. The foie gras in the caramel really came to the fore with a sip of the Paradis.

All of the courses was paired with the Hennessy Paradis, which just got better as the meal progressed. This is because of the great balanced length - slightly peppery aroma at first followed by sensual florals and fruits that fill your palate with a blend of flavours.

At the end of an exceptional meal I came to the conclusion: Hennessy is sophistication. Hennessy is luxury, and Hennessy is to be enjoyed in special circumstances. But it is also so much more. Why not just order a ‘tulip glass’ of Hennessy the next time you are out and just appreciate the sheer amount of dedication to quality that goes into every single bottle. You'll become a part of a long tradition of luxury and making the finest Cognacs in history.

- Cathrine Shone


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