A Visit to Hennessy

You can’t talk about Cognac without mentioning Hennessy. It is the big daddy of Cognac, making up 43% of Cognac production. As a comparison, the next largest producer is Remy Martin at 17 percent.

Hennessy dominates the market, but also makes it possible for the smaller producers to exist.  Hennessy buys a large portion of its grapes and eau de vie from other growers and producers in the region, who are then able to sustain their own Cognac production.

Hennessy is located within the town of Cognac, along both sides of the Charente River. A visit begins with a boat ride.

Our guide was Marc Boissonnet, Ambassadeur de la Maison. He did what would seem to be impossible – make Hennessy, the giant of Cognac, feel intimate and special.

Marc was particularly knowledgeable and engaging, and had some of the best analogies for Cognac production.

“Keep the spirit, dispose of the body,” is how he described the process of making Cognac. It’s a pretty good simplification of the distillation process, which reduces the liquid to approximately one tenth of its volume while retaining the essence of the grapes and wine.

Kids, adults and relationships played roles in other parts of the Cognac story.

As Marc explained, just like with children, the character of eau de vie must be shaped when it is young. Early on the potential of the eau de vie is assessed, and then the proper oak barrel is selected for aging.

After aging in oak the eau de vie is blended, a process that Marc described as similar to a marriage. You need to be mature when you get married, and eau de vie needs to mature before it is blended. It is up to the cellar master and blender to determine when an eau de vie has spent the ideal amount of time in barrels. With seven generations of blenders, Hennessy uses the memories of experience to determine the potential of and future course for the eau de vie.

Marc continued with a statement that sounds good whether you’re talking about Cognac or people. “Aging is good,” he said. “Because aging means living.”

The highlight of the tour was stepping into “Le Paradis.”  Meaning paradise in English, this is the cellar where the rare and precious eau de vie and Cognac are stored.

Barrels in Le Paradis contained eau de vie that had been aging for 50 plus years. I found eau de vie from the birth year of my parents, then just steps away found eau de vie from the birth years of my grandparents and great-grandparents. Beyond the barrels were shelves of demijohn bottles that contained Cognac from the 1800s.

Enjoying a wine from your birth year (if even possible) is a rare and special treat. But enjoying a Cognac from your birth year, well, that might not yet be ready to drink.

Hennessy’s goal is to produce Cognac that is perfectly balanced, rich and complex. It also strives for consistency; fifty year-old Cognacs from Hennessy should be identical, no matter the year they were bottled or where they were purchased.

At a tasting following our tour we had a chance to sample a variety of Cognac from Hennessy.

The first glass had perfectly clear eau de vie that hadn’t been aged in oak barrels. With 70% alcohol, this was not something you would want to drink. However after a sniff and placing a drop on the tongue, it was possible to make out the fruit and floral essence necessary for producing a high quality Cognac.

With the next two glasses we were able to compare the use of barrels. Both were Cognacs that were approximately five years old. The first, lighter in color, was Cognac that had been aged in previously used barrels. The second Cognac was darker in color because it was aged in new barrels.  Newer barrels impart more color and flavor to the eau de vie.

Our fourth glass took us back in time to 1983. This Cognac was darker than the previous two because of the longer time in oak. It had flavors of dry fruit, spice and “rancio,” a French term that means a desirable earthy, nutty or musty characteristic.

Going back to 1956 with our next glass, we had a chance to see how Cognac softens and becomes more complex as it ages. This Cognac had lovely floral aromas with flavors of vanilla, nougat, almond and honeysuckle.

Our final Cognac was the Hennessy XO, a blend of Cognacs. Darkest of the group, this Cognac was refined, polished and elegant, with flavors of hazelnut, black pepper and dark chocolate.

Even with the focus on age, history and tradition, Hennessy keeps Cognac modern and fresh. One look at the limited edition Hennessy VS (pictured at left) and you can see this isn’t your grandfather’s Cognac. At a party later that evening inside the Cognac Blues Passions music festival, Hennessy cocktails were all the rage. Mixed with apple juice, muddled fresh berries or (my favorite) ginger ale, Hennessy Cognac is ever evolving, long after it leaves the barrel.

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cognac stills

Grape to Glass: How Cognac is Made

It begins each spring with bud break, and goes well beyond the fall harvest. So much goes into producing Cognac that within each glass you can taste the essence of the grape, the history of aged eaux de vie and the talents of a master blender.

Here is an overview of how Cognac is made:

The Region

Cognac, named after the city of Cognac, is produced in the Charente and Charente-Maritime departments in southwest France.  The region is just north of Bordeaux and has the Atlantic Ocean to its west.

The region is divided into six zones: Grande Champagne (thought to produce the best Cognac, with a soil similar to the Champagne region in northeast France), Petite Champagne, Borderies (which is where the city of Cognac is located), Fins Bois (meaning fine wood), Bon Bois and Bois Ordinaire.

Click here to see a map of the region.

The Grape

Ugni Blanc (known as Trebbiano in Italy) is the main grape used to produce Cognac, though a number of grapes like Folle Blanche and Colombard may be used.  Ugni Blanc is a hearty and high-yielding variety that produces wines of high acidity, qualities that make it ideal for Cognac.

The grapes are harvested by machine, typically at the end of September or beginning of October.

The Wine

Once the grapes are harvested and pressed, the juice undergoes fermentation.  The resulting wine is dry, high in acidity and 9% to 10% alcohol.  This helps to preserve the desirable fruit and floral tastes of the grapes in the final Cognac.

The Distillation

The wine goes through two distillations, a process that runs from November to March.  By French law, distillation must stop at midnight on March 31st.

Using large copper stills, the wine is heated to the temperature at which alcohol vaporizes.  The alcohol in gas form travels through the neck, turning back into liquid when it reaches the cooling tank.  The resulting liquid is called “le brouillis,” and is between 25% and 30% alcohol.

The second distillation is called “la bonne chauffe,” which translates to the good heating.  The distillation process is repeated with the brouillis.  The resulting liquid is separated into three parts: the head, the heart and the tails.  The head is the first liquid that collects in the cooling tank and it is set aside.  The heart comes next, and is the eau de vie that will be blended and aged for Cognac.  The tails come last, and are often mixed with the head and distilled again.

The heart is clear in color and approximately 70% alcohol.  At this point in the process the liquid is called eau de vie, meaning water of life.  Though the liquid is not drinkable, it is possible to determine that the eau de vie retains the fruit and floral essence of the grapes.

The Blending and Aging

Before an eau de vie becomes a Cognac, it is blended and aged.  French oak barrels are used to impart color and flavor.  Over time the eau de vie goes from clear, to golden yellow, to amber, to brown.  Varying levels of toast on the barrels influence the flavors.

Large barrels called “foudresare used for blending the eau de vie.  These barrels can last for 100 years.  Smaller barrels are used for aging the eau de vie.  The maître de chai or cellar master oversees all steps of the blending and aging process, ensuring quality and consistency.

A portion of the liquid (called “the Angels’ share”) is lost due to evaporation; more eau de vie or water is added to maintain the volume within the barrel.

Over time the alcohol level of the aging eau de vie must be brought down from 70% to 40%, the lowest legal limit for Cognac.  This occurs naturally over the span of 40 to 50 years, or it may be sped up with the gradual addition of water to the barrels.

Eau de vie may be aged in dry cellars or humid cellars, which affect the rate of alcohol and water evaporation as well as the resulting Cognac’s taste.  Dry cellars are said impart finesse to the Cognac, while humid cellars impart sweetness.

Barrel aging cellars are dark and covered in cobwebs – and no, it’s not just for visual effect.  The walls and ceilings are covered by a black fungus that thrives on the evaporating alcohol.  Spiders are encouraged in the cellars because they eat the bugs that could damage the oak barrels.

After the cellar master determines that the eau de vie has reached its ideal amount of aging, the spirit may be blended again and then bottled.  At this point it may be called Cognac.

When the eau de vie is removed from the barrels for bottling, the aging process has ended.  Cognac does not age in the bottle, so a 10 year-old Cognac does not become a 12 year-old Cognac after sitting in your liquor cabinet for two years.

An important task for the cellar master is to ensure consistency of the Cognac.  For example, a 50 year-old Cognac from Hennessy that you bought today at a liquor store in New York should taste exactly like a 50 year-old Cognac from Hennessy that you buy in ten years in Hong Kong.

The Classifications of Cognac

Cognacs are classified based on the age of the blend.  The age indicated on the label is the youngest vintage in the blend, so a 10 year-old Cognac may be a blend of much older eau de vie.

The classifications are:

VS – A Cognac that has aged for at least two years.
VSOP – A Cognac that has aged for at least four years.
XO – A Cognac that has aged for at least six years; some Cognac houses use this classification for Cognac that has been aged 20 or more years.

If the Cognac comes from a specific region (Grande Champagne, Petite Champagne, etc), it may be indicated on the label.

Serving and Enjoying

Cognac should be served room temperature in a tulip-shaped glass, to better concentrate the aromas.

Like wine, Cognac develops as it is exposed to the air, so you may want to let your glass sit for up to 15 minutes before you take your first sip.

Younger Cognacs may be enjoyed in cocktails. Click here for cocktail recipes.

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Cognac: Region, City, Spirit, Passion

It started in April, with an article about Cognac. Now I’m back from the city that gave the French spirit its name, following a trip organized by the Bureau National Interprofessionnel du Cognac.

Cognac is so much more than just a drink — and in the articles and videos below you’ll see why. Join me for a look inside some of the top Cognac houses, learn about the distillation process, see how oak barrels are made for aging the eau de vie and discover just how versatile Cognac can be.

Robin Alix Austin

Music: “Footsteps” by VIA
Available to download free on VIA’s Facebook page

Articles and Videos:

From Grape to Glass: How Cognac is Made
Years of work go into each glass of Cognac. From the harvest of grapes and the double distillation, to blending and aging, learn how Cognac is produced.

Cognac Cocktails
If you only drink Cognac neat, you are missing out. Cognac is an extremely versatile spirit, mixing well with juice, soda and more. Read on for Cognac cocktail recipes.

A Visit to Hennessy
Hennessy is the largest Cognac producer in the region. A tour begins with a boat ride along the Charente, followed by a look inside the cellar where rare and old Cognacs are stored.

ABK6: Cognac for a New Generation
With its eye-catching labels, an unusual name and the recent debut of a blend meant to be sipped on the rocks, ABK6 isn’t your grandfather’s Cognac.

Pineau des CharentesPineau des Charentes: Aperitif of Cognac
Another way to enjoy Cognac is to sip Pineau des Charentes, a sweet fortified wine made from blending Cognac and grape juice. It is served chilled, most often as an aperitif.

Chateau de BeaulonA Visit to Château de Beaulon
Surrounded by stunning vineyards and gardens, Château de Beaulon produces Cognac and Pineau des Charentes in the Charente-Maritime department in France.

oak barrelsHow Oak Barrels are Made
Oak barrels play an important role in the production of wine and eau de vie. Go inside Vicard Cooperage in Cognac, France for a look at how barrels are made.

Click here to view photographs from Cognac

cognac cocktails

Cognac Cocktails

Forget your preconceived notions on how Cognac can be enjoyed. Certainly a glass goes well after dinner, with chocolate or with cigars. But if you only drink Cognac neat, you are missing out.

In the pre-Prohibition United States, Cognac was often used as an ingredient in cocktails like the Sidecar or Mint Julep. While other spirits like Vodka, Rum and Tequila have come to dominate the bar scene, in France Cognac is still popular in cocktails.

Cognac is an extremely versatile spirit, mixing well with anything from apple and orange juice to tonic water or ginger ale. Start with one part Cognac to four parts mixer, add ice if desired, then alter the ratio to your tastes.

One drink that’s sure to make you a fan of Cognac cocktails is the Summit. Created by master mixologists in honor of the 2008 International Cognac Summit, the drink is light, refreshing and delicious.

When making a Cognac cocktail, use a younger Cognac like a VS or VSOP. Older or more prized Cognacs are best enjoyed on their own so that you can appreciate their complex flavors.

Here are some Cognac cocktails:

Cognac Summit

1 lime peel
4 slices of fresh ginger
1½ oz Cognac
2 oz traditional (carbonated) lemonade
1 long piece of cucumber peel
ice cubes

Place the lime and ginger in a rocks glass. Pour in ¾ oz of Cognac. Lightly press the lime and ginger 2 to 3 times using a muddler. Half fill the glass with ice. Stir well for 5 seconds using a bar spoon. Pour in ¾ oz of Cognac. Add the lemonade and cucumber peel. Stir well for 5 seconds using a bar spoon.


¾ oz Cognac
¼ oz lemon juice
¼ oz Triple Sec
1 orange peel
ice cubes

Place ice cubes in a shaker, then add Cognac, lemon juice and Triple Sec. Close the shaker and shake until frosted. Strain into a martini glass using a cocktail strainer. Press the orange peel over the drink.

Champagne Cocktail

¾ oz Cognac
3¼ oz Champagne
2 or 3 dashes of Angostura Bitters
1 cube brown sugar
1 lemon peel

In a Champagne flute, soak the cube of brown sugar with 2 or 3 dashes of Angostura Bitters and place it at the bottom of the glass. Pour the Cognac and the Champagne. Garnish with lemon.

Cognac Campari

Master mixologist Mauro Mahjoub (pictured above) mixes this drink at his bar, Mauro’s Negroni Club in Munich, Germany.

1½ oz Cognac
¾ oz Cassis
¼ oz red Vermouth
lime, raspberry and apple slice for garnish

In a rocks glass, mix the ingredients and stir. Finish with a splash of soda and add fruit garnishes.

For more cocktail recipes visit cognacsummit.com.

Click here for more articles about Cognac

Recipes and photos of the Summit, Sidecar and Champagne Cocktail from the Bureau National Interprofessionnel du Cognac

Dining Atlanta: Week of July 4, 2011

By Eric Harvison

Dining Atlanta spotlights what is opening and closing around the city. Check in at the beginning of each week to find out what is changing in your neighborhood.

Click here to read earlier columns

Around Town

Trade your dignity for a chicken sandwich?  CHICK-FIL-A will celebrate its 7th annual Cow Appreciation Day July 8th by offering a free meal to anybody who shows up dressed as a cow.

Berkeley Park

Spice Route Supper Club founder Asha Gomez revealed plans to open her own restaurant, CARDAMOM HILL in September. The restaurant will occupy the former MY GIRLFRIEND’S KITCHEN space at 1700 Northside Drive and will feature “Indian home cooking” of Gomez’s native Kerala region, located at the southwestern tip of the subcontinent.


Previously mentioned TAQUERIA TSUNAMI has announced the date for its opening in the previous TOULOUSE space is July 17th.

Collier Hills

Mark Tew, owner of neighboring DE PALMA’S ITALIAN CAFÉ is opening a new spot sometime this summer in the recent HONG LI, longtime DAIRY QUEEN, space on Collier Road. The new bar/restaurant will be named THE LOCAL AT COLLIER (no association with THE LOCAL on Ponce de Leon). Reportedly THE LOCAL AT COLLIER will be fashioned after THE IVY in Buckhead.


CAPOBIANCO’S ITALIAN BAKERY & MARKET is planned to open in East Atlanta Village. Owner Franky Capobianco (who also owns nearby N’AWLINS RESTAURANT) describes his new concept as “an old school meets new school Italian haven for desserts, ices, all Italian specialties, wedding cakes, birthday cakes as well as meats, cheeses, olives and breads.”

Grant Park

Former EL TORO / REDFISH / CRAZY HORSE BAR & GRILL on Memorial Drive will reopen later this month as BAR ONE. The club is the latest venture for Peter Thomas, who previously ran UPTOWN SUPPERCLUB until its closure last year and may be better known for his wife Cynthia Bailey’s role in Real Housewives of Atlanta. According to its website, BAR ONE will “…offer an array of tapas for the discerning and diverse palate wile providing music from an eclectic mix of local, national and international DJs.”


The first of three metro franchises of SMASHBURGER will open this Thursday in the Buckhead Crossing shopping center, in the recently failed FATBURGER location. The other two franchises are planned for Johns Creek and Alpharetta.


ECCO is running a special this upcoming Wednesday through Saturday with some awesome sounding vegetable-centric dishes, some sourced from their own roof garden. While you’re there, check out bartender Eric Aaron’s specialty cocktail “Gigi Says” and click here to vote for his creation in Hangar One Vodka’s Best Drink in the Nation competition. The bartender with the most “Likes” on Hangar’s Facebook page will win a trip to the distillery in San Francisco AND the opportunity to distill his or her own batch of vodka. As of this writing, Eric is in the top ten.

Technology Square will get its own frozen yogurt parlor. YOGLI MOGLI FROZEN YOGURT is setting up shop on 5th Street near Spring.


ABATTOIR has announced that it will expand its hours to include dinner on Sundays beginning July 24th.


Eric Harvison’s Dining Notes began a few years ago as a sporadic e-mail exchange with a friend, sharing restaurant openings and trying to satisfy that vague urge to dine “somewhere new.” That friend started forwarding Eric’s messages to some of her friends, several of them food industry professionals. They in turn began passing along bits of restaurant news and gossip that they would come across. These exchanges became more frequent and took on a viral life of their own that has evolved into what you read today.

Aside from the occasional editorial comment, Eric won’t attempt to review these restaurants. There’s plenty of others better qualified, with much more refined palates — probably you. Rather, this is an attempt to help you keep up with the constantly changing Atlanta dining scene, for better or worse.