At age 65, Maurice Hennessy is the face, name and 8th generation ambassador to the house of Hennessy, which celebrated its 250th anniversary in 2015. While he spends most of his time tending to vineyards in his native France, he visited Aspen recently where we sipped a sampling of his Hennessy favorites— Hennessy X.O., Paradis, Paradis Imperial and Richard Hennessy.
With his dry wit and gift for storytelling, there is no better person in the world to walk one through the world of Cognac.
1. Cognac is a spirit made from grapes. While it may have a dark amber hue, and have a similar appearance in the glass, it has no relation to whiskey, made of grain. Cognac is a spirit distilled from Ugni Blanc grapes grown specifically in the Cognac region, so technically it’s brandy.
2. Like Champagne, Cognac can only be called Cognac when distilled here. Maurice, who considers himself a farmer first, grows and brokers grapes from 1,500 farmers in the Cognac region who make wine and age Cognac.
3. Barrels are made with French Oak. Cognac is a spirit aged in barrels made from trees harvested in nearby Limousin and Tronçais forests. These barrels are weathered outside in the sun for several years to release the sugar and soften tannins, then sit in rain to wash away bitterness and exposed to wind to release humidity.
4. When served on the rocks, mineral water ice is best. Fearing a soapy taste of melted tap water ice, Maurice only uses ice cubes made from mineral water.
5. Hennessy’s founder, Richard Hennessy, was Irish, not French. Long connected with the French region in which his namesake spirit is made, Hennessy’s founder fought for the French in the Irish Brigade. After his military service, Richard settled in Cognac and created the Hennessy brand, founding the company in 1765.
6. Saffron is another popular crop in Cognac. While Maurice won’t say if the local tradition of saffron growing in Cognac affects the terroir or taste profile of his Cognac, the notes of flowers, honey and Indian spices are certainly prevalent. “Coincidence?” he asks.
7. Cognac is gaining steam among young spirit lovers. “In some minds, Cognac is only consumed by portly gentleman during the time of the steam engine,” says Maurice. No longer. Today’s cocktail culture is positioning Cognac as a versatile base spirit, making delicious long drinks.
8. Mint juleps were first made with Cognac. The original mint julep conceived in the 18th century was made with cognac, as grain for bourbon was not always available.
9. Some of Maurice’s favorite Cognac and food pairings are Asian, specifically Vietnamese, but, he says, it also goes well with black truffles, foie gras and chocolate.
10. The more expensive and older the better, is not always true. When it comes to Cognac, he says, “If it’s bad when it’s young, it will be bad when it’s old.”