We can thank Ireland for this one. When Irishman Richard Hennessy joined the French army to fight the British in 1745, it would change the spirits world forever. After his service, Hennessy stayed in France and settled in the Cognac region, where he founded his now famous cognac brand.
Hennessy is the number one cognac company in the world in terms of sales. The company is also responsible for creating Very Superior Old Pale (VSOP) in 1817, after Britain’s George IV wanted an “excellent pale cognac.” Moreover, Hennessy created the first X.O., which started out for personal consumption and ended up being sold to the public in 1870. Hennessy is also credited for creating V.S., or Three Star as it was known back then. It’s quite a list of accomplishments. Nowadays, the brand is owned by the luxury giant Louis Vuitton Moët Hennessy, who also owns Glenmorangie and Ardbeg. Let’s take a look at their lineup.
According to Hennessy, this VS is the number one selling cognac in the world. This blend is made up of 40 eaux de vie aged from two to eight years in young French oak casks. The nose on this entry level blend is vibrant, but not overly so, with lots of fruit, spice and some oak. The spirit’s youth comes across in the palate, with sweet grapes and caramel alongside a touch of roasted nuts and vanilla. The medium finish retains a fruity sweetness and a floral note. Hennessy VS remains quite palatable despite its lack of complexity. Like the other VS cognacs I’ve tasted, I’d keep this one on hand as a mixer. ~$28 7/10
Hennessy Privilège is blended from a selection of eaux de vie aged between 4 and 15 years. The longer period of maturation for this blend compared to the younger VS really helps things along. This VSOP doesn’t come across as young as the VS, but a bit more complex and balanced. Notes of ripe fruit, vanilla, and baking spices fill the nose. Those spices come into play on the palate, softened by waves of toffee, vanilla cream, grapes, and a light hint of citrus. The finish is a touch longer than VS, with lingering spice and fruit. As I mentioned in my recent Courvoisier review, VSOP cognac is a versatile spirit. It’s complex enough to enjoy as a sipper, but affordable enough to be used as a top tier mixer. I’ve made a few delicious Sazeracs with this one. Good stuff! ~$48 8/10
As I stated above, Hennessy XO is the first “extra old” cognac to hit the market back in mid-to-late 1800s. According to press materials, Hennessy XO is comprised of a selection of up to 100 eaux de vie aged up to 30 years in young French oak casks. The minimum age for an XO cognac is six years, but that changes in 2018 when it moves to 10 years. The nose here is even darker and more concentrated than the VSOP, with hints of dark honey, ripe fruit, cloves and vanilla. Taste-wise, the same rich character continues. Hints of honeyed fruit, sultanas, and a light touch of spice dominate at first, with leather, figs and vanilla developing with a little airtime. The finish is long, with honey, cinnamon and fruit lingering. For the money, Hennessy XO delivers. Rich, dark and complex in character, XO begs to be slowly examined and appreciated. Very well done. ~$220 9/10
This blend was named after the cellar where Hennessy keeps their finest eaux de vie, though it’s now called the Founder’s cellar. Like the XO, Paradis is blended using 100 eaux de vie aged between 25 and 100 years in old French oak casks. The use of older casks means less oak influence over time when compared to using younger casks. These more neutral casks showcase the spirits character over the barrel influence. There is a busy nose here, filled with floral topnotes and a concentrated fruit base – ripe berries and fig jam. In between, soft vanilla and some spice round things out. The palate is equally engaging, featuring hints of dark fruits and spice, leather, and aromatic spices. A very slight herbaceous character occasionally shows itself. The finish is long, with dark honey and spice. Where Hennessy XO is a beautiful full-bodied cognac, Paradis takes it to another level in a more refined manner. I’d have to say this is my favorite of the bunch. ~$850 9.5/10
A major price jump between Paradis and Paradis Impérial puts the latter into ultra luxury territory, which means it’s expensive. Hennessy justifies the price tag with the use of rare and old eaux de vie aged between 30 and 130 years. Like Paradis, old French oak casks are used, making this blend more spirit forward rather than oak forward. The nose is floral, with light jasmine notes intermingled with easy-going fruit notes. Berries, grapes, figs. A light spray of floral perfume. The palate mimics the nose, featuring hints of honeysuckle, jasmine, and vanilla. Some soft red fruit help raise those lighter, more aromatic notes. Edible roses show slightly in the mid-palate, while soft spices develop in the back palate. The finish is shorter than I’d like, with candied flower petals, honey, and spice. I was expecting a heavy spirit, but to my surprise, Paradis Impérial is a light, floral, and restrained masterpiece. Take your time with this one. ~$2,500 9/10
Thanks to Hennessy’s PR firm and Joe for the samples. As always, all thoughts and opnions are my own.