April 2018: Hennessy Double Blind Tasting

Host: Philip Butler 

Cognac is a grape distillate that is technically a brandy, but because it is made in a specific way and comes from the Cognac region of France, it is called “Cognac.” Any brandy that comes from any other place may not be called Cognac.

There are four big Cognac producers: Courvoisier, Martell, Remy Martin, and Hennessy. I picked the Hennessy brand for this event because it is a standard bearer of the brand and one of the producers that has shaped and defined what Cognac is today.

Cognac is known for its designations: VS, VSOP, and XO. What do these mean?

VS: “Very Special” This cognac contains a blend with a minimum age of 2 years.

VSOP: “Very Superior [or Special] Old Pale” This cognac contains a blend with a minimum age of 4 years.

XO: “Extra Old” This cognac contains a blend with a minimum age of 6 years.

This tasting was completely blind, meaning the members didn’t know in advance what spirit they would be drinking or who produced it. With this tasting I had a couple goals: 1) I have a tendency to like the most expensive bottles almost out of habit, so I wanted to challenge us to consider the spirits completely based on taste and enjoyability without considering price; and 2) Just to have some fun and to challenge the members to pick out the type of distillate they were drinking on taste alone.

To select the bottles, I had a pretty simple strategy. I started at the low end with Hennessy’s VSOP, because it is relatively inexpensive and very easy to find at most local liquor stores. On the top end of the flight, in terms of cost, is the XO. Bottles of Hennessy XO are significantly more expensive and prices can vary widely, but they are still fairly available. With those two “book ends,” there is not much left in the middle that is affordable. Above the XO, you could easily spend thousands of dollars for a bottle. Fortunately, Hennessy has been experimenting  with their Master Blender’s series that promised a departure from their standard lineup.

As a general conclusion, Universally among the members, the XO was not the favorite. By far, we enjoyed the Master Blender’s No. 1 and No. 2 much more than the more expensive XO. After tasting the Master Blender’s bottles, the XO tasted too much like grape Robitussin cough syrup, and the VSOP and the Fine de Cognac both seemed short and flat.

Cocktail: Game Changer

  • 5 oz Cognac
  • 1/5th oz smoky Scotch
  • .5 oz fresh lime juice
  • .25 oz simple syrup
  • 2 dashes bitters
  • 3 1” cubes fresh pineapple
  • Muddle cinnamon in a shaker with pineapple, then add all the liquids and ice. Shake and strain in a rocks glass. Sprinkle of cinnamon to finish [Credit: Hennessy].

Bottle 1: Hennessy VSOP Privilege

Proof: 80

Price: $60

Purchase Location: R & J Discount Liquor, Wichita KS

Tasting Notes:

Nose: Floral tobacco leaf. Apple cider. Dusty oak. Cedar chips. Honeycomb. Ground cinnamon. Brown sugar. Candied Walnuts. Lemon. Black licorice.

Palate: Sweet right up front. Quite mellow on the front palate. Baking spices. All spice. Spice cake.

Finish: Medium-short. Black licorice. Baking spice. Nutmeg.

Why this bottle: Hennessy’s VSOP is one of the most accessible bottles of cognac you can buy.

Bottle 2: Hennessy Fine de Cognac

Proof: 80

Price: $100

Purchase Location: cognac-expert.com

Tasting Notes:

Nose: Vanilla. Raspberry. Apple peel. Aniseed. Candy Corn.

Palate: Orange Julius. Some black pepper. Creamsicle. Purple grapes.

Finish: Medium-long. Fruity wax candy. Grape soda. Caramel syrup. Drying on the back end.

Why this bottle: This bottle is another VSOP quality blend. Information from one site to another disagreed about whether this was a VS or VSOP, and one review even suggested this could be closer to XO. Hennessy states that is a VSOP.

Bottle 3: Hennessy Master Blender’s Selection No. 1

Proof: 86

Price: $38 (375 ml bottle)

Purchase Location: remedyliquor.com

Tasting Notes:

Nose: Caramel apple candy. Grape nerds. Lots of grape. Raisinettes.

Palate: Grape Pedialyte. Apricot peach. Date. Underripe strawberry.

Finish: Short. It feels like the show just abruptly stops shortly after the end of the palate. The grape pedialyte lingers more prominently than anything else.

Why this bottle: Both this bottle and the Master Blender’s Selection No. 2 were selected because they are single batch blends that won’t be repeated. Hennessy may be feeling the pressure of smaller and independent bottlers and this and the Master Blender’s Selection No. 2  are the results.

Bottle 4: Hennessy Master Blender’s Selection No. 2

Proof: 86

Price: $85

Purchase Location: R&J Discount Liquor

Tasting Notes:

Nose: Much more grainy. Caro. Almost like a white dog. Vanilla extract. Pixie stick. Green apple butter.

Palette: Very underwhelming. Sharp white sugar. Pixie stick. Some grain.

Finish: Cherry and sugar in the raw. Maraschino cherry.

Why this bottle: Both this bottle and the Master Blender’s Selection No. 1 were selected because they are single batch blends that won’t be repeated. Hennessy doesn’t really experiment with cognac in my view but I think they were feeling the pressure of smaller and independent bottlers and these two bottles are the results. This particular bottling contains eaux-de-vie that have been aged at least 10 years and while I couldn’t find anything on the No. 1 bottling I suspect it has similarly aged eaux-de-vie.

Bottle 5: Hennessy XO

Proof: 80

Price: $153.00

Purchase Location: winechateau.com

Tasting Notes:

Nose: Apple crisp. Caramel. Cinnamon. All spice. Some brandy. Baking spice. Grape skin.

Palette: Grape blow pop. Vanilla latte. Simple syrup. Peach cobbler.

Finish: Grape fruit leather. Big league chew. Cappuccino. Cinnamon sugar. Cherry Cough syrup.

Why this bottle: Hennessy XO is the flagship of the Hennessy product line. Sure, they make a lot of other bottlings that are more expensive (a lot more), but this is top of the line that most people can reasonably afford.

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