Monday, October 12, 2015

Review: Hennessy V.S.O.P. Cognac

Creepy, eh?

It's a Belgian castle in ruins that plucky tourists seeking dangerous urban adventure like to explore at their own risk.

I stared at this castle and strangely it reminded me of a frightening experience from my past:  a cheap bottle of brandy.  At a time in my life when I was young and stupid (not much different from the present) and during my initial exploration of whiskies, I bought the cheapest bottle of brandy I could find.  I had read about brandy and cognac (a type of brandy) and wanted to know if it would lift my spirits?  Instead, this amber liquid would haunt me for a very long time.

I was in Boston or Halifax.  I really can't remember.  Well, I do recollect it was wickedly cold, windy and pitch black evening .  Still it could have been either city, but nevertheless, I ventured from my hotel into a slanting cold rain that made my ancient waxed Barbour smell more pungent, and  caused me to stiffen up like a corpse, as any normal body movement like walking promoted the rain to seep through to the inside of my jacket.

I wandered for quite a while until I found a rundown liquor store where I bought a couple different bottles, and this plastic bottle of Chemineaud 'Fine Brandy' with the twist-off cap.  It was Boston in November!  I remember it was a little way from the fancy homes of Beacon Hill.  Lurch, the guy behind the counter, actually asked me for ID even though I was probably 40 at the time.  Strange I thought and shuddered as to the real reason why he wanted to see my ID.

I sloshed my way back to the hotel, under the silver flicker of street lights, howling wind bent trees, through the stony stares of the homeless, and passed taxi drivers who pretended not to see me.  As I splashed through puddles, clutching my quickly disintegrating brown paper bag, my thoughts drifted to Edgar Allen Poe and how he was found dead in a gutter much like the one adjacent to the street I was crossing.  But, then I remembered that Poe died in Baltimore and I was in Boston and not a celebrated poet.

Back at the ironically named Liberty Hotel, which had formerly been a mid-19th century prison, I managed to return to my room without first being wrestled to the lobby floor by security.

I peeled off my Barbour, sat down at the hotel room's 'business' desk with faux banker's lamp, reached for a plastic cup, poured some 'fine brandy' took a sniff and was hit with a strong billy-club of alcohol.  I took a pull and my gag reflex quickly engaged as I tried to swallow.  It was boozy.  'Boozy' is the exact word.  Think rummy who lives in the woods, under a train bridge or is a tenured windbag professor in a worn Donegal tweed jacket with bony/nicotine stained fingers gesticulating wildly and you know what I mean.

The brandy was hot, ill-tempered and tasted of spoiled sherry.  Ughh, it can't be that bad, so again I took another sip and it was worse than the first, but a wave of warmth washed over me much like as a kid that first heave of car sickness during the stifling hot car drive to Grandmas or the heat and burn one feels before losing control of one's bowels in the midst of Bangkok traffic gridlock while riding in a rickshaw.  Damn that overly friendly street vendor's pad thai!

Subsequent sips were no better.  I tossed the plastic bottle into the sink and switched to McCallan 12 and all was well with the world.

After my misadventure with brandy in Boston, I avoided the spirit for 13 years or so, until last week.

 Last week I was in Ottawa for work.  I met up with Adam, an impeccably dressed and cultured fellow who blogs on culture, art and food.  We are opposites, he is erudite, I am plebian.  He is diplomatic, I often lack an internal filter when speaking, and we had actually never met in person, only online, trading emails and comments on each other's blogs.  So, I was not sure how things would go over dinner at a fashionable wine bar.  Real life and the online life do not always align as we wish.

Deciding what bottle of red for dinner spurred a conversation that lasted 2 1/2 hours over rustic Italian/French food.  Dinner over, wine bottle empty, it was time for a spirit.  Whisky?  Maybe.  I glanced over the spirits list and saw little that excited me.  Ballantine's?  Never.  Chivas 12.  I can't.  Simply to light and apple-like after the meal we just had.  It had to be heavy.  There was nothing and then I spied "Cognac."  The evening had gone well.  Did I want to ruin it with nasty brandy/cognac?  The food had been great, ambience excellent, risk it all on bad cognac?  Well, inexplicably I did, as if I had been possessed by some ghost of great cognac past, and ordered Hennessy V.S.O.P.


Age Statement
None, but the company says the eau de vie making up this cognac are aged a minimum of 4 years, and others that are certainly much older.

Nose (undiluted)
Old wood, varnish, leather, black licorice.

Palate (undiluted)
Rounded, soft, viscous texture delivering spiced molasses, slight hint of pomegranate, dark chocolate, honey and stewed prunes.

Finish (undiluted)
Oak, strawberries, milk chocolate and earth.  I taste the terroir of the white wines that were distilled.  Drying brown sugar/English fruit cake that is powerful and stays with you, providing warmth and flavor.  Long finish with a sweetness that returns.

General Impressions
Cognac is a long lost cousin to Scotch whisky.  Cognac is very dry and acidic white wine that has been distilled twice in copper stills, and then blended with other eau de vive and aged in French oak. When the distillate goes into barrels it is colorless and acquires its color and flavors from the wood. The result is similar to whisky but different.  Very interesting.  Kind of reminds me of good sipping rums but more complex.

On the issue of complexity, there is an interesting weaving of flavors.  Maybe not as complex as many single malts, but interesting nonetheless.

For those of you who smoke cigars, Hennessy V.S.O.P. would compliment a Connecticut wrapper very well.  I am thinking CAO Gold, The Griffin's, Perdomo Champagne, Nat Shermans or a discontinued Winston Churchill "Chequers."

Hennesy V.S.O.P. is most impressive on its finish.  The flavors last a long time and there is some definite warmth that is not common to Scotch whiskies, making for an interesting and delightful change.

This is not a cheap spirit.  For the price you are assured smooth initial tastes of chocolates and fruit with honey and by the time of the finish, some orange rind and warmth that lasts.  It is really a welcome drink in cold weather.  Many a great fire side chat can start with a dram of this spirit.  If you are a newbie to whiskies or cognac, do not be afraid, this spirit is far more friendly than the ones inhabiting the Miranda Castle pictured at the beginning of this post.


Jason Debly

P.S.  If you do not like fruit cake, rum cake and prune/molasses like notes in your spirits drink, then do not invest in a bottle.  Buy a dram and evaluate.  I think cognac is not for everyone who is an ardent single malt fan seeking a complexity that only Scottish barley can deliver.  Moreover, it is sweeter than the average single malt, and if you are not a fan of a sweet finish, again this cognac may not be for you.  Buy a glass, evaluate and comment below.  Thank you for reading!