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.

Creepier!
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 Laurent, 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.

ABV
40%

Age Statement
None, but the company says the eau de vie making up this cognac are aged 3 to 7 years.

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.

Cheers!



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!

19 comments:

  1. I do not drink Cognac very often but this one was very good and pleasant. Pleasure meeting you in Ottawa.

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    1. Thanks for agreeing to meet on such short notice.

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    2. Hennessy V.S.O.P. is not old enough. V.S. and V.S.O.P. are filled with caramel to colored the spirit and smouthness. Sorry but to appreciate a good cognac you need an X.O. minimum from a good brand. Then Hennessy will be authentic with only distilled water added. My last buy was a week ago, a Chateau De Montifaud X.O. here in Quebec. This cognac is an assemblage of minimum 30 years old cognacs with "faibles" for only 155$ at saq.com. The name "faible" means distilled water put in an old cognac cask for several days to take the taste, the colour and 10 to 15% of alcool from the cask itself then added to the cognac to reduced the spirit to 40%. You have to pay the price for quality in cognac. The eau-de-vie required 8 to 12 years for tasting the oak and it is only the biginning. I only drink old cognacs for those reasons and old scotchs for the same reason: aging. But i have to admit that i drink all kind of whiskys for the pleasure of the discovery. P.S. please excuse my english!

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    3. Thank you for your comments. I will now have to try an XO.

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  2. Never been a big fan of cognac but I can't afford the XO quality which costs $200 or more around here. The local lounges and bars don't offer it in our small town. When it comes to a postprandial libation I enjoy Asbach Uralt, a German brandy. It's been compared to a fine cognac. To me it tastes a bit like a fruity bourbon but very smooth.

    Something different I enjoy is a dram of Benedictine followed by sipping a little cold milk. Obviously I have the sophistication of a well used anvil but it does taste good.

    Another cigar with a Connecticut wrapper is the Arturo Fuentes, my choice when I have a rare cigar.

    Thanks for the review. Your columns are always fun and educational.

    Jeff

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    1. XO level cognac where I live is $155 which is too much for my wallet too.

      As for Arturo Fuente, agreed! I am a fan of the Sungrown Double Chateau!

      Thanks for commenting!

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  3. Hi Jason, Good to see you feeling spirit-y. How "sweet" would you say Henn VSOP was, and I mean in terms of residual sweetness ? Haven't had a big house Cognac in quite some time, as I like 'em dry (as in Hine and Pierre Ferrand.) and the big boys don't make 'em that way much anymore. Cheers ! JK.

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    1. It is quite sweet, which is the only drawback for me. Last night, a friend was over and he is a Scotch drinker and his criticism of the Cognac was the sweetness.

      Where I live you have to pay $150 for the very high quality cognac that is nice and dry. I and my friend concluded there are very fine Scotches well below that price point that are dry and achieve sufficient complexity making us unlikely to buy the high end cognac.

      I have not had Remy Martin VSOP but suspect it is somewhat sweet too.

      Great question, you are always so perceptive.

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  4. Finally, you make a review about cognac. It is something that i wait for a long time. I've been try whisky and bourbon and want to try cognac but dont dare to try. This can be a good guide for me to try it. Thanks Jason

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    1. Hi Jack! I have a Chinese friend who is a cognac fanatic and has been on me to review more. So, I will do my best.

      What I can tell you about Cognac is a nice change and an interesting spirit worth exploring. It is certainly sweeter than the average single malt. As another commented, the dryer cognacs cost a lot more than say the Hennessy I reviewed.

      Thanks for commenting!

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  5. G'day Jas,
    A Month ago.... My lovely wife .... At a garage sale... managed to snaffle 7 bottles of 'grog'.... for $150. 2 Crystal Skull Vodkas(with skull shot glasses)a cheap bourbon (yuk!), Baileys Iris Cream, Tequila in a yellow skull(55%), A Napoleon Brandy in a figurine and a Meukow Cognac (150th anniversaire).... The others I know about... But the brandy & cognac.... What can I expect from these two.... Never tried either before.... Or should I keep them as collectables?

    AL(from OZ)

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  6. I have not tried Meukow Cognac, but online reviews seem positive. It is not cheap either so is probably decent. I would give it a go and suspect that you will be pleasantly surprised.

    Not sure about the Napoleon Brandy. May be quite cheap in taste. Try it first one night. Next night try the Cognac. I think you will see a huge difference.

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  7. My name is Gilles from Quebec (october 18). About Napoleon Brandy: a brandy is rarely a good spirit and the name of the brand is missing so i will pass. Next, Meukow 150th anniversaire is Meukow Icone. Look at Meukowcognac.com. It's like a Napoleon: above VSOP for the ageing but not quite a XO. For a XO quality we talk about 25 to 35 years but in this case i think more like 10 to 15 years and maybe some older in the blending for the special occasion of the 150th and that's not bad at all. I know well enough Meukow to say that the quality of their cognac is fine but not great for the price. PS On their site they say that Meukow Icone is good with ice. They are not sure of the quality or what? Ice is for VS and VSOP, not old cognac.

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    1. Thanks Gilles! Readers will appreciate your advice.

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  8. Dear Jason,

    I got to your blog because I gave another opportunity to Buchanan's 12Y. I am happy with what I read and now I will not avoid talk about Buchanan's 12 Y.

    A Brazilian poet (Vinícius de Moares) said that the whisky is ‘bottled dog’, man's best friend. I do not disagree, but I believe we have several spirit's breed. I am being very well considered by French dogs, or French spirits: congnac, armagnac and calvados.
    They are classic after a meal, but you may be surprised to accompany him on the porch without a particular purpose, except to keep your fellowship.

    Some suggestions:

    Congnac
    - Courvoisier XO;
    - Rémy Martin XO.

    Armgnac
    - Casterède XO_20 ans D Âge
    - Marquis Montesquiou XO

    Calvados
    - Père Magloire XO
    - Dupont_Plus 12 Ans

    Santé!

    Best Regards,

    Sócrates

    PS: Please disregard the terrible English and focus on the idea.

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    1. Sócrates, your English is fine my friend. Great list! Remy Martin XO is at the top of my list to try next.

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  9. Sorry for not responding any earlier... Many thanks to Gilles for the info.
    A mate of mine who is likeminded in the ways of whiskeys and often we will have a 'tasting'. He is due to graduate from the Police Academy...soon I hope... Been learning the ropes at one of the local stations. I'll be catching up with him Friday night... Instead of whiskey... I'll surprise him with the Meukow.
    AL(from OZ)

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  10. My friend was not into it as I was... At first we thought it ok..just. But having it at home these past couple of weeks have changed my mind.... Sherry?... and thankyou... I was trying work out the nose... wood and leather... tasted the sherry.. stewed prunes.. dried fruit...honey...Fruit Cake!! wow!!.... Wasn't too sweet...for me anyway...Very short finish however... If my memory serves... flavour similar to muscat which I love. I'll definitely buy Cognac again....
    AL (from OZ)

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    1. Cognac is a really nice change, and something I need to explore further. Glad you like it too!

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