At the age of 20, Richard Hennessy, the son of an Irish Lord, departed from his ancestral home for France in 1724 to fight in the French Army of King Louis XV. He sustained injuries in the Battle of Fontenoy in 1745, in which the French were victorious.
Richard then settled in the Cognac region, on the Charente River banks, where he began distilling wine to produce brandy. And with that, Hennessy Cognac was born.
At the end of the 18th century, Hennessy began to extend its reach across the globe, starting with the United States. At the beginning of the 19th century, the House set its sights on Australia and Southeast Asia and later conquered the South American, Japanese, and Chinese markets. In 1860, a quarter of cognac exports bore the Hennessy name.
In the 20th century, the work begun by the House’s founder was continued. A million cases were shipped in 1967, and the figure had doubled to two million just 20 years later. Well over eight million cases were sold in 2020 making Hennessy the world’s leading premium spirits brand.
In addition to the fabulous commercial success of a brand available on every continent and in over 160 countries, Hennessy cognac is an ambassador for French art de vivre the world over and celebrated its 255th anniversary in 2020.
From vine to bottle, cognac is the epilogue of a three-part story – selection, aging, and finally blending, that takes place in Cognac and nowhere else. To ensure the excellence and variety of its aromas, Hennessy exclusively selects the best grapes from the four grand cru regions of the AOC (Grande Champagne, Petite Champagne, Borderies and Fins Bois).
After the grapes are pressed, yeast is added which converts the sugar to alcohol, resulting in around 7 or 8%. It’s then left to ferment for 2 to 3 weeks.
Two distillations are what makes Cognac what it is. Without the mandatory second distillation, you’d merely be drinking a rather potent white wine.
The second distillation transforms the concoction into an ‘eau-de-vie’ (water of life), a transparent liquid of around 70% alcohol. Hennessy possesses the largest reserves of cognac eaux-de-vies globally, with over 470,000 casks resting in its cellars.
The Cognac is casked in oak barrels, with the wood being sourced from the forests of Limousin or Troncais. This type of wood is perfect for ageing Cognac due to its dependably low resin content. The process is meticulous as the oak itself alters the final taste of the Cognac, offsetting the sweeter, fruitier notes with a dry nuttiness, resulting in a well-rounded flavour profile.
Lastly comes the art of blending. At Hennessy, this art has developed over time and defines the House’s identity and vision. For over two centuries, eight generations of master blenders from the Fillioux family have devoted their lives to creating exceptional cognacs, enriching the House’s heritage, and passing it on to their descendants. A member of the Fillioux family still chairs the tasting committee.
During the 1970s, Kilian Hennessy, a fifth-generation direct descendant of Hennessy, became the CEO of Hennessy, succeeding his first cousin Maurice-Richard. Kilian Hennessy spearheaded the company’s 1971 merger with Moët et Chandon, which created Moët Hennessy.
Moët Hennessy merged with Louis Vuitton in 1987, creating one of the world’s largest luxury brand conglomerates, Louis Vuitton • Moët-Hennessy or LVMH. In 1988, a management crisis led to the group’s takeover by Bernard Arnault, owner of the haute couture house Christian Dior, with the support of Guinness. Kilian Hennessy remained on the company’s advisory board until his death in 2010 at the age of 103.
Today, 60 million bottles of Hennessy’s 13 different blends are sold in 160 countries around the world each year, supplying 49% of the world’s cognac. No doubt Richard Hennessy would be proud.
Interestingly, a big fan of Hennessy was Kim Jong-il, the former Supreme Leader of North Korea. Hennessy once reported that Kim spent over $700,000 a year on their Paradis cognac.
For the 150th Anniversary of Hennessy’s X.O., the company commissioned visionary and world-renowned architect Frank Gehry to design a Masterpiece bottle.
Gehry, a legend of our modern era has designed such iconic buildings as the Guggenheim in Bilbao, MoPOP in Seattle, the Walt Disney Concert Hall in L.A., & the Olympic Fish Pavillion in Barcelona.
When the Pritzker Prize-winning architect traveled to Cognac to get a visual history of the Maison and the bottles that came before, he gained a new perspective and appreciation for the centuries of hands-on personal involvement. “I know great wineries, and this is another level,” said Gehry about the precise art of distillation and selection. “It’s not hocus pocus. It is very beautiful. It’s like a very solid commitment to do something special.”
This hands-on personal approach, emotional commitment, and storied history led Gehry on a journey to honor the past while celebrating Hennessy’s innovation and commitment to the future. For the X.O decanter’s design, Gehry drew inspiration from the Charente River that runs through the Hennessy Maison, along with the chalky soil that nourishes the vines to thrive.
It was essential to the architect for every detail to be handmade in order to personify the handcrafted quality of Hennessy X.O. He and his team carefully developed the cast metal mold to form the 24-carat gold-dipped bronze cover. Along with manipulating the decanter design, Gehry added a striking fractured-glass glorifier, used to showcase the vessel, and a brass and gold fusil, to reflect the cellar master’s ritual of extracting a small portion of the cognac to taste.
To Gehry, the real masterpiece is the X.O (extra old) liquid ‘gold’ inside the first blended bottle 150 years ago. “I wanted to bring it [the cognac]to life, and so I took inspiration from its birthplace and used the crumpling effect of the material that gives it a feeling of movement,” he said. “The materials I’ve chosen catch the light and make this a really beautiful object on its own, but then you realize it is a bottle of Hennessy X.O.” Yet the artistry does not stop there. In true Gehry fashion, the packaging for this $17,000 bottle of cognac pays homage to the work he did with corrugated cardboard furniture in the 1970s. This case creates a 3D effect that truly elevates the entire design to the next level.
To further celebrate the X.O. 150 year milestone, Hennessy presented “A World Odyssey,” a spectacular event hosted in Cognac along the Charente River. Cai Gui-Qiang composed a colorful fireworks display titled ‘The Birth of Tragedy,’ where he honored the human spirit that embraces and rejoices in life’s harmony with nature, while simultaneously acknowledging the pain life can impart. In the demonstration, 20,000 fireworks were launched from 150 floating oak barrels to carry a message of resilience and optimism. The Hennessy X.O Frank Gehry Masterpiece was unveiled at this event on September 25, 2020, in France.