Two hundred and fifty years ago, in 1765, Richard Hennessy decided to quit the military life and go into the brandy business. Hennessy was an Irish soldier who had been serving as an officer in the French army of King Louis XV, and leaving at that time was probably a smart career move for the middle-aged man: Hennessy avoided fighting with the French army in the American War of Independence; the royal army was disbanded 27 years later when the French monarchy was overthrown, and noble officers didn’t always fare well during the French Revolution. Hennessy’s attraction to brandy might have saved his life.
Setting himself up in Cognac, already the centre of fine brandy production, Hennessy started in the brandy trade. In 1774, he built the Founder’s Cellar on the bank of the River Charente that is still used for storing barrels of cognac, some of which date back to the early 1800s. Hennessy began to export brandy to England and Ireland, as well as to the United States soon after it became independent.
Now, to mark its 250th anniversary, the brand’s master blender, Yann Fillioux (himself the seventh generation of his family to hold that position at Hennessy) and his tasting committee have developed a special blend from some of the finest of the 300,000 (or so) barrels in Hennessy’s cellars. It was drawn from eaux-de-vie aged between 15 and 35 years that were blended in 2010 and have since been aged again in 250 specially made casks of Limousin oak, each holding 250 litres.
Do the math, and you can see this is a limited edition of 60,000 one-litre bottles. In theory, it’s more than that, but some cognac is lost to evaporation through the staves of the casks. Hennessy actually loses 2 to 3 per cent of its cognac volume this way (it is known as the angels’ share).
The blend is called Hennessy 250 Collector Blend, and it’s available across Canada. It’s a private-order product, and not listed on most liquor board websites, but available on request as long as stocks hold out. This is a refined and stylish cognac that easily lives up to its raison d’être. It’s silky smooth and slightly creamy in texture, develops layers of flavour on the palate, and the burn is not a burn but a soft radiating glow. It’s a cognac to contemplate (one of the definitions of a fine beverage), but it’s also to enjoy after you’ve absorbed its complex and dynamic sensory qualities.
The vessel Hennessy has used to promote Hennessy 250 is elaborate and expensive. This is not a reference to the collector decanter with flowing lines that was designed by Stéphanie Balini, who has designed bottles for Hennessy cognacs before, notably for the Paradis Impérial. The vessel is actually a vessel, L’Hermione, a full-scale replica of a frigate that was part of the French fleet in the 18th century. The original Hermione carried General Lafayette to the U.S. in 1780 when the French provided troops to support the Americans in their War of Independence. (Moët-Hennessy has supported the ship project since 1997, when it was realized by French organization Hermione-La Fayette.)
The Hermione ran aground and sank off Brittany in 1793. The new iteration, named L’Hermione, took 17 years to build, and the builders used replicas of 18th-century tools. L’Hermione has some modern features—navigational equipment is state of the art and there’s an escape boat in case of emergencies—and although it uses sails at sea, an engine helps navigate busy ports.
But the 78 volunteers who crew L’Hermione work as their counterparts would have nearly 250 years ago. They handle the kilometres of ropes and the sails, and live much as 18th-century sailors would have—but with far better food and in the absence of the 100 or so sheep that travelled on the original Hermione to provide meat. This is essentially an artisan’s ship that echoes Hennessy’s portrayal of its cognacs as carefully crafted by the Fillioux family of master blenders.
While celebrating its 250-year past, Hennessy also looked forward. It created a Hennessy Time Barrel that was set up as an installation in a number of cities around the world, and people were invited to contribute messages to it. It will be opened in 50 (not 250) years. The elaborate celebrations of Hennessy’s quarter-millennium anniversary are what we should expect from this company, which is known for its luxury products and stylish presentation. But it’s not all PR and fluff. L’Hermione, a truly beautiful ship, will continue to sail long after Hennessy’s anniversary year is over. Likewise, Hennessy 250 Collector Blend is an impressive addition to the world of cognac, and you can be sure it will be enjoyed long after the Time Barrel is opened.