Revisiting Hennessy

Remember when I said that 2013 will be the year the Empire Strikes Back? The year that the big brands play smarter, focus more on quality, and attempt to regain that portion of the market they conceded to the craft producers over the past few years? I recently finished retasting through the LVMH Hennessy portfolio and I found a few bright spots that I think represent value and quality in a way that smaller producers have been unable to offer with Cognac. A simple, clean, basic, mixing Cognac that isn't overly sweet, offers a bit of punch, and doesn't cost an arm and a leg - who's making that right now?

First off - which brands are reaching out to the quality-focused consumer, you ask? How about Burns Stewart with their new 46%, unchillfiltered Bunnahabhain? How about Pernod-Ricard with their new 48%, unchillfiltered Aberlour 12? For the under $50 price point, these are my two new, go-to whiskies when helping a customer in the store.  In the Cognac world, the largest producer of brandy in the region has recently introduced a new flavor called "Black" into their lineup - an entry that has been met with little fanfare from both the Hennessy costumer base and the boutique consumer equally. However, after moving through the VS, Privilege, XO, Paradis and Richard Hennessy Cognacs respectively (a range of brandies stretching from $30 to $5000 per bottle), I found myself most impressed with the Black - a Cognac that was ridiculed amongst smaller producers on our trip to France last winter.

Why is LVMH struggling to reach new Cognac consumers with the Black? It's pretty clear when you taste it against the other selections. First off, there have been numerous other disappointing "black" releases already in the liquor realm. Remember Crown Royal Black? Whoop-de-doo. Most consumers view the idea as pure marketing, no substance. Second of all, the Cognac tastes and looks absolutely nothing like its brethren. Hennessy Cognacs are unmistakably dark, rich, full of caramel, toffee, and wood flavor, and very supple in texture. The Hennessey "Black," ironically enough, is the lightest and most pure of the bunch. Any fan of the standard VS would be completely taken aback by this. Bottled at 43% instead of the standard 40%, the Hennessy Black was originally meant for bartenders and cocktail fans as a slightly more potent, less sweet ingredient for Sidecars and French 75s. It has an extremely mellow profile and tastes very much like many of the young barrel samples we went through on our 2012 buying trip. I'd be surprised if there was any boise at all in the mix. You certainly can't taste it.

When David and I visited one distiller in Grand Champagne last year, he commented that other grower-producers in the region were not impressed with the Black, which puzzled this person. He quickly replied to this group of hecklers, "Hey! This is your Cognac you're talking about! You sold it to Hennessy! You're criticizing your own brandy because they haven't done a whole lot to change it." Remember that Hennessy is a Cognac house that purchases almost all of its supply from other small producers in the region. Thinking back on this story, it doesn't surprise me that the region's own producers were quick to take jabs at the Hennessy Black. Of anything in the Hennessy portfolio, it's the product that most competes with what smaller producers can offer - a clean, unadulterated spirit that offers high-quality brandy flavor at a more than reasonable price. However, where as most grower-producers clock in at the $50-$60 price point for their entry level selections, the Hennessy Black will be $39.99 at K&L.

Retasting through the entire portfolio, I was also quite impressed with the XO. When the average customer spends $200 on a bottle of Cognac, looking for the rich, smooth, seamless mouthfeel, the XO is exactly what they expect. Sometimes it's nice to just fulfill those expectations rather than try and convince the person to branch out. It delivers exactly what people expect for the money and that's a nice thing to know as a consumer. K&L has always been the store that looked outside the box for interesting and unique spirits. Now that we've established ourselves as the store with all the stuff you can't get anywhere else, I think it's time to start supplementing these selections with brand value. While the Hennessy Black isn't going set the world on fire, it does offer a fantastic mixing Cognac at a very reasonable price. To offer an analogy, I needed a bottle of grapeseed oil last week, so I walked over to my local grocery store, which happens to be quite fancy. While I'm sure that the grapeseed oils in their selection were stellar, I didn't want to pay $15-$20 for a half bottle. I just needed something decent and basic, but I was forced to look elsewhere.

The Hennessy Black is that Cognac for that type of shopper. It's a completely respectable, very un-Hennessy-like brandy that I'm excited about mixing with at home. It shows that Hennessy is willing to step outside of its comfort zone and use its vast stocks (more than every other Cognac house combined) to create an expression for serious cocktail fans. If someone would have come in last week and asked for a good Cognac to mix with, I would have given them the Ferrand 1840 at the same price, or something like Dudognon for $50. Almost everything else we have is near the $60+ price point. Not only would I be forcing many customers to spend far more than they had planned, I would also be selling them an unfamiliar name.

For $39.99, I'd be more than comfortable selling someone the Hennessy Black. In fact, I'd be happy to recommend it. That's something I couldn't have imagined saying last year. Times change, however. The brands are looking to strike back.

-David Driscoll


Dulces de Mexico

I've said it before and I'll say it again: no other country is brimming with the potential for spirits production like Mexico is. Fields of agave, sugar cane, fresh produce, and don't forget the coffee beans! The problem with spirits production in Mexico is that most releases are about bulk branding rather than quality. Rich guys from the U.S. go down there, work out the sliding scale economics, and then put cheap slop in fancy bottles. I've been retasting tequila brands lately and I can't believe how bad everything is. It's the one category where the general consumer is getting totally fleeced. One of the most interesting spirits we tasted recently was a charasmatic little Bacanora from the northern state of Sonora. The same importer who brings it into the U.S. has now tasted us on something called Xolotl - an absolutely delicious coffee liqueur from Veracruz.

Xolotl is actually a range of liqueurs produced by second generation master distiller Jose Villanueva Barragan (they have a tasty amaretto as well).  Jose is highly regarded by his peers and is among a select few who work with the Mexican government to develop standard liquor protocols. These bold and nuanced spirits are matured in neutral French, Spanish, Sherry, and American oak casks, many of which are 40 to 60 years old. Xolotl Liqueurs pay homage to the memory of Alfonso Caso, an intrepid archeologist whose contributions to pre-Columbian studies include the discovery of rare artifacts at Monte Alban, an important archaeological site in Oaxaca.

The coffee liqueur is blended with twenty year old rum to add richness. The coffee flavor is what jumps out most, but it's not ever bitter or intense like actual coffee (unlike other coffee labels like Firelit). The sweetness is very mild, however, and the spirit itself is quite lean. It's delicous to sip and should mix very well into something like a White Russian in place of Kahlua. At 19.5%, you can enjoy a few small glasses without getting into too much trouble. The Xolotl is exactly the type of interesting, quality spirit made from locally-sourced products in Mexico that I've been hunting for. It shows what Mexican distillers are capable of producing when taking the time to do something right. I really like this stuff.

A likeness of the mythical Xolotyl Jaguar, an Olmec icon found in the pyramid there, decorates the label and cap of the hand-blown bottles. You could bring this to your friend's annual Anchorman party and bust out a great Paul Rudd line: "it's made with actual bits of jaguar, so you know it's good!"

-David Driscoll


Ardbeg 21 For Sale

This one got buried under a box in our back warehouse. We had our quarterly inventory count a few weeks back and look what turned up! What a surprise. Why not auction it off? We can't auction your liquor, but we can throw out own stuff in the running every now and again.

Right now it's selling for much less than we had it for on the shelf. Will it stay that way?

Follow it live here! Less than 24 hours to go.

-David Driscoll


Wine Based Spirits - What You're Missing

The revival of hard liquor has been given the current generation of young drinkers a way to rebel against its predecessors. In Silicon Valley, where I spend most of my time selling booze, the hip thing has always been wine. Wine parties, wine tastings, wine cellars, wine and chesse, Robert Parker, 100 points, Bordeaux futures, big Napa cabs. The Steve Jobs-inspired techies high-tailed it out to California, bought their 49ers season tickets, went to the Grateful Dead reunion shows, became inspired by the passionate wine scene, and built their collections as fast as they built their microprocessors. However, like the child who rebels against his parents, this new wave of Facebook and Electronic Arts employees has decided to invest in whiskey, cocktail culture, and the well-mixed Manhattan. They prefer Bourbon and Branch to Chez Panisse. They have a booze cabinet with seventy open bottles of various hooch, rather than a wine cabinet with sealed vintages of Dunn Howell Mountain. Like the punks who railed against the mods, or the grunge-era stoners who lambasted the big hair and enthusiasm of the Sunset Strip, the new era of connoisseurship runs from Kentucky to Scotland, rather than Sonoma to Bordeaux.

It's a generational divide that pits wine against liquor, father against son, clean-shaven snob against bearded snob, but it doesn't have to be this way.

Wine drinkers find spirits to be harsh and disruptive. One or two cocktails and you're done for the night! How can you enjoy hard liquor without getting totally plastered? How do you pair it with a meal? Spirits drinkers consider wine too stuffy and antiquated. All this waiting and aging, money spent on temperature-controlled maturation! When do we get to drink it? Plus, once you open it the wine goes bad within a day or two! I want to nurse this thing over the next decade, man! This conversation goes on daily at K&L between our own staff members. The old school guys stick to their Bordeaux. The newer kids are interested in beer and Bourbon.

How do we bring these two diverging mentalities together? How do we unite the clans?

Sherry. Pineau des Charentes. Vermouth. Madeira. Port. Chinato. Amaro. Aperitif.

We do share some common ground.

I'm a man who wanders between both of these realms and I'm here to tell you that you can enjoy wine and liquor together. I'm currently sippng on a magnificantly concentrated Moscatel-based Sherry that comes from a small village in Spain called Chipona. Very little Sherry is produced from Moscatel grapes anymore because the varietal has been virtually wiped out in the Jerez region. Chipona's sandy soils, however, make it the perfect location to support the aromatic grape. The interesting thing about Chipona's Moscatel wine is that the dried grapes are so sweetly concentrated that they can only ferment to about one percent alcohol. Yet, the "wine" I'm drinking is listed at 17.5%.

This rich, sweet, soft, supple, orange-blossom, golden raisin and toffee flavored delight is mostly distilled grape spirit (i.e. brandy) mixed with hyper-sweet muscat wine and aged in a barrel. Most Chipona Sherries are matured in a solera system, meaning that younger wines are added into older stock to keep the flavor consistent. Over time, the Moscatel-brandy concoction gains an incredible level of depth and complexity, much like a fine Cognac or single malt whisky. I'm currently sipping on a glass of Cesar Florido Moscatel Especial, which is only $12.99 for a 375ml bottle. This particular Chipona wine has had a bit of arrope added to it – grape must that has been reduced to a blackish syrup, whcih darkens the color and adds a caramel note to the flavor profile. At less than 20% alcohol, I can enjoy the lush, exotic flavor of an aged, fortified, barrel-matured spirit, yet still remain sober enough to type this article! It is a Tuesday night afterall.

Wow, David, that sounds nice and all, but I'm just not interested in wine-based spirits. I like the romance of the Highlands and the rural tradition of Bardstown. These historical traditions are what drive my desire to learn more about whisk(e)y. I also love to geek out about distillation and cooperage. I love how a spirit will change after resting for years in an oak barrel. There's simply nothing like that in the wine-based spirits world, right?


First of all, people have been making wine in the Jerez region since around 700 BC. Between then and now those people have been conquered by more cultures than an urban food court. Yet, the wines are still produced in the old-fashioned, traditional method. Today most barrels in Jerez are imported from the States and are made of American white oak. While the barrels are seasoned with lesser wines to make sure the influence of the wood is less profound, the maturation in the barrel is far from neutral. According to Peter Liem:

Old fino and manzanilla casks (have) a biological memory acquired from many years of exposure to flor: each barrel will develop in different ways, with their differences becoming increasingly pronounced over time, and no two barrels will ever produce identical wines. Eduard Ojeda, technical director for the bodegas of the Grupo Estevez, uses the word "contamination," in a positive sense, to describe the effect of the individual yeast populations in each barrel and the distinctive personalities found in the resulting wines. "One of the most important things in Jerez is (the preservation of) thes old, well-contaminated casks," he says.

Barrel-aged, wine-based spirits not only mature in the barrel, but they interact with various biological barrel contaminants!! That's freakin' crazy.

Ultimately, you can get just as geeky with wine-based spirits as you can barrel-aged spirits if you so desire. What I think you're missing, as a drinker who chooses to abstain from WBS selections of quality, is the chance to experience a complexity that rivals the rich, concentrated core of a whisky like Glendronach, but at a proof that allows for more frequent and accessible sipping. Unlike Sherry, a bottle of Macallan owes very little of its flavor to the barley that created it. Wine-based spirits allow you to experience both the character of the grape and the spirit that is ultimately used to fortify it. They also offer 10, 20, 30, and 40 year old, barrel-aged expressions – just like your favorite whiskies.

It's really a win-win for everyone. I'm moving on from this Chipona to the new Cocchi Americano Rosa. That thing is really quite delicious. After that, some 20 year old, barrel-aged Sandeman Port. Three glasses of high-quality hooch that won't put me to sleep before my wife gets home. Wine-based spirits have completely changed the way I look at weeknights! You should join in on the fun.

-David Driscoll



From the people who brought you Cocchi Americano and Cocchi Vermouth 2: Electric Boogaloo, comes the brand new rose, quinine-flavored, aperitif wine you've been anxiously waiting for. The Cocchi Americano Rosa $18.99 has the lush mouthfeel and weight of a sweet vermouth, the fruit of a sangria, and the spice of a mulled wine, finishing with a tingle of bitterness on the tongue. It's absolutely delicious. Time to make a rose-colored gin martini!

-David Driscoll