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

David Driscoll