The Untold Truth Of Hennessy

Hennessy lovers, we don't have to school you on the proper way to drink your fascinatingly-layered, golden-hued nectar of choice. No doubt, you have that much down to both a science and an art — meaning that there's no "right" way to drink it. Still, Hennessy is commonly served straight in a snifter, tulip glass, or balloon glass (via Simply Healthy Family). Most drinkers pass on the ice and instead enjoy their cognac neat and hand-warmed.

But there's a lot you may not know about Hennessy cognac, which has become so iconic in American pop culture that even teetotalers will probably recognize the name and draw associations when they hear it mentioned. In fact, Hennessy (or one of its various nicknames, such as "Henny") is name-dropped in the lyrics of so many songs, there are actually playlists celebrating the spirit, per Spotify.

So, what is it about Hennessy that has made it the icon that it is? The smooth, rich beloved cognac has a fascinating history.

It takes a decade of training to be put on a Hennessy tasting committee

What actually is Hennessy? Cognac is a type of brandy, which is distilled from fermented fruit juice, as Town & Country notes. However, to qualify as cognac, the spirit must be distilled from white grapes grown in the Cognac region of France. Those grapes are fermented twice, Wine Folly explains, and then double-distilled, but only during a very specific time of year from November 1 to March 31.

The resulting spirit, which is clear and has a peachy smell and a very high alcohol content (almost 150 proof) is known as "eaux de vie," (French for "water of life"). To make cognac, the eaux de vie is aged in oak for a minimum of two years (via Distiller). 

However, that's far from the whole story behind how Hennessy is made. Cognac is invariably a blend of a variety of different eaux de vie. At Hennessy, the blends are formulated with extraordinary precision and artistry thanks to an eaux de vie tasting ritual that occurs daily involving around 40 distinct distillation and seven tasters. It takes 10 years of training before one can join the tasting committee, according to the brand's ambassador Jordan Bushell.

What all those letter designations mean on bottles of Hennessy

Cognacs receive letter designations to identify the length of time during which they've aged, with the general rule being that the longer the cognac has aged, the higher a price it may command (via VinePair). Cognac that is aged more than two but less than four years is labeled VS, which stands for "very special." Cognac that's been aged at least four years can be labeled VSOP, which means "very superior old pale."  In order to earn the vaunted "XO" label, a cognac would traditionally have had to have aged at least six years. Since 2018, that has been extended to 10 years. There are many other cognac letter-designations, but most Hennessy cognacs that bear letter designations are either VS, VSOP, or XO, per the brand. That said, since 2018, Hennessy has also been selling its "XXO" (which, presumably means "extra extra old") in travel retail outlets such as airports, according to Hennessy XXO.

Not all Hennessy cognac comes with a letter designation. For example, Hennessy Black bears no designation; however, it is cognac, which means that it has been aged at least two years (via Cognac.com). The most expensive Hennessy available is Hennessy Ellipse, according to Luxe. It retails for a minimum of around $12,000 per bottle, and it bears no letter designation, but, at that price, is presumably aged to utter perfection.

Cognac is French, but Hennessy is Irish

Although cognac is French, by definition, Hennessy cognac was the brainchild of an Irishman, and an intrepid one at that (via Hennessy – Legacy). The drink's founder, Richard Hennessy, was an aristocrat from County Cork. In the mid-1700s, Hennessy headed from Ireland to continental Europe where he joined King Louis XV's army. After fighting, he settled in the Cognac region, where he began distilling wine into eaux de vie starting in 1765, according to Irish Central, which adds that "what Richard Hennessy started his son James ran with." Beginning in 1804, Hennessy became of the first exporters of cognac in glass bottles and soon became associated with the sought-after beverage.

Although Irish Central refers to "James" as Richard Hennessy's son, his real name may have been "Jacques," according to Maxim, which explained that the name "James" is an anglicized version of "Jacques." Whatever Richard Hennessy's son's birth name actually was, it was "Jas" (the nickname for Jacques or James that you see on the label of every bottle of Hennessy) who elevated his father's spirit-making into a commercial success that we still have in our midst today. 

How Hennessy became the undisputed leader in cognac

How did Hennessy become the top-selling cognac in the world (via The Spirits Business)? During the 1920s and the height of Prohibition, Hennessy was actually sold as a medicine by William Schiefflin at his family's drugstores, per Maxim. Next, American soldiers got a taste as they traveled through France during World War I and II, per Slate. Then, Hennessy did something other spirit brands at the time were not.

After World War II, "Hennessy placed advertisements in black publications — a decision that was rare given the times," VinePair reported. It became one of the first brands to feature ads in magazines such as Ebony and Jet during the 1950s. As a result, Hennessy became the "most consumed cognac in the American Black community," according to VinePair.

Then, in 1968, Hennessy made history by promoting former athlete Herbert Douglas, a mentee of Olympian Jesse Owens, to vice president of the company. This made Douglas one of the first African-American vice presidents in corporate America, according to Maxim. "I was able to lay a foundation," Douglas told Ebony, "and by laying a foundation, I was also able to bring other African-Americans in. When I retired in 1987, I left three African-American VPs with our company."

Hennessy regularly gets name-checked in lyrics

As drinking Hennessy increasingly became a luxury signifier (via Dictionary.com), it also increasingly came to be name-checked in song lyrics. As noted by VinePair, "The words in songs matter and the word Hennessy or cognac is mentioned in over 1,000 songs by such famed artists as Notorious BIG, 2Pac, Kanye West, Rick Ross, Nas, Dr. Dre, and 50 Cent. You can't buy that kind of product placement or endorsement ... Hennessy continued to innovate, observing the influence that hip-hop artists had over their audiences and embracing it." 

Given its frequent appearances in lyrics, it's not surprising that Hennessy named the multi-platinum rapper Nas as its brand ambassador in 2013, according to Chilled Magazine. With the brand ambassador position, Nas voiced and released a "Dear Destiny" commercial (via YouTube) — in which he addresses his daughter and speaks about the history of Black excellence — to promote Hennessy's "Never Stop Never Settle" campaign.

What to know about "Never Stop Never Settle"

In 2021, Hennessy launched its "Never Stop Never Settle" campaign, which aims to encourage, inspire, and support Black entrepreneurs, according to Black Enterprise. The company partnered with the Marcus Graham Project (MGP) to recognize Black entrepreneurs and provide aid to those looking to start businesses that will transform their local communities. Hennessy's campaign rollout for Never Stop Never Settle's includes, among other things, the payment of $50,000 grants to Black entrepreneurs whose businesses are aimed at making a social impact, with grants totaling a cumulative million dollars overall. 

"The path forward starts with a commitment to expanding our platform to champion Black excellence and prosperity by way of Black entrepreneurship," Hennessy states on its Never Stop Never Settle Society page. "We recognize a greater effort must be made in providing future generations a more equitable landscape for inclusive business growth and development." According to Hennessy Senior Vice President, Jasmin Allen, "despite adversities past and present, Black entrepreneurs have portrayed the ability to transcend obstacles, and they deserve to have the tools needed to reach their dreams."

In 2021, Hennessy announced a new partnership with the NBA

As of 2021, Hennessy is now the official spirit of the National Basketball Association (NBA), according to License Global. In addition, it's become the official spirit of the WNBA, NBA G League, and USA Basketball. "We are honored by the distinction as the first global spirit partner in the NBA's history," Hennessy's global chief marketing officer Julie Nollet said. "The NBA is more than basketball and Hennessy is more than cognac. We represent global communities." Nollet mentions that both the NBA and Hennessy bring people together, despite what else they face in their lives, and highlighted that both brands share the values of teamwork, innovation, and respect. 

Previously, the NBA had been in partnership with Jack Daniel's whiskey back in 2017 (via NBA). While it's uncertain what made the NBA switch from whiskey to cognac, of the change, Hennessy's U.S. Senior Vice President Giles Woodyer stated, "We are pleased to be partnering with the NBA, a forward-thinking league that embodies our 'Never stop. Never settle' mantra," per Yahoo.

Hennessy stoked the creative fire of filmmaker Ridley Scott

In February 2019, Hennessy proudly released an epic short film by director Ridley Scott, according to a company press release. The film, "The Seven Worlds" is Scott's artistic interpretation of the seven distinctive tasting notes that make up Hennessy X.O.: Sweet Notes, Rising Heat, Spicy Edge, Flowing Flame, Chocolate Lull, Wood Crunches, and Infinite Echo. Scott, who is famous for films such as "The Martian," "Gladiator," "Alien," and "Blade Runner," uses his inimitably surreal and immersive story-telling style to communicate the idea that Hennessy cognac takes your tastebuds on a trip.

"I was attracted to this project because I was inspired by the potential for art and entertainment to bring this story to life," Scott was quoted as having said in the press release. "Hennessy has a great product, and I was lucky enough to have the freedom to interpret this and create something amazing. I think people will be stunned when they see the film." A 60-second version of the film aired during the 2019 Oscars.