A little breathless from a rich and indulgent dinner, with your cheeks slightly flushed from copious amounts of wine, there is that ubiquitous pause as an enjoyable meal winds down, your lips still smacking sweet from a lingering dessert as it curls into a gentle smile of satisfaction. You have overindulged, and joyfully so because the food was good and the company excellent, but there is one thing missing, that perfect ending to a perfect epicurean experience, both equally meant to close a fine meal and open a spectacular late evening of meaningful conversation: cognac.
I have always admired the beautiful, glinting amber liquid — inviting, temptingly glinting in the sensual afterglow of indulgence, an elegant digestive that enables the pleasures of the table to linger a little more. I don’t recall when I first tried it but I do vividly remember the rest of the moments after… long, delicious-tasting dinners with my husband, from canapés to mignardises, starting with Champagne and following through with white and red, culminating in a happy state of inebriation. We know we shouldn’t, really, as we are tottering on the border of tipsy and drunk, but it is our favorite guilty pleasure, savoring a nice cognac that splendidly puts us over the edge as we giddily stumble out of the restaurant doors as chicly as we possibly can.
Hennessy is most probably the most iconic name in cognac and is just a few months shy of its 250th birthday. Distilling since 1765, La Maison Hennessy upholds the belief that cognac is not made; it is created. Here they feel that “cognac is not improvised… it is raised with kindness and attention, firmness and affection.”
The journey from the earth to the glass begins with the grape varietal Ugni Blanc, distilling eaux-de-vie from the four great crus of the region. I have always found this term so apt: eau-de-vie, or literally “water of life” — a romantic way of describing an elixir that wakes up your very soul. With over 300,000 barrels hewn from 100-year-old oak trees where the spirits are aged for a minimum of 50 years — many are aged over a 100 years, the oldest being 1,800 — a sip of Hennessy XO is like drinking the spirits of the past, enlightening you with their wisdom.
In recent years Hennessy has made the move to entice a younger, hipper audience, with fun cocktails and dancing parties, but in my opinion, it is best appreciated alone. Savored, relished and understood. Last Monday at The Peninsula’s newly refurbished Old Manila we were treated to a beautiful cognac-pairing dinner, where La Maison Hennessy’s ambassador Cyrille Gautier Auriol shared with us his passion for the famed digestive.
“The more you appreciate, the more you learn how to appreciate” was the evening’s motto, and despite having lost his luggage after a long, tiring flight, managed to impart his genuine enthusiasm and love for cognac, taking us through the delightfully tedious process of daily tastings, selection and blendings of the 100 or so eaux-de-vie and complex notes of Hennessy XO. With its rich candied fruit, peppery spice and hints of deep cocoa, he nostalgically likened it to “having plum pudding by a fire on Christmas.”
The meal was excellent and patterned after dishes in the Michelin-starred restaurant of Maison Hennesy’s Chateau de Bagnolet, each one carefully crafted to bring out different notes in the cognac. Earthy and rich cep mushroom soup offsetting the peppery notes… a slow-cooked, tender king prawn from Spain with candied ginger, reminiscent of those candied fruits and spiced Christmas evenings… seared beef tenderloin with again those earthy mushrooms, but my absolute favorite pairing was the dessert. Luscious fudgy chocolate with a Hennessy XO custard, some nutty crumble and Italian meringues, melding perfectly with those hints of cocoa. There is no combination more beautiful than dark chocolate and cognac. Add a toasty cigar and you are in absolute heaven.
On our way out, I thanked Mr. Auriol — to his delight — in French, and said that we enjoyed his explanations and that my husband and I were amateurs of Paradis – Hennessy’s most prestigious cognac. And he replied, “Oh, no, you must have been perhaps frustrated by the XO.” And I profusely shook my head declaring, “Of course not, because a good cognac, no matter what blend, is always, without fail, pleasurable.”
***this article first appeared in The Philippine Star***