Hennessy released only 100 sets of its limited-edition Beauté du Siècle ($200,000).
“When you think about Cognac, you think about something that was perfected over hundreds of years,” says David Flom, sommelier and managing partner at Chicago Cut Steakhouse, where Cognac is enjoying renewed interest. According to the Bureau National Interprofessionnel du Cognac, 2011 saw record sales of Cognac (more than 2 billion euros), with the US as the largest importer. Cognac even went viral on the web this summer, when a customer accidentally shattered a 234-year-old $77,000 bottle of Clos du Griffier Vieux in a London bar.
Cognac is brandy: a grape-based distillate, aged in oak casks and blended to create specific flavor profiles. It’s produced in one of six French crus (districts), which are defined by soil composition. Grande Champagne and Petit Champagne (not related to sparkling wine) are considered the top producing districts, along with the smallest, Borderies. The other regions—Fins Bois, Bons Bois, and Bois à Terroirs—are selected for specific blends. Age categories are based on the youngest eau-de-vie in a blend: VS (very special) sits in barrels at least two years, VSOP (very superior old pale) at least four years. To qualify as XO (extra old) or Napoléon, the blend’s youngest eau-devie must be at least six years old (set to increase to 10 years in 2016).
The fun comes when significantly longer-aged Cognacs and ultrarare barrels are presented in elaborate ways. Several years ago, Courvoisier debuted L’Essence de Courvoisier ($3,000)—a combination of eaux-de-vie dating to the early 20th century and sourced from Grande Champagne and Borderies—in a Baccarat bottle with a cut crystal stopper. In 2010, Rémy Martin celebrated its signature Louis XIII, a blend of 40- to 100-year spirits drawn from a single cask, with a limited Louis XIII Rare Cask ($15,000), encased in a black crystal Baccarat decanter. At the very pinnacle (so far) is the Hennessy limited-edition Beauté du Siècle, a blend of eaux-de-vie ranging from 47 to 100 years in age. Packaged in a glass-and-aluminum box created by artist Jean-Michel Othoniel, the bottle is accompanied by four gold-leaf-trimmed glasses. Only 100 available, the set retailed for about $200,000.
The trick is to research. Limited-edition Cognacs disappear quickly (the last of Rémy Martin’s coveted Black Pearl bottlings in the US sold anonymously last year). High rollers at posh nightclubs request bottle service of Hardy Perfection (300 ornate bottles of the Essential Element series were produced, including eaux-de-vie dating back to the 1870s and retailing at $6,700). Meanwhile, lounges, restaurants, and high-stakes bars all stock impressive selections. Hennessy Louis XIII is available at Chicago Cut Steakhouse, and when it’s time to toast closing that deal with panache, the elegant NoMI Lounge inside the Park Hyatt boasts the hard-to-find Hennessy Ellipse on its side bar, where $275 will score you a two-ounce pour.