Hennessy X.O Cognac: The Ultimate Bottle Guide

Americans love the taste of quality cognac. The high-end and super-premium brandy and cognac markets continue to grow throughout the country. The Distilled Spirits Council (DISCUS) reports the consumption in the U.S. of the liquor's premium category is up 27% in the last five years, and the super-premium is up 112%.

Hennessy is the most popular cognac internationally and in the United States. In 2020, the brand sold almost eight million 9-liter cases globally, with over half of that amount sold in the U.S. (via Statista). It's a favorite among celebrities, athletes, and musicians, particularly within the hip-hop community. Snoop Dog, Lil Wayne, and Drake are a few rap and hip-hop artists that have featured Hennessy in their lyrics over the years (via Cognac Expert). The brand's portfolio includes a selection of cognac that will suit the budget and flavor profile of any aged dark liquor fans. Options include two-year-aged Hennessy V.S., meaning "very special," to luxurious 10-year-old X.O or "extra old."

The brand's premium product, Hennessy X.O Cognac, comes from the company's headquarters in the heart of Cognac, France, from grapes grown sustainably within the Charente vineyards. Forbes reports that X.O sales have grown exponentially within the past five years, increasing five times over previous years. Today, the brandy is available in 130 countries worldwide.

It is an alluring and beguiling liquor. Let's dive into why Hennessy X.O Cognac is so beloved.

Hennessy X.O is 150 years old

Today, Hennessy Cognac is a part of the affluent LVMH corporation, which includes premium Champagne producer Moët & Chandon and luxury designer Louis Vuitton. However, the company began from roots bred across the pond. Vinepair reports Hennessy Cognac was established in 1765 by a former Irish military officer-turned-cognac producer named Richard Hennessy. Irish Central adds that Hennessy's son, James Hennessy, took the company to the global stage, becoming the first cognac producer to export the beverage in glass bottles in 1804.

A little over 100 years after the company began, the Maison crafted the first bottles of Hennessy X.O. The extra old brandy came about after the bon vivant third-generation Hennessy, Maurice Hennessy, asked the company's master blender to create something unique. He wanted a well-aged brandy to enjoy while entertaining an inner circle of friends in his Paris and Cognac homes (via Bar and Restaurant). The guests loved the cognac blend so much that they begged to have it made available for purchase, which the company did in 1870, releasing the first cognac to bear the X.O designation. 

Forbes shares that X.O Cognac entered the American marketplace within the same year of its European release, followed shortly thereafter by its release in Asia. Today, Hennessy X.O Cognac is the flagship brand for the company. The blended liquor showcases a mélange of eaux-de-vie cognac that ages in barrels upwards of 30 years.

100 eaux-de-vie go into the production of Hennessy X.O

Cognac's production and flavor profile are similar to other dark liquors, like bourbon or rye. However, the difference between Cognac and bourbon is that grapes are the base for cognac, while whiskey is grain-based.

The process for Hennessy X.O begins with sustainably grown ugni blanc grapes from Charente vineyards within Cognac bordering the Charente River. Wine Folly defines the late-ripening white grape variety as containing high acidity and low alcohol, ideal for producing quality eaux-de-vie. From the vineyard to the distillery, grapes are fermented into alcohol and double distilled in traditional copper stills producing elegant eaux-de-vie (or "water of life") which, with aging and blending, becomes cognac. According to Hennessy, it takes over 6.5 pounds of grapes to make one liter of eaux-de-vie. Hennessy transfers the eaux-de-vie to French oak barrels from the Limousin forest, where it remains for decades to create X.O (via Bar and Restaurant). Aging begins by April 1 annually. Wine Folly adds the age of the cognac starts from this date.

Each year the cognac is blended to include 100 eaux-de-vie selections by eighth-generation Master Blender Renaud Fillioux de Gironde. In an interview with Forbes, Fillioux shared the importance of the blend, noting finding the complementary notes of each eaux-de-vie that show the superiority of Hennessy's product is the ultimate preservation of its legacy. The production process for Hennessy X.O has remained unchanged for 150 years.

The flavor of Hennessy X.O is sweet and savory

Hennessy X.O had a taste unlike any other cognac upon its creation. (This is likely why Maurice Hennessy's inner circle requested he bottle and sell the selection.) We had the opportunity to try the X.O Cognac and found the 80-proof, amber-colored liquor to be warm, round, and inviting. With a buttery, mouth-coating texture, the smooth flavors meld the nutty, toasted oakiness of young French oak barrels used for aging with the fruity flavors of the grapes.

Enjoying the cognac neat reveals dried fruit sweetness with hints of nutty, bitter savoriness. The dominant flavors of caramel, toffee, and butterscotch harmonize with dried orange peel, golden raisin, and dried apricot. The oaky flavor is present, but not overpowering, as the years of aging have softened the woody notes, revealing spiced cinnamon, nutmeg, and crushed black pepper. The brandy's finish reveals a subtle dark chocolate flavor, coating the mid-palate, highlighting that sweet and savory bitterness.

The best way to drink Hennessy X.O is with this glass

Hennessy X.O is an extraordinary liquor. It should be sipped and savored, allowing the essence of the brandy to awaken while the delicate aromas lift from the glass as the alcohol breathes. How you appreciate a cognac of this caliber is key to optimal enjoyment, and why the shape of your cocktail glass is so important.

According to Vinepair, the classic balloon-shaped snifter glass is ideal for brandy. With a voluminous shape, the goblet rests perfectly in the palm of your hand between your middle and ring finger, allowing the liquor to be warmed slightly from the bowl's contact with your hand. According to Love to Know, the heat from your hand will help release the aromas in the liquor when served neat. 

Spirit Hub reports the snifter glass, with its broad, round body and a narrow opening at the top, funnels the aromas from the bowl to the lip, accentuating the cognac's delicate flavors. The large bowl at the base of the glass allows oxygen to enter the liquor when gently swirling the short stem of the glass, letting the liquor breathe and subduing the brandy's alcoholic bite.

Hennessy X.O flavors change with the addition of ice

Though extra old-aged cognac is often best served neat, adding ice or including the liquor in cocktails allows the brandy to take on new complexity and character. We advise avoiding mixing X.O in cocktails that will mask the delicate flavors, like in the brandy chocolate drink known as brandy Alexander. Instead, we suggest enjoying the liquor over ice or with a splash of soda like they do in a Wisconsin old-fashioned.

Bar and Restaurant shares that eighth-generation Hennessy family member Maurice-Richard Hennessy recommends adding a few ice cubes. Specifically, Hennessy enjoys the X.O with ice made from mineral water that has been boiled, allowed to cool naturally, and then made into ice. Though that process may seem a bit extreme, we do recommend making ice from high-quality water to maintain the pristine character of the cognac. Creating a large single ice cube will melt slowly into the brandy, ensuring the well-rounded flavor does not become watered by quick melting ice. The addition of ice reveals more fruit-forward and spicy flavors in the brandy, elevating the cognac's complexity while softening its alcoholic edge (via Cognac Expert).

Hennessy X.O is expensive but worth it

According to Wine-Searcher, extra old is one of the priciest cognac products, and the original, Hennessy X.O, is one of the most expensive, priced at more than $200 a bottle. However, the cost comes with good reason.

According to French law, the X.O. category of cognac requires the liquor to be aged a minimum of ten years (via Cognac Expert). Yet, the eaux-de-vie included in the blend of Hennessy X.O contains barrels that are aged for up to 30 years, per Bar and Restaurant. The publication adds that over 100 eaux-de-vie selections make up the X.O blend producing the flavors of dried fig, chocolate, and warm baking spice. As the original extra old Cognac, the packaging is also aesthetically pleasing with a crystal decanter in a golden box. Liquor.com shares that the bottle and the box are beautiful. The presentation makes a lovely gift for novices and enthusiasts looking for something unique and special. Aside from being pleasing to the eye, the brandy inside the bottle is delicious to drink.

Hennessey X.O vs. Martell XO Cognac

While Hennessy may be the largest cognac producer in the world, Martell Cognac is the oldest of the large cognac houses. Begun in 1715, Martell's foundation lies in French Art de Vivre, celebrating the artistry of gastronomy, tasting, and craftsmanship, symbolizing the early 1700s.

In comparing the two extra old selections, the Martell has several similarities to the Hennessy selection, beginning with a similar cost, roughly around $230 a bottle (via Wine Searcher). The Cognac Expert reports the Martell selection includes cognac aged an average of 15 to 35 years from fruit grown throughout the Cognac region, and has an alcohol level of 40%, like Hennessy X.O.

Though the two brands are similar, the flavor profiles are decidedly different. Hennessy X.O is smooth, indulgent, and rich with the creaminess of butterscotch and chocolate, with just the slightest edge of bitterness. Martell XO is bold, complex, and powerful with structure and intensity. Hennessy's selection is much more approachable, particularly for those who may not be as familiar with cognac, with inviting sweet and spicy aromas and a smooth, balanced palate.

Hennessy has a unique way of ensuring the bottle is real

Hennessy is one of the world's most distinguished alcohol producers, landing a spot on Interbrand's list of the 100 most influential brands in the world. Its distinction and popularity have become problematic when ensuring only authentic bottles of Hennessy Cognac line store shelves. To ward off the threat of fakers, in recent years, the company updated its bottle packaging to fight the menace of counterfeiting.

There are several ways to ensure your bottle of Hennessy is real, including the inclusion of the National Agency for Food and Drug Administration and Control (NAFDAC) registration number. The bottle's stopper is an authentic, non-synthetic, snuggly fit cork showing Hennessy's name and logo. The production of the shell and cork occurs with a unique technology, which involves applying a Holosleeve hologram creating a transparent, scannable foil that wraps around the cork, which should be unbroken. Laser engraving of a hand with a halberd lies on the bottle's front. Liquor Laboratory adds if the bottle is unusually affordable, it is likely a fake. Authentic Hennessy X.O is expensive; there isn't any getting around that fact.

Hennessy X.O bottle shape is distinct and disruptive

Until the 1940s, cognac producers utilized traditional Charentaise bottles, like that used for wine, in the packaging and sale of brandy, including the bottles of X.O Cognac. With a trail-blazing eye on innovation, Forbes reports that in 1947 Gérald de Geoffre was charged with creating a decanter worthy of Hennessy X.O's exquisite contents. The pyramid-like design resembles the triangle shape of an upturned bunch of ripe grapes, paying homage to the fruit at the heart of the liquor. The glass decanter was then embossed on the sides with clusters of grapes and grape vines and crested with an X.O symbol above the label that reads "Hennessy."

Pioneering and daring at the time, the expressive design captures the company's innovative spirit that was the first to create an X.O. cognac. Other producers have copied the creation for their X.O. selections in more recent years.

Architect Frank Gehry designed Hennessy X.O's 150th-anniversary bottle

In 2020, Maison Hennessy enlisted renowned architect Frank Gehry — designer of the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain, and the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles — to create a 150th-anniversary X.O bottle.

In an interview with Robb Report, Gehry shares his connection to the project due to Hennessy's commitment to quality. He also notes how nice it was to work on a smaller-scale project compared to the large-scale work he usually does. The designer wanted to display a "yin and yang" aesthetic in his design, taking the pristine bottle of Cognac and wrapping it in 24-carat gold-dipped crumpled bronze. The artist then placed the bottle in a base of fractured glass. The unruly broken glass contrasts the precision of the cognac. Gehry commented on the use of glass, noting you never know how the glass will crack.

The crumpling effect of the gold-dipped bronze reminded the artist of the flowing water of the Charente River surrounding Hennessy's Cognac vineyards. The presentation brought energy to the design, Gehry shared in a statement to CEO Magazine. With the fractured glass base, the combination gives the feeling of movement, capturing the light, similar to the reflections off the flowing water of the river.

Marking the 150th anniversary, Hennessy released a limited edition of 150 bottles in 2020, available for $17,000 each. Edition number one was included in a Sotheby's auction in 2021, with proceeds benefiting the Asian American Business Development Center.

Hennessy's popularity within African American culture goes much deeper than rap songs

District Magazine reports there are over 1,000 rap songs that mention Hennessy. But, the liquor's popularity in America isn't because it is a hip-hop and rap star's favorite alcohol. Cognac has been a favorite within African American culture since World War I.

Slate reports Black soldiers fighting in France during both world wars were introduced to the wine-based brandy in Paris's jazz clubs and cafes. District Magazine adds the popularity of Harlem figures like Josephine Baker and Duke Ellington in post-war Paris may have infused cognac with a certain charm for Black consumers. Especially as cognac was the opposite of American whiskeys that held connotations of the American south's tie to slavery and the confederacy.

Cognac producers actively sought acceptance within Black culture, specifically Hennessy. The company began placing advertisements in magazines like Jet and Ebony, and became one of the first to feature black models (via Vinepair). During the following decades, musicians began referencing Hennessy in lyrics and song titles, becoming rap, R&B, and hip-hop artists' favorites throughout the 1990s into today. Artists including Snoop Dog, Notorious BIG, 2Pac, Kanye West, Rick Ross, Nas, Dr. Dre, and 50 Cent have sung of Hennessy's attributes through the years. Nas has served as a brand ambassador since 2013.