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Home Bar Orphans: Vol. 2 - Hennessy XO

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By James Geneau

Everyone has the same bottles in their liquor cabinet.  The orphan liquors nobody knows what to do with.  They are either ones we received as gifts from visiting house guests, picked up at Duty-Free on the way home from the Caribbean, or ones that simply appeared so long ago you cannot remember where they came from if your life depended on it.   Sure, we all know how to use Gin, Vodka, Rye, and to some degree Sherry.  But what about those other great spirits we end up bringing in from the cold?  Frustrated by the ever-growing collection of bottles in my personal liquor cabinet, I have decided to go out on a mission to find uses for the bottles collecting dust in my cabinet.  This is Home Bar Orphans – The Series…

I have had a bottle of Hennessy XO in my liquor cabinet at home for over two years now.  Sitting there, doing nothing, and taunting me every time I grab my bottle of vodka or gin.  It is a lovely bottle, I will give it that.  But what on earth is a guy supposed to do with it?  I can guarantee you one thing.  If you work in finance, sales, or marketing, and have ever stepped out onto a golf course for a “charity” event or attended a “good ole boy’s club” fundraiser, you probably won a bottle of Hennessey XO or received it from your cigar smoking boss.  But many of us have no appreciation for it mostly due to a lack of knowledge of its history.  Not to be sexist, but this has traditionally been a spirit men have in their liquor cabinet but never use.  But most men simply know it as something we sip on the rocks with the boss while we suck back a cigar after the big sale “a la” Glengarry-Glen Ross.  Well, let’s fix that with a little history lesson.

It all started back in 1765 when an Irish aristocrat by the name of Richard Hennessy established a trading company on the banks of the Charente River in France.  Here, he started experimenting with the fine art of creating “eau de vie”, or what we today refer to as Cognac.  He became quite skilful at his art, and eventually, the next generation took over the business.  Now here is where things get interesting.  In 1870, Maurice Hennessy, a descendant, introduced Hennessy XO, and created the first major classification for Cognac.  The XO stood for eXtra Old, and today, this is the quality denomination used by all houses in Cognac, France to indicate an extra aged “eau de vie”.

And so, the house continued on with their production.  Over time, Hennessy XO began to appear in numerous foreign markets and by 1890, it was the top selling “eau de vie” in the world.  The signature bottle was introduced in 1947 and is designed to resemble an inverted bunch of grapes with vines integrated into the detail of the glass.  The bottle has remained the same since it was first introduced, and today, is not only the hallmark design of the house but also considered to be a major example of the design-style of its time.

So, what is Hennessy XO?  Well, first off, it is a blend of more than 100 ''eaux-de-vie'' specially selected from the four premier growing areas of Cognac, and aged up to 30 years.  Traditionally, it is served one of two ways, and please forgive me if I am being a little too basic here in my explanations.  This is an article designed to help you enjoy your dusty bottle of Hennessy XO and I want everyone to feel welcome.  If simply poured into a tumbler, it is referred to as being served “neat”.  Historically, this is how you would enjoy this spirit.  However, the more common “on the rocks” or “on ice” is how most bartenders will serve it to you if you simply ask for Hennessy these days.  I personally prefer it “on the rocks” as the melting ice releases many of the tasty layers one can find in this complex spirit.

And what can one find here in terms of flavours?  Well, first off you will notice the colour and should take some time to appreciate this before getting right into the tasting.  When poured, Hennessy XO is a light caramel colour and when held up to a light, you can see a slight shimmer to it.  Lovely really, and since this is a spirit designed to be sipped and enjoyed you can spend hours simply swirling it and enjoying the way it hugs and drapes the glass.  On the nose, you will immediately detect rich aromas of dried fruit, particularly figs.  This is then followed by chocolate and pepper with some notes of cinnamon and cloves.  Depending on what you are enjoying with your Cognac, say a cigar or a piece of dark chocolate, you may notice other aromas like leather or oak.

Now for a sip, and you immediately understand the craftsmanship here.  Again, dried fruit is present as well as chocolate.  This is supported by some serious pepper notes along with some cinnamon and vanilla.  Perhaps even a bit of oak again.  It is elegant, and the texture in your mouth is almost velvet-like.  If served “on the rocks”, the layers of flavours start to become more pronounced as the ice melts and the water dilutes the spirit.  Don’t be alarmed by this.  Instead, enjoy the changes in the key notes you find as you slowly sip and discover new flavour trends sip after sip.

So, if you open the bottle you have in your cabinet and have a glass, that doesn’t really do much in terms of adding it into your rotation of day-to-day spirits does it?  Hennessy XO is not designed to be combined into a cocktail so it is limited to being served “neat” or “on the rocks”.  It is a spirit designed to be savoured and slowly sipped.  But it does have a major accompaniment you could easily serve it with at your next dinner party, chocolate.

Chocolate and Hennessy go together like hot fudge and vanilla ice cream.  It is a real crowd pleaser and a really easy dessert option for guys trying to impress their dinner guests.  Yes, we all know you can master the barbeque and throw a bottle of wine in the mix, but dessert is like hot leg wax for men.  It is simply a place we do not go to.  However, a fine glass of Cognac and chocolate is a great option for impressing your guests and we have a simple dessert option for you.  For those a little more comfortable with their baking skills, feel free to see the advanced option at the bottom of the page.

Head to the local chocolatier (for some guys out there let me explain that this would be a person who sells chocolate and not the other thing you were thinking) and ask them for a variety of truffles or chocolates representing three varying degrees of sweetness and bitterness.  You want to have variety so your guests can sip and experiment with the combinations of chocolate and Cognac.  Explain it to the chocolatier (chocolate dude) and he will figure it out for you.  While your guests finish off their wine on the patio and digest your rib eye and baked potato masterpiece, assemble a plate of the chocolate on a tray with the bottle of Hennessy, a bucket of ice, and some snifters.  Return to the patio, light the fire pit, and serve.  

On a cool spring or fall evening, there is nothing more refined than a glass of Hennessy XO with some fine chocolate and an open fire.  The best part is that it is an immediate discussion topic.  Chocolate is a natural compliment for this spirit and you can detect different aromas and flavours depending on the type of chocolate you try it with.  Believe me, we tried it with our Gremolata Test Kitchen staff and by the end of the night the chocolate was gone and the bottle was half-empty.  Another great thing about this spirit is that it forces you to relax, take your time, and engage in conversation.  A fine Cognac should be savoured.  In a world where life is full of deadlines, office politics, and road rage, nothing else matters once you uncork a bottle of Hennessy X.O. with your friends.  You simply sit back and chill.  Oh, and a couple of Cuba’s finest are totally optional.

For more advanced dudes:
Flourless Chocolate Cake with a Truffle Centre

There is nothing to be ashamed of if you like to put on an apron and bake.  In fact, most women find this far sexier than say your 45 inch plasma screen TV or DVD collection.  If you really want to impress your guests, why not try a little flourless chocolate cake with a truffle center?

Ingredients:

1/2 cup water
1-1/3 cups sugar
5 extra-large eggs (or 6 large eggs), let to sit till room temperature
8 ounces of finely chopped unsweetened chocolate
4 ounces of finely chopped semisweet chocolate
1 cup (equal to 2 sticks) unsalted butter, cut into small pieces and let to sit till room temperature

Steps:

Preheat your oven to 350°F (175°C).

Grab a 9-inch round cake pan and cut a round piece or parchment paper to fit in the bottom.

In a saucepan, combine the water with one cup of the sugar. Bring it to a boil over high heat for four minutes.

After four minutes, take the pan off the heat and immediately add the chocolate.

Stir until melted and smooth and immediately add the butter.

In an electric mixer, combine the eggs and the remaining 1/3 cup of sugar.  Beat on high for approximately 15 minutes.  After 15 minutes, slowly add the chocolate mixture while the mixer runs on the slowest speed possible.  

Pour it into the prepared cake pan then set the pan in a baking dish containing boiling water making sure the edges of both the pan and the dish do not touch each other.

As a final step, add some truffles into the batter in a circular fashion so each one would be in the centre of “a slice” when cut.

Bake for 25 minutes then let sit for a bit before serving.  Ideally, serve it warm.

Top it off presentation-wise with a shot of Hennessy XO on the side and allow your guests to sip it or pour some on the cake itself for a little extra flavour kick!

Serves up to 8 guests.



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