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The story of some Hennessy bottles

30 November 2012 5 Comments

This time a very interesting Your Cognac Article which was originally published on Thecognacforum.com by François.

I’ve been roaming through auctions and attic sales for years, looking to build a collection of old cognacs to drink and transmit to my children when they are adults. Last week a friend of mine told me she knew a lady in Paris who had both a story to tell and two cases of very old bottles of cognac to sell. Feeling intrigued, I got in touch with the lady, now in her early eighties, and after a 15 minute phone conversation she invited me to her apartment the following day.
Upon entering in her living room, I was shocked to see two dusty wood cases on the floor. Both cases where stamped with huge Hennessy marks, and I also noticed old pink US tax stamps were affixed to both cases. The lady gave me permission to open one of the cases, and here is what I found:

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She told me her family used to own a well-known restaurant located Rue de la Roquette in the 11th district of Paris (not far from the place where the infamous Bastille once stood). The lady’s grandparents opened their restaurant, or “brasserie” as we would say in French, in the 1890s and operated it until after World War I, when the lady’s father took charge. He operated the business with much success, and when World War II broke out in 1939, his restaurant was one of the most famed ones in the eastern districts of Paris. Unfortunately the Nazis managed to invade France in less than 10 months, and by June 1940, Paris and most of the country found themselves occupied by Hitler’s army. In a matter of weeks the Reich’s administration implemented racist and intolerant policies that forced the lady’s father out of business, as he was compelled to sell most of his business (except inventory) at a very low price to “non-Jewish” investors. Feeling threatened by increasingly violent, anti-Semitic policies, the whole family fled to America with their belongings, including the inventory they had managed to grab from the “non-Jewish” investors’ hands.

They stayed there for the duration of the war and went back to France in late 1945, only to find out that their restaurant was out of business since 1942. Apparently the vulture investors who bought the business from them did not know how to operate a restaurant! The lady’s father passed away not long after and she inherited most of his belongings, including his collection of old bottles that came from the restaurant’s inventory. A couple of years later she married and, in her own words, she “lived the happiest of lives with the best husband on Earth”.

On great occasions, her spouse would pick one or two bottles of wine from the collection of his wife’s late father, so that when he died last year after more than 60 years of marriage, most of the inventory from the old restaurant was gone. He loved good food and great wines (and would customarily organize luncheons that would last from midday to 3 or 4 in the afternoon!), but he litteraly hated spirits, so that he wouldn’t touch his wife’s cognacs with a pole. At this point in her story, I felt sorry for her husband: after all, he overlooked all these bottles and probably missed something great! But the good news is that thanks to her husband’s hatred for all things cognac, these old bottles stayed unscathed in their wood boxes for decades and decades. Otherwise, he could easily have drank them all in the 1950s or 1960s, and we would never have the opportunity to taste them…

Now a widow living in an oversized appartment, the lady told me she wants to relocate in southeastern France, where some of her relatives are living, and that she is consequently in the process of selling her appartment, part of her furniture, as well as things that won’t fit in her new home, such as a collection of books and… the bottles that came originally from the Rue de la Roquette restaurant!

A closer look at the bottles enabled me to determine there were actually two kinds of bottles in the cases: 6 bottles of Hennessy *** (three stars) and 6 bottles of Hennessy Bras Armé. Here is a close-up of one of the Hennessy *** bottles:

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As is well known, Hennessy discontinued the *** denomination in the 1930s and subsequently introduced the Bras Armé quality. I guess the lady’s father was in such a hurry to leave France in 1940 that he accidentally mixed up *** and Bras Armé in the wood cases, and that this is the reason why upon opening the cases myself last week I found both *** and Bras Armé in both of them. I decided to focus my negociation on the *** bottles, since I already own Bras Armé bottles in a number of different packagings. After discussing the price for five minutes or so, we finally reached an agreement and I was happy enough to bring home 6 bottles of Hennessy *** in their original wood case!

I already knew the bottles dated from the 1930s or before for two reasons: first, the lady and her family left France at the beginning of the Nazi occupation of France (i.e. 1940), and second, *** was no longer produced in the late 1930s. But I wanted to know more about these bottles, so I decided to investigate them through two avenues of research:
– tasting one of the bottles with fellow connoisseurs (yep!),
– checking the bottles’ labels against both public and private, dated records.

Unwilling to roam through tons of old papers in a cold and silent public library without first opening one of these bottles, I gathered almost a dozen friends of mine at my home last Monday for a tasting session. We chose the bottle in the first wood case that lacked its Hennessy label (the one you can actually see on the bottom left corner of the first picture I posted). Its capsule was in an excellent condition, and the same is true for the other bottles as you can see:

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The cork itself showed no signs of shrinkage and was in excellent condition, perfectly sealed and airtight, as evidenced by the very good fill level of the bottle. Then I uncorked the bottle! We were immediately greeted by a pleasant smell of dried fruits such as common figs and dried plums. I went on to fill our glasses with 3 or 4 centiliters of the precious liquor. From then on, here are my tasting notes.

Color: perfectly limpid, deep ocher, much darker than *** is nowadays
First nose: lively, rich and spicy, grass, fig, prune, raisin
Second nose: subtle, black chocolate, violet, yet more spices, soft wood, a hint of oxidation aromas usually found in 10+ years old cognacs
Texture: smooth velvet
Taste: dried fruit and chocolate, nutty, spicy, vanilla oak taste yet flowery (dried rose), a hint of rancio not inconsistent with XO cognacs of today

All things considered, this was a great experience that everybody around the table seemed to enjoy. Many times I was told by older connoisseurs the overall quality of cognacs has been decreasing for 3 or 4 decades. Up until that time I had never had the opportunity to taste a blend from before World War II, but now I realize that what they called *** then has nothing to do with today’s ***, VS, or whatever you call it. This *** from the first half of the 20th century tastes more like XO from the first half of the 21th century! Unfortunately this illustrates a growing trend at the major houses to increase production while disregarding quality, and ultimately the customer, who experiences more and more difficulties to find suitable cognacs.

That being said, let’s go back to the other bottles! After this very pleasant event, I spent half a day on the internet and in a public library to research historical documents that could help put a definitive date on the bottles.

Having still vivid memories of the tasting, I first tried to get a hold of the hierarchy of blended cognacs in the first half of the 20th century. That is, I was looking to know whether *** was considered a low-, mid- or high-tier blend at this time in the cognac industry. For that, I went through many business documents of the leading cognac houses of the time, called “prix-courants”. These documents were sent to both current and prospective clients to let them know the various blends of cognacs offered for sale, as well as their prices, shipping terms, and so on. And here is what I found in one of them:

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Unfortunately the document is in French, but its meaning is pretty straightforward. As you can see, the house in question used to ship 9 blends of cognacs of increasing quality, from the lowest one “Authentique supérieur” (price: 28 francs), to the best one “VVSOP” (price: 130 francs). Disregarding the “et jusqu’à” mention (it certainly references vintage cognacs, that is unblended products), we see that the *** quality was actually the 5th quality on the price scale. So it is quite clear that at this time, *** cognacs were considered mid-tier blends. Compared to today’s scale, this would lead us somewhere between VSOP and XO, probably closer to XO, as evidenced by the tasting we had the other night.

This is indeed confirmed by another “prix-courant” from the same era, this time for importers, that clearly states *** blends contained 12-year-old cognacs, as shown below on the bottom half of the document:

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So it is pretty clear that *** blends in the good old time were indeed much older than XO cognacs nowadays, since today you only need to spend 6 years in a barrel to get the XO denomination, while at this time 6 years would not get you more than a lone star!

Next, I researched a huge compendium of all the label marks that were legally registered by the leading cognac houses from the 1860s to the 1950s, hoping to find in this archive the labels that are on my bottles. The huge label inscribed with “JAs. HENNESSY & Co. COGNAC” would not be of much help, as it was first registered in 1864 (a date clearly inconsistent with what I knew from the lady’s testimony, the tasting and prix-courants), and was used continuously for almost 100 years. So I decided to focus my research on the collar label of the bottles, the one inscribed with “***”. I went through the same compendium, and found that Hennessy actually registered a couple of *** collar labels. The first one dates from 1900, while the second one dates from 1915 and features some kind of watermark. Both models are shown below:

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On my bottles, the three stars are positioned over a perfectly white background, as can be seen on the photos I posted previously, so it is clear that my bottles sport the earlier model, the one from 1900. And the obvious conclusion is that the bottles were produced after the 1900 model was rolled out, and before the 1915 model with the watermark was introduced. You’ll notice this 1900-1915 range is satisfactory, as it is consistent with the lady’s rememberances, with the tasting and with the prix-courants.

So, as a conclusion, I can say these bottles contain a blend of cognac that spent around 12 years in cask, and were produced between 1900 and 1915. But now comes the big question: how much is my cognac worth? And this is when you can help! I know some of you guys are dedicated connoisseurs, so any help would be much appreciated in putting an estimate on the remaining 5 bottles and their original wood case.

Thanks for reading, I hope you appreciated my post, and I look forward to hearing back from you!

François

 

 

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5 Comments »

  • roman said:

    i would like to make you an offer curly6t9 A yahoo if you wish to sell

  • Rob Evans said:

    I am very interested in making you an offer for one of these 3 star bottles. If you are in the market to sell, please contact me at:

    Rob Evans
    robevans22@yahoo.com

    I look forward to hearing from you.

    Thank you.

  • Paul said:

    I am interest to buy all your cognac bottles.
    Let me know if you want to make a deal.

  • Paul said:

    I am interest to buy all your Hennessy bottles.

    Let me know if you want to make a deal.
    pxngo@yahoo.com

  • Michelle said:

    I have two of these bottles myself, if anyone is interested in making an offer

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