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How artistic collaborations made Hennessy collectable

24 October 2022

From the November 2022 issue of Apollo. Preview and subscribe here.

In 2004, hip hop artist Tupac Shakur’s posthumous album Loyal to the Game was released. It included a track called ‘Hennessy’. Tupac is far from the only artist to have name-dropped the brand – Hennessy and its diminutive nicknames and portmanteaus (including ‘Henny’ and ‘Hennything’) have often been referred to in the hip hop genre since the early 1990s.

Connoisseurs savour cognac, but there is an emotional and psychological investment in displaying this drink. There’s the pride of being seen with one of its lauded decanters – DJ Khaled fronted a Hennessy campaign where he is drinking from a crystal decanter on a super-yacht in Miami. Maison Hennessy has been working on cultivating this culture of carefully crafted cognac for 257 years; the market leader worldwide, it has a presence in more than 160 countries and this July reported year-on-year growth of 14 per cent.

There is joy in the versatility of a libation that appeals to both a record label magnate and also one’s grandmother. Contrasts are the mainstay of cognac: it tastes of fire and florals; it is firm on the palette but gently aromatic on the nose; it can be stiff yet smooth as you swallow it. Cognac is the metonym for brandy, which is a distilled spirit made from the ugni blanc grape (Trebbiano), which is left to ferment with yeast and then further fermented three times in copper pot vats. The method of distillation is an ancient technique dating back to around 2000 BC in Mesopotamia, which was further developed in the mid 18th century by Dutch merchants, who concentrated wine to reduce volume-added tax costs for trade. They called the wine brandewijn (‘burnt wine’), which became known as brandy.

The result is the eau de vie, which is aged in oak barrels to mellow the taste for decades, sometimes centuries: the oldest eau de vie in the Hennessy cellars contains spirit from 1800.

Cognac is to brandy what champagne is to sparkling wine – the district and appellation give their name to the drink. This quality control and regulation means cognac has also earned its place on the secondary market as a high-value collectable, following the same path as fine wine and whisky. The highest price fetched to date is £118,580 for a bottle of Gautier Cognac from 1762 at Sotheby’s in 2020. The businessman Nguyen Dinh Tuan Viet owns the world’s most valuable collection, consisting of more than 574 of the rarest and oldest bottles valued at just under £20m.

With great luxury pedigree comes great opportunity to experiment with making the object of desire stand out in the marketplace: a rare product needs an extraordinary presentation. Hennessy has a track record of collaboration with contemporary artists, designers and architects for vintages the Maison wants to ennoble.

Lorenz Bäumer Hennessy

Decanter designed by Lorenz Bäumer for Hennessy’s Paradis blend, created to mark the 75th anniversary of the NBA. Photo: © Hennessy

To mark the 150th anniversary of the X.O (‘Extra Old’) cognac in 2020, the architect Frank Gehry was invited to design a decanter. Only 150 were released, each one selling for £15,000. Gehry found the prospect of working on a smaller scale ‘daunting’, because a bottle of cognac ‘is already a work of art – one you can smell, taste, and feel’. The result is a 24-karat-gold second skin covering with a crinkled, rippled effect to evoke the Charente river running through Cognac, and to reflect the deep golden colour of the blend in the bottle. The decanter is made of Baccarat crystal and Gehry wanted it to feel ‘good to hold, catch the light beautifully [… and] express the hand of the artisans who helped make the cognac’. In addition to this design, Gehry hand-crafted 30 unique ‘Mathusalems’ for the Hennessy, which held six litres of the X.O cognac and sold for £128,000 each.

Earlier this year, Lorenz Bäumer, the last independent jeweller in the Place Vendôme in Paris, was commissioned to design a decanter for Hennessy’s premium blend, Paradis, to celebrate the 75th anniversary of the National Basketball Association (NBA). In a technical feat, Bäumer designed a basketball-shaped decanter, hand-blown and hand-faceted in Baccarat crystal, then hollowed out to hold 1.75 litres of this rarest blend. There were 75 made; each sold for £111,000.

There is certainly an appeal of owning such a trophy, given the rare blend that would use historic eau de vie in limited numbers of bottles released. On the one hand, these editions are collectables appreciating value. But they are also objects that have been carefully crafted by designers who are interested in the relationship between ornament and function. This summer, Hennessy revealed its latest collectable decanter: a demijohn designed by the French plumassière, Nelly Saunier. The design of this decanter draws on Saunier’s love of ornithology. It is decorated with jewel-coloured feathers of exotic birds, such as the tragopan and Abyssinian roller. Only one was made – it comes with 10 one-litre bottles of a one-of-a-kind blend. With a price tag of £600,000, it is a surreal object of desire in every sense.

These limited-edition bottles have a meaning that goes beyond the emotional link between consumer and brand. ‘If you look at the Greek sculptures like the Charioteer of Delphi or the [Boxer at Rest], they are able to transmit feelings through thousands of years with inert materials,’ Gehry told Dezeen in 2020. ‘That was in my mind when we were doing this bottle. I wanted to make something that transmits feeling.’

Luxury collectables may have moved to new markets, but the allure of possessing totemic objects is ageless. No wonder everyone from Tupac to DJ Khaled has summoned this potent liquor as a sign of a higher power, in a bottle that sets the crowd apart even further than champagne.

From the November 2022 issue of Apollo. Preview and subscribe here.