Hennessy is one of the most famous names in the world of spirits.
Since being founded in 1795, the Hennessy distillery has become a prestige brand on an immense scale, with its products beloved by everyone from rappers to royalty.
In a story as long as Hennessy’s there’s always going to be room for innovation.
Enter, Hennessy Black. Cognac cocktails have been a bartending staple since the birth of mixology, and Hennessy has always been a cognac of choice for drinks like Sazeracs and Sidecars.
Hennessy Black was created to be the best mixing cognac in the world, drawing on Hennessy’s centuries of experience and artistry to create a cognac that could be enjoyed like a bourbon.
You wouldn’t ordinarily ask for a Hennessy and Coke, but that’s exactly what Hennessy Black is for!
Technically, Hennessy Black is a VS cognac, meaning that it has been aged for two years at a minimum, but not the four years that would qualify it for VSOP status.
This gives a lighter, less intense cognac, which makes sense for Hennessy Black as a mixing spirit. It should also give you as a cognac drinker some idea of where it will fall compared to similar spirits from other brands.
Hennessy Black isn’t badged as a VS, but it definitely falls into this category.
Hennessy knows a thing or two about branding, so it’s no surprise that the packaging of Hennessy Black has high visual appeal.
Taking a classic cognac bottle shape with wide shoulders and a long neck, but making it a striking black with silver-grey accents, this is a smart blend of the traditional and the modern that really stands out.
In other words, it’s the perfect visual accompaniment to the spirit itself!
In The Glass
On pouring, the first thing that will come to your attention is the fact that Hennessy Black is an extremely light-looking cognac.
A light, golden yellow, Hennessy Black is light even for a VS, giving you an indication of what is to come in terms of nose and flavor profile.
While this light color may be a turn-off if you’re looking for a well aged sipping cognac, in cocktail making it is perfect.
You can’t underestimate the importance of the visuals of a cocktail, and a deep, ruby-colored Hennessy XO is not going to be as versatile in terms of creating eye-pleasing drinks as something a little less obtrusive.
Hennessy Black is so light in colour that it will substitute for anything from rum to tequila to whiskey visually.
What looks at first to be a fault is actually just another part of the incredibly careful creation process of this unusual cognac!
On The Nose
Hennessy Black has a fresh, youthful nose dominated by jasmine, orange, and grape scents. This is what you’d expect from such a young cognac, with high notes dominating throughout, and is a good pointer to how Hennessy Black is going to taste.
You’re not going to get the layers of complexity that you would expect from a well-aged Hennessy that’s been distilled for sipping, and in fact the nose of Hennessy Black is a big part of what makes it less suited to drinking straight up, as when it’s warm that extremely direct scent is somewhat overpowering.
However, when chilled the nose calms down in a way that is immediately appealing for fans of mixed drinks. The thing about having big notes front and center is that when you chill the spirit, you don’t lose those defining features.
Hennessy Black stays true to its core flavor and scent notes as it cools, giving it a distinctive character in mixes that you would lose with a more complex traditional cognac.
Hennessy Black’s flavor profile follows pretty logically from the nose. You keep those floral accents with jasmine being very prominent, giving the spirit a heady element.
This is augmented by the presence of a punchy, woody tone that doesn’t reach towards oak and vanilla as a more aged cognac might, but instead stays in the more astringent, phenolic cedar area.
These bright flavors are counteracted and harmonized by a warm, honeyed note that runs through the whole flavor, grounding the otherwise harsh top notes and creating an overall flavor profile that has a great deal of sweetness and body, but also a notable and cutting edge.
If you consider what Hennessy Black was created to do, this flavor profile makes total sense.
Creating balance in a spirit that is designed for mixing is very different from doing so for a sipping cognac. In a traditional sipping cognac, you’re looking for balance, nuance, and a complete drinking experience in a glass.
That’s what makes the higher end of the Hennessy range so enduringly successful. They know how to give you a top-quality cognac to savor.
For a mixing spirit, what you want is something that adds body and warmth but also has a relatively simple flavor that cuts through to give character to the overall drink.
In the case of Hennessy Black, this works perfectly. The warm, sweet honey base of the flavor profile is the perfect starting point for mixing, adding sweetness and depth.
The distance between this sweetness and the floral, woody top notes gives space for the other ingredients in your cocktail to shine, (see also: June Shine Review)and then the jasmine and cedar come in as a flourish to create interest and character.
As A Standalone Cognac
It has to be said that Hennessy Black is not going to be your first port of call if you’re looking for a cognac for sipping.
It lacks the complexity and elegance that you would be looking for in a spirit for this purpose. To a large extent, it’s too blunt an instrument.
It’s not that it is in any way unenjoyable, but when you sit down to enjoy a glass of cognac you do so with a certain set of expectations in mind, and it is unfair to think that Hennessy Black will meet them.
As A Cocktail Spirit
This is where Hennessy Black comes into its own.
When Hennessy set out to create Hennessy Black, the ambition wasn’t just to make a cognac that would be the best in cognac-based cocktails.
They set their sights higher than that, aiming to make a cognac that was versatile enough to take the place of base spirits across the whole range of cocktails.
That’s an extremely lofty goal, but Hennessy Black takes a great shot at it.
Firstly, the careful balance between lightness, body, and traditional cognac notes makes perfect sense once you consider Hennessy Black as a base spirit.
For cognac-based cocktails you’re going to want a cognac with a more defined and complex flavor, but that’s not where Hennessy are envisioning Hennessy Black being used.
It’s for substituting for rums, whiskeys, even vodkas. In this role it is absolutely perfect.
Take your classic Manhattan. This is a drink that derives its personality from a complex dance of flavors, all resting on the warm, woody notes of the whiskey that anchors it.
Hennessey Black’s honey base note gives you richness, while the cedar and floral elements of the flavor pair perfectly with the tight woodiness of vermouth and the aromatic spice of Angostura bitters.
Chilled and diluted properly, just like your favorite Manhattan should be, Hennessy Black really adds a twist to this classic that you would never have expected to work, but does perfectly.
For another display of the versatility of Hennessy Black, why not substitute it for the cachaca in a caipirinha? Cachaca is a fantastically unique spirit with a complex flavor, sitting in a space that straddles rum, brandy, and tequila.
It’s complex, warm, but with a subtle astringency that works so perfectly with fresh lime and sugar. You’d never pick up a bottle of VSOP to make a caipirinha, but Hennessy Black can bring new life to this simple old favorite.
It’s almost incredible to think that a cognac could be so at home in a tropical drink like this, especially as the lead flavor, but Hennessy Black does exactly what it’s supposed to, giving space to the complex bite of lime, augmenting it with intriguing flavor, and capitalizing on the sweetness from the brown sugar.
Take your caip game up a notch into a new level of sophistication, and switch out your cachaca for Hennessy Black.
There really is a Hennessy for every occasion.
Nothing is going to diminish the standing of Hennessy’s great cognacs, which are rightly loved the world over for their incredible flavor and the experience they give you as a cognac drinker.
But Hennessy Black is something different, a dark horse in this storied stable.
Hennessy Black opens up the world of mixology to a whole set of new experiences; it is versatile, delicious, and fits well in places you would never have expected it to.
It’s hard to review as a cognac, because it almost doesn’t sit in that bracket at all!
This is a first-class cocktail ingredient that you should not miss out on, because if you do you are denying yourself the chance to experience all of your favorites in a whole new light.
Looking for more Hennessy? Check out our Hennessy Pure White Review next!