The people and oak barrels behind Hennessy’s cognac

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building oak casks for cognac at Hennessy photographed by Susan Wong March 2013

Caramel, vanilla, almond and toast.  I filled my lungs full of the fragrant air around me.  Thrilled by the cloud of aromas rising into my nose and the warmth emitting from the fire at the bottom of the unfinished oak cask, it beckoned me to dive in deeper.   My face and décolletage, cradled by warmth and softness, slipped further into the barrel.  My eyelids began to close and the thunderous pounding from working mallets in the workshop faded as my nose dove deeper and deeper into the tenderness of the oak cask – the home to newly distilled eaux-de-vie, and with years, a fine and elegant cognac.

building oak casks for cognac at Hennessy photographed by Susan Wong March 2013 barrels line

Delicious and powerful, the aromas inspired an out-of-body experience that seemed like a cooperage fairy-tale: imagining myself swimming in an Olympic-sized pool framed with French oak and filled to the brim with perfectly aged cognac.  Abruptly, I was awakened by a small glowing ember sputtering in the air.

“This should be bottled as a perfume!” I declared as I lifted my head out of the oak cask.

The fire, made with wood shavings and oak pieces, continued to crackle at the base of the unfinished cask.  Convinced that the oak staves were toasting at the optimum temperature, Christopher, a 20-year-old cooper, sloshed water on the hot oak cask to soften the wood in preparation of bending the wood to its final curved form.

New to the Hennessy team, Christopher shadowed a master cooper for two years before becoming an official oak cask craftsman last June.  Fresh-faced and relatively slight in frame, most would assume Christopher held a desk job if it weren’t for his workshop attire and craftsman’s hands – patient, strong, deliberate and purposeful.  Perhaps that’s how Christopher knew he could always work magic with wood and be apart of the heritage behind Cognac, France – where some of the world’s finest spirits are blended into cognac.

“I’ve always loved working with wood – the texture and the feel,” Christopher shyly narrated.

At Hennessy, skilled coopers only specifically repair and maintain old oak casks.  But to be able to restore, one must understand how to build.

building oak casks for cognac at Hennessy photographed by Susan Wong March 2013 hands

Building the perfect oak cask

Cooperage is an art.  And coopers are not only carpenters, but also master artisans where their skills are combined with ancestral crafts and tools.  Here, in Cognac, France at the main Hennessy workshop, you will not see modern laser-guided machinery – everything is levelled by the human eye and assembled by hand.

Methodical and true to how cognac oak casks have been made since Richard Hennessy founded Hennessy in 1765, there is no need for improvisation.

Only 80- to 150-year-old oak trees found in Limousin or Tronçais, France are used.  Allowed to weather under natural elements between three to five years, the planks lose their bitter flavours, resulting in staves.

The staves, which are slightly curved from the elements, are then meticulously lined in a circular shape with the help of an iron guide.  The cooper takes utmost care to place staves in the specific order – small, big, small and big – to reinforce the structure.

The staves are then aligned by height with the shortest as the guide.  The rest of the staves are then pounded down to meet the exact height.  After tediously circling the unfinished cask and pounding at the staves many times, the cooper simply runs his hand across the edges to check if everything is aligned to perfection.

The cask is then rolled onto a small fire, which will ultimately heat up to 400 °C.  As the cask warms from the inside, water is sprayed onto the staves from the outside to soften them.  A steel cable around the bottom slowly tightens and bends the staves to form its iconic curved shape.  Without the aid of nails or braces, once the oak staves have been bent together, the shape will last forever like an ideal marriage where the oak staves are stronger as one than as individuals.

Using special tools, the cooper then carves a groove on the top and bottom of the oak cask where it will be closed, sealed with flour and water.  No glue or nails are ever used in the process to prevent contaminating the eaux-de-vie.

building oak casks for cognac at Hennessy photographed by Susan Wong March 2013 casks

Without coopers there would be no cognac

With over 360,000 barrels in stock, each either at 350L or 500L capacity, Hennessy continues to buy approximately 20,000 oak casks annually. With the complexity of aging cognac, a diverse collection of casks are required – a newer cask will release stronger tannins and colour where as older barrels release less – to blend the finest of Cognac in the world.  The tasting committee ultimately decides whether the eaux-de-vie will be placed in a new cask, or in one of 3-years-old, 4- to 9-years-old, 10- to 20-years-old, or finally in a cask of 20- to 35-years-old.

Liken to marriage, producing cognac requires great patience, commitment and a complete understanding of the eaux-de-vie.  But, even most marriages these days don’t even make it to the ten year mark, yet a fine bottle of cognac regularly will surpass that by decades.

The oak cask is vital to the production of cognac.  If there were no coopers to build French oak casks, simply put, there would be no cognac.

Hennessy, is a world-leading cognac house because individuals like Christopher understand that their age-old craft is vital to the ultimate result, a great bottle cognac.

Watching Christopher’s simple and deliberate approach to each element of building a perfect oak cask was inspiring.  His intentions simple and pure; each and every individual element, no matter how small or large, was crafted with utmost care.  And it is exactly with such passionate and purposeful attitude that the legacy and heritage of Hennessy continues.

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building oak casks for cognac at Hennessy photographed by Susan Wong March 2013 10More photos continued…

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SUSAN WONG

Susan Wong is the Editor of Capital Lifestyle, a resident photographer, an award-winning journalist, radio presenter, full-time adventurer, long-time admirer of anything edible, and a spicy food athlete at Capital FM.

  • Is it just me or does it sound like the writer was in love here?

    • Dear Cedric, I was in love with the process of producing cognac 🙂

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