The process of making Cognac is part science, part magic. Wine is distilled into eau-de-vie; that eau-de-vie then gets aged in wood barrels. Eventually it is blended by master distillers into a type of special brandy that can only be called cognac if it comes from France’s Cognac region, 400 km southwest of France.
Some Cognac houses buy their barrels. Some make their own. The team at Hennessy makes about 200 barrels a year, and repairs many others from supplies stored in its vast workshop.
It takes two years to become a Hennessy cooper, (a barrel maker), and “it takes 10 years to become good,” says my guide with a chuckle.
Measuring the wood to make staves
Even the wood can’t be rushed; it must spend three years outside in the rain, snow and summer heat before it’s ready to be turned into barrels. The bark is removed early in the game, as it adds unwanted and bitter tannins.
Then, the wood is turned into staves — the long planks that make up a barrel. Each is slightly tapered at the ends, so they fit together into the classic barrel shape when bent.
A single barrel is made of 32 to 36 staves and will contain about 350 litres of precious elixir.
Assembling a barrel is hard work. The cooper must line up each stave, pulling them tight into the metal rings that hold the barrel together.
Pulling the staves tight
And then the cooper must toast the interior to just the right shade of brown.
Toasting the inside of the barrel
Smoke rising from the barrel toasting
Then there’s the lid (some call it the "head,") made of another nine or so short oak planks.
Measuring the lid
A razor-sharp old-fashioned axe is used to create a groove inside each barrel, where the lid (head) will be fitted.
Shaping the "head," aka the lid
No nails are used at any time. No staples. No glue. Instead, a reed — yes, a non-toxic plant — is carefully wrapped around the edge of each lid. Wheat starch is then dabbed into the barrel’s groove and the lid is jammed in.
The wheat starch used to seal the barrel
The reed and starch will make each barrel watertight, absorbing any liquid that tries to escape.
And for that, I am grateful, as I think of my favourite evening nightcap. Less of the angel's share. More for me to enjoy. And more for the world.