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Famed industrial designer, Marc Newson, unveiled a bold, modern interpretation of the iconic Hennessy X.O decanter during an event held June 21 in Tokyo. Hennessy hailed the new design, saying that it “breaks with conventions and propels Hennessy X.O toward exciting new horizons.”
The “Hennessy X.O 2017 limited edition by Marc Newson” is available from July through September worldwide. The most striking feature of the bottle is a grouping of orderly horizontal lines that nearly cover the entire bottle. They provide both a visual and tactile statement. The design replaces the traditional decorative motifs of grapes and leaves in a corrugated relief. While the overall design effect is refined and minimalistic, it represents a bold statement in the historical context of the iconic X.O bottle, which has been virtually unchanged since 1870.
Newson said his goal was to create a modern interpretation of a bottle that would appeal to an international audience and a younger consumer.
“I would like to think that what we have here is an interesting and successful marriage of something that is very culturally significant and also something very modern because I feel there is a place for this brand and for this product among a new generation of people,” Newson said during a presentation at the Aman Tokyo Hotel. “The opportunity to strengthen the values of this brand among another generation of people and in a geographical sense trying to communicate this product around the world in different places is an important challenge.”
Hennessy representatives said Tokyo was chosen for the Hennessy X.O unveiling because the Asian market is the largest for the brand’s high-end Cognacs. Overall, the U.S. is the largest market in the world for Cognac, including Hennessy’s products. Tokyo also has significance to Newson. The Australian native called the city home for four years and says it is “one of the most important cities in the world in terms of design and culture.”
Perhaps the boldest design statement made by Newson will be largely unnoticeable to the consumer. He tweaked the shape of the bottle to enhance its modern appeal. The graceful curved silhouette of the Hennessy X.O bottle is its most iconic feature and has never been tampered with.
“We did change the shape and that’s a big thing because we didn’t want anyone to know,” he said. “It’s essentially streamlined. It’s a very subtle difference. They are big things for me and big things for Hennessey but I think the intention was not for it to be revolutionary for the consumer. The fact is that I love the shape (of the Hennessy X.O decanter). It’s one of those very few products that are iconic by virtue of the fact that it is so recognizable. I can’t think of many instances where the shape is so immediately kind of apparent.”
Newson is one of the most influential designers working today whose expansive portfolio includes projects for aircraft, furniture, jewelry, timepieces and clothing. One of his Lockheed Lounge chairs sold at auction for £2.4 million ($3.1 million), making it the most expensive object ever sold by a living designer. At the 2006 Design Miami fair he produced 12 Chop Top tables, all of which sold out in 20 minutes at a reported $170,000 per table.
This is Newson’s second project for Hennessy. In 2015, the year of Hennessy’s 250th anniversary, Newson created the sleek, clear and contemporary decanter for the “James Hennessy” anniversary Cognac. Wearing a casual pink suit with a powder blue shirt, the designer, known for his seemingly unkempt beard and hair, explained that having worked with the brand previously provided a level of trust that allowed him to take chances with the Hennessy X.O decanter.
“We already had a successful collaboration so I knew a little bit more about what I was attempting to do with this particular design. I was afforded a little more latitude because it’s a new tradition and I wanted to try to create something that was still tactile that invited the user to want to interact with the bottle itself,” he said. “The lines work to highlight the basic form of the bottle. It refracts the light in a particular way and also is fundamentally modern or more contemporary and that’s something we can only do now after having done our first collaboration.”
Working with glass also created a level of challenges that are not apparent in other materials. “It’s a very old material it’s a very organic material and a very unforgiving material,” he said. “The technology in many ways really limits your flexibility rather than enhancing it. It does very specific things and you have to work with it in a specific way.”
One thing that remains unchanged on the bottle is the Bras Armé, the Hennessy family coat-of-arms that symbolizes the Hennessy brand. The arm and axe refer to founder Richard Hennessy’s military service, earning the Irishman French citizenship and lands in grape growing regions around Cognac.
Another thing that remains unchanged is what’s in the bottle. Hennessy takes great pains to maintain the consistency of its X.O Cognac, which is quite a feat when considering, among other things, the variations in the quality of the grapes, weather related changes and the inconsistencies of the double distilling process the liquid must undergo to be considered Cognac as well as the aging process. The Hennessy Comité de Dégustation (tasting committee) has defined and maintained seven distinct features of Hennessy X.O. They are as follows:
Sweet Notes: Flavors of candied fruit and the faint sweetness of oranges fuses with the subtle tartness of apricots.
Flowing Flame: A wave of warmth breaks into immense roundness. Robust and voluptuous.
Rising Heat: Warm fruit flavors lead into a sensation of rising heat, slowly revealing the complex taste.
Chocolate Lull: The familiar, well-rounded flavor of a rich, dark chocolate.
Spicy Edge: A strong spicy note with distinct peppery overnotes.
Wood Crunches: The striking sensation of oak notes interlaced with vanilla makes its presence felt and then subsides.
Infinite Echo: Evanescent oak notes leave a long, omnipresent finish, echoing the subtleties of each flavor and the complexity of Hennessy X.O’s blending and long aging process.
Newson said what is perhaps his greatest influence in his design is his visits to the factory, the town of Cognac and the grape-growing region that surrounds the town.
“The Cognac region in France completely and utterly signifies the brand. For one thing there’s no mistaking when you go to Cognac why you’re there. The moment you arrive there’s an important sense of history and the history of the product,” he said. “This sense of history is extremely powerful and profound, not only in a physical way but a psychological way…. It’s a wonderfully inspiring place and it’s also a very beautiful place geographically, so it’s an extremely pleasant experience.”
Turning Grapes into Cognac:
To be sold to the public, a Cognac must have been aged in oak cask for at least two years counting from the end of the distillation period, April 1 of the year following the harvest. Once bottled, a Cognac, unlike wine, doesn’t evolve anymore. Therefore it retains the same age indefinitely.
Cognac is a blend of the distilled beverages (known as eaux-de-vie) from different ages (for larger operations it includes different distilleries and vineyards). This blending of different eaux-de-vie is important to obtain a complexity of flavors absent from an eau-de-vie from a single year, distillery or vineyard. The Bureau National Interprofessionnel du Cognac (BINC) is in charge of controlling the stocks and the age of maturing Cognac. It codified the use of the designations based on the length of ageing of the youngest Cognac in the blend.
The most widely used designations are as follows:
V.S. (Very Special) or *** (3 stars): Cognacs whose youngest eau-de-vie is at least two years old.
V.S.O.P. (Very Superior Old Pale), Reserve: Cognacs whose youngest eau-de-vie is at least four years old.
Napoléon, X.O (Extra Old), Hors d’âge: Cognacs whose youngest eau-de-vie is at least six years old.
Generally speaking, Cognac master blenders use eaux-de-vie that are much older than the minimum requirement for their blends, according to BINC. In fact, the most prestigious designations may have aged for dozens of years in oak casks before being presented to the public.