In a sea of brandy producers, “The Big Four” — Hennessy, Martell, Rémy Martin, and Courvoisier — have stood the test of time. Recognized by spirits aficionados around the world, each of the four houses offers drinkers a legacy and signature style befitting of every Cognac lover.
With a legion of American fans, mega-distiller Hennessy leads the pack in global sales, while Martell, Rémy Martin, and Courvoisier still hold their own with dedicated drinkers who believe the smaller brands offer an unparalleled value. Keep reading to learn more about how the four major players in the world of Cognac stack up.
The oldest of the bunch, Martell Cognac, was founded in 1715 by Englishman and wine merchant Jean Martell. Following a trip to Charente, Martell discovered his passion for brandy, settled in the region permanently, and went on to establish one of the oldest Cognac houses still in production.
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Nearly a decade later, in 1724, a French winegrower by the name of Rémy Martin established his firm in the commune of Cognac. After King Louis XV of France recognized Martin’s talent, he granted him a license to plant new vineyards in 1738, furthering his burgeoning business.
Another expatriate, Irishman Richard Hennessy, immigrated to France to serve in Louis XV’s army and eventually settled in Cognac. He founded the House of Hennessy in 1765 and, by 1794, the first shipments of the brandy had made their way to America.
Courvoisier, the “youngest” of the group, was created in 1828 by Félix Courvoisier and Jules Gallois, the sons of two merchants who co-owned a wine and spirits company outside Paris. The young men’s new venture, which was based in Jarnac, focused exclusively on Cognac.
All of the brands blend eaux-de-vie sourced from different regions in Cognac, each with individual soils and climates. Rémy Martin uses grapes grown exclusively in the premier Grande Champagne and Petite Champagne subregions beloved for their chalky soils. Courvoisier focuses on the vineyards of Fins Bois, while Martell uses a large percentage of wines from Borderies — a tradition in line with Jean Martell’s early days in trading. Hennessy, meanwhile, sources its eaux-de-vie from Grande Champagne, Petite Champagne, Borderies, and Fins Bois.
Hennessy V.S., the world’s best-selling Cognac, is made from a blend of over 40 eaux-de-vie with hints of subtle fruit, caramel, vanilla, and spice. The decadence of its V.S.O.P. is on full display in VinePair’s review, with toasted oak, raisins, dried apricots, and a finale of vanilla and licorice.
In another VinePair tasting, Rémy Martin X.O. yielded bitter orange and underripe bananas on the palate, while the brand’s Tercet Fine Champagne showed a modest precision with oak and fruit in perfect harmony. Courvoisier X.O. Imperial Grande’s subtle yet complex mix of dried and fresh fruit with vanilla and pepper garnered top marks.
According to the brand’s website, Martell V.S. shows stone fruit and sweet lemon aromas, with rich fruit-forward notes and a smooth texture. Martell Blue Swift, made with V.S.O.P. Cognac aged in Kentucky bourbon casks, has vanilla and spice upfront with ginger, toasted oak, and candied fruit on the palate.
Courvoisier vs. Hennessy
Courvoisier and Hennessy are both excellent, top-tier options for Cognac sipping, however the two Cognacs differ slightly. In flavor profile, Courvoisier is a bit sweeter than Hennessy, carrying notes of dried stone fruits and heavy oak due to its unique aging process, which takes place in handcrafted French oak barrels over 200 years old. On the other hand, Hennessy is a bit heavier on the palate with less fruit notes, instead bringing forward flavors like intense oak, caramel, and vanilla from aging in French oak casks.
Courvoisier and Hennessy also differ in their price points, with Hennessy generally the more expensive of the two. The average price of a 1.75 mL bottle of Courvoisier VS will run you anywhere from $50 to $55, while the average price of a 1.75 mL bottle of Hennessy can cost anywhere from $75 to $83.
What the Pros Think
Courvoisier, the smallest operation of the four — and the only one without vineyard holdings — is touted by Iris Tang, partner and brand and special events director at NYC’s Somewhere Nowhere, for its “rich, rounded, and spicy notes.”
Baylee Hopings, the bar manager at Bon Ton in Atlanta, as well as the Cognac Connection 2021 Winner and Speed Rack Season 9 finalist, explains that “Hennessy’s younger marks are richer with oak-aged notes. … This explains why Hennessy V.S. is able to stand up in cocktails since it has enough body.” When it comes to Rémy Martin, Hopings notes the brand’s decision to distill its Cognacs on lees lends itself to fuller-bodied products that show “extra complexity,” while Martell’s collection tends to showcase floral, fruity, and nutty notes.