Spirits: Distilling History
Ggiuseppe Ruo, manager of the Library Bar at London’s Lanesborough hotel, anticipates the question before it is posed. It is as if this native of Apulia, Italy, has detected the Montant aroma of a familiar spirit, one that still promises a measure of amusement yet no longer enthralls the senses. “No, I have not tasted the Hardy 1790,” he says offhandedly.
When acquiring such a rare Cognac, a buyer seldom is granted the benefit of a tasting, Ruo explains. Instead, before making the purchase, an expert such as himself will study the bottle and the Cognac’s color (a darker hue indicates a longer period spent in a cask), review its documentation (including certificates of authenticity), and rely on the reputation of the seller. Thus, a process that often ends with some degree of inebriation begins in a most sober manner. This irony is not lost on Ruo, who, now warming to the subject, adds, “When you are talking about the Hardy, you are talking about a very serious spirit indeed.”
The Hardy 1790 belongs to the Library Bar’s Liquid History collection, an assemblage of extremely rare Cognacs, Armagnacs, and whiskies. The bottles are locked in a glass case built into one of the walls along the short hallway that connects the bar’s two mahogany-paneled rooms. Served in snifters in 50-milliliter portions, the collection’s Cognacs span more than two centuries, and the price range includes the $280 1915 Guy Lhéraud and the $2,210 Bignon bottled in 1800. Ruo, whose favorite is a Hennessy from 1820 that costs $1,010 per snifter, says the bar’s most requested vintage Cognacs cost from $300 to $500.
The Hardy 1790 is the oldest Cognac on the menu; when its curing commenced in France’s Grande Champagne, near Ambleville, Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette still were in possession of their respective heads. The Hardy’s advanced age is reflected in its $3,163 price for one 50-milliliter serving.
Ruo has some suggestions for prospective tasters. “A connoisseur should go right to the Hardy,” he says. He suspects its flavor and composition is similar to those of the 1805 Jacques Hardy, which Ruo has tasted. That spirit, he says, has a bouquet rich with vanilla and walnut. The smack, the sensation on the tip of the tongue, is persistent but not as strong as those of younger Cognacs. He describes the flavor as “very complex and mellow, with a marzipan finish.”
If the taster were new to Cognac, Ruo says, he would prepare his unschooled palate with two younger spirits, such as an early-20th-century Rouyer and Martell. “Then we would sit by the fireplace,” he says, “and I would go through the history of the 1790 Hardy, which should help to justify the sensation in his mouth.” Then, with a smile that indicates he is speaking from experience and not hypothetically, Ruo adds, “He may be a neophyte when he enters the bar, but after the Hardy, he will be a vintage Cognac drinker.”