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How the Cognac decanter became a work of art

Colin Hampden-White investigates the growing trend for uber-luxurious bottles in the world of Cognac – Hennessy leading the way with its elaborately-designed decanters

Words by Colin Hampden-White

The Collection

When looking to buy a bottle of spirits, one could be forgiven for thinking that the proposition would be very simple: the older, rarer and more acclaimed the liquid, the more expensive it will be. In more recent times, however, notably in the world of whisky, the bottle itself – featuring elaborate designs created by the likes of Lalique and Baccarat – has become more and more of a focus, consuming a growing proportion of the cost. In 2018, a single bottle of 60-year-old The Macallan from 1926 handpainted by Irish artist Michael Dillon sold at Christie’s for £1.2m. Was the buyer paying for the whisky or the bottle?

The world of Cognac is now following a similar path, and nowhere is this more vividly seen than at Hennessy. The famous house – part of the fashion behemoth LVMH, lest we forget – has taken the idea and craft of packaging to a new level, going beyond the world of simple packaging and into the world of art. Hennessy has a bespoke workshop in which it has machines solely to craft some of the bottles. Its Hennessy 8 has eight crystal rings set in a choice of eight configurations around the bottle. Buyers can customise their purchase with an engraving. The bottle, conceived by Paris-based Israeli artist and designer Arik Levy, is in turn encased in a trunk made from 25 layers of wood and coated in black lacquer, each trunk designed to fit its own unique bottle perfectly. The level of precision required in its manufacture goes well beyond mere carpentry and into the realms of master cabinet-making.

The six-litre bottles designed by Frank Gehry went on sale for €150,000 each

For Hennessy’s 150th anniversary, there was a collaboration with uberarchitect Frank Gehry, of Guggenheim fame. He created a bespoke bottle for the Hennessy XO that made it a little more costly than the normal XO; he also created a crystal and gold version with a glorifier (a plinth for the bottle to stand on), limited to 150 units and retailing for £15,000. And if that wasn’t sufficiently impactful, he designed a Methuselah (a six-litre bottle) on a huge glorifier in collaboration with Baccarat. Only 30 bottles were produced, selling for €150,000 each

Only 75 of these decanters, designed in collaboration with the United States’ National Basketball Association, were created to be sold

The most striking decanter I came across on my visit was in the form of an unlikely collaboration with the United States’ National Basketball Association, which is marking its 75th anniversary. Parisian jeweller Lorenz Bäumer created a 1.75-litre magnum of Hennessy’s premium Paradis Cognac in a blown-crystal vessel shaped like a basketball, with the lines of the ball made in gold. The leather case has gold lines akin to those on a basketball court, and both open with a gold key such as you would find in a jewellery box. A total of 75 decanters were made, each priced at €150,000. Doubtless it will soon appear at an auction house near you. But will it be listed in a wine and spirits sale or an art sale?