The French Connection

Hennessy Ballymacmoy House  pic1

I met with Maurice and Frederic Hennessy, two brothers who are the eighth-generation descendants of Richard Hennessy, the north Cork man who created the iconic Cognac brand.  The feature ran in the Irish Examiner a few months back, but this is the full version. All the beautiful photos were taken by the fantastic Ger McCarthy, one of the best press and PR photographers in Ireland. 

As birthplaces of empires go, Killavullen is more humble than most. Nestled between the lush green slopes of the Blackwater Valley, the village is home to an immediate population of about 200. It is a pretty place, with a few pubs, a church, and a community centre.

But it is at the highest point in the village that you will find the origins of one of the best-known luxury brands in the world. Almost hidden among the trees is Ballymacmoy House, the ancestral home of Richard Hennessy, who went on to create one of the world’s best-known and most-respected Cognac brands. So it was fitting that as the Hennessy dynasty celebrates its 250th anniversary this year, two eighth-generation descendants of Richard Hennessy – brothers Maurice and Frederic Hennessy – welcomed 55 wine producers and distillers from the Cognac region to their family home.

Frederic lives in Ballymacmoy House, having spent the last number of years restoring it to its former glory, while Maurice travels the world as Ambassadeur de la Maison Hennessy. Both grew up in France, but have many happy memories of coming to Cork for their holidays.

“I think I was 10 when I first came to Cork,” Frederic tells me; “we were told that if we did well in our school exams, we would be brought to Ballymacmoy for our holidays. So we did well, and we came here.”

Maurice tells me one of his first memories of north Cork – being taken on a hunt. As he was only 12 or so, and an inexperienced rider, he fell from his horse when it shied at a wire gate which suddenly loomed up in front of them. “Stupid gate!” he says laughing. But he was smitten by the country – both brothers felt a deep connection to Ireland, and the Irish. And so they should, for it was here in 1724 that the youngest son of Lord Ballymacmoy was born. At 20 years of age, he took flight to France to fight with King Louis XV.

Injured at the Battle of Fontenoy, he later settled on the banks of the Charente River, which glides past the town of Cognac. It was here that he started making this particular style of brandy, and where the empire began to take shape. However, it was Richard’s son James that really accelerated the expansion, forging links with the Martell Cognac dynasty through marriage and also being one of the first drinks producers to begin trade with the Revolutionary government, whilst also linking up with traders in London and New York in the 1800s.

While Cognac may be perceived by some as a patriarchal, elitist drink, Hennessy is a true egalitarian spirit. It has links to the founding of the Tuskegee Institute, a groundbreaking centre of education for African Americans, as well as the civil rights group the National Urban League. Hennessy was also the drink of choice for African American soldiers during the Second World War, just as jazz was embraced by the French when it arrived in the clubs of Paris in the aftermath of the war.

This affinity with African American culture saw Ebony magazine describe Hennessy as ‘the unofficial official drink of Black America’.  Rappers don’t embrace Hennessy because it symbolizes their wealth, they embrace it because they feel ownership of it. But this sense of ownership is shared around the world: Maurice tells me a story from the time in 1996 when Jacque Chirac sanctioned nuclear tests by the French military in the Pacific Ocean. The world was aghast, and there was an Irish boycott of French goods. One little old lady was picking up her usual order at the grocers in Dublin, and when asked if she would take her usual bottle of Cognac also, she said she ‘wouldn’t touch the French stuff after what Chirac did, but would take a bottle of the Irish stuff, Hennessy, instead’.

“Some see it as a French drink, made in Ireland,” Maurice smiles.

However Irish it is in spirit, the geography of where it is produced is enshrined in law – Cognac can only come from the Cognac region. Like Champagne (a name which, like the name ‘Cognac’, is derived from a word meaning ‘chalky soil’), once the drink is produced elsewhere, it loses the legal right to that name.

So the wine producers and distillers entertained at Ballymacmoy House were of vital importance to Hennessy. Maurice explains how they nurture the growers just as the growers nurture the vineyards – Hennessy works with the farmers to ensure they get the best result possible from their crops and distilling processes. There is no ruthless business ethic here – if the product is not exactly as they had hoped, Hennessy work with the producer to explore ways to make it better – they strive for perfection, but they do it together, as a community. And so it was that to mark the 250th anniversary of the founding of the Hennessy company, they flew producers and distillers to Richard’s home.
But the community in Killavullen have been to Cognac also: Maurice says that when the parish used to go on pilgrimage to Lourdes, they would always visit the Hennessy estate. When asked if they called on the way to Lourdes or the way back, Maurice says “On the way there of course, that way they could seek absolution afterwards for having such a good time!”

The brothers both have a strong sense of their Irish links: Maurice tells me about going to Chicago and Boston for St Patrick’s Day and marveling at how on that day, ‘everyone was Irish’ no matter their race or religion, while both spoke of the sadness they felt at seeing lives lost during the Troubles. Two and a half centuries may have passed since their forefather left Killavullen for France, but the Irish connection is still strong. There is a term in wine growing: Terroir. It means the climate, geography, soil conditions, people and production techniques that come together to create a specific wine. In short, it means a sense of place, of origin, of home. Hennessy Cognac may be a global brand, and it’s residence may now be along the banks of the Charente, but its incredible legacy owes no small amount to the terroir of a sleepy village in north Cork and the remarkable man it produced.

The House:

Ballymacmoy House itself dates back to 1818, but the original, which was farther upriver, was the home that Richard.  The popular version of the demise of the original house says the roof was made from slate taken from the surrounding Nagle Mountains, and was too heavy – to the point that one evening during dinner, the whole top of the house collapsed, killing a goose and a pig and injuring a beggar who happened to be at the door at the time. However, the whole family escaped unharmed. Maurice is quick to point out that this somewhat odd story differs from the more believable one he grew up with – that there was a fire started by a vagrant and the house burnt down. Across the river from the current house is the birthplace of another iconic dynasty – the home of Nano Nagle, after whose family the mountains are named. And Maurice tells me that the hunt he went on as a 12 year old was organised by Dr Nagle, a family friend, and that the Hennessys and the Nagles had been connected for generations.

Hennessy Cognac:

Cognac can only come from the region it takes its name from, and is a variety of brandy. The law dictates the type of grapes used to make the wine, which is then distilled twice in copper alembic stills and aged in French oak barrels for a mimium of two years. After distillation and during the ageing process the wine is known as eaux de vie. The contents of the barrels are then blended, mixing ages and sources to achieve the best balance. The product is then graded according to several Cognac standards, the best known of which are V.S. (very special or superior), V.S.O.P. (very special or superior old pale), and XO (extra old). A good entry level Cognac to start off with is the Hennessy Fine de Cognac, a delicate blend of some sixty floral, fruity eaux-de-vie pitched somewhere between VS and VSOP. For those looking to spend a bit more there is the very special Richard Hennessy. It is a unique blend of rare eaux-de-vie aged from 40 years to nearly 200 years old. Each carafe is numbered and made of pure hand-blown crystal. According to Talleyrand, celebrated 18th-century French politician and illustrious customer of Hennessy, to enjoy a cognac such as Richard Hennessy one must “cradle the glass in the palm of one’s hand, swirl the spirit to release its full aroma, lift it to one’s nostrils, inhale deeply and then… set it down and discuss its virtues”. One of those virtues being its three thousand euro price tag.

However, Maurice expressed his sadness at anyone buying it as an investment piece: “It is such a beautiful drink, it should not be left to simply sit on a shelf, it is made to be enjoyed”.

Maybe just drink it slowly so.

How to enjoy Cognac:

Asked how best to enjoy a Cognac, Maurice expresses his preference for long drinks: “Hennessy is wonderful in cocktails, and in fact Cognac and rum were the first two drinks ever used in cocktails. There are many great cocktails such as The Horse’s Neck, a racing cocktail we have during the Hennessy Gold Cup.”

The key to a Horse’s Neck is the lemon peel which hangs off the rim of the glass and resembles the neck of a horse hanging into the drink. Fill the glass with ice. Add 50ml of Hennessy Fine De Cognac, and 70ml of ginger ale. Stir well.

As for Frederic, his choice of how to drink Cognac is probably related to the fact that he resides in north Cork, not the south of France, so ice is not paramount: “I like to drink it straight – it is wonderful with elderflower, but you would not always have that in your fridge!”

Hennessy 250:

Founded in 1765, Hennessy has launched a year of celebrations to mark its 250th anniversary under the signature “Crafting the future since 1765”. The rich lineup of events centers on the theme of transmission.

For 250 years, the history of Hennessy has been intimately linked to that of two families. First, the Hennessy family, which has proudly carried on the vision of the House’s founder, Richard Hennessy.  An astute businessman, he recognized the potential of Cognac eaux-de-vie, as well as the advantages of the city’s strategic location on the banks of the Charente river, affording easy access to the ocean and international trade routes. Today, Hennessy is present on five continents and develops its business in more than 130 countries.

Since 1800, the Fillioux family has jealously guarded the secrets of selecting and assembling the eaux-de-vie that express Hennessy’s excellence. In the grand tradition of Hennessy milestone cognacs, Yann Fillioux, a seventh-generation member of the family and the current Hennessy Master Blender, has crafted Hennessy 250, an exquisitely refined cognac made from exceptional eaux-de-vie he personally selected during his 50-year career.

Hennessy has kicked off this year’s celebrations by unveiling the signature “Crafting the future since 1765”, a bold message of transmission that emphasizes the avant-garde vision Hennessy has pursued since its founding, inspired by talent and savoir-faire. The cornerstone of the festivities is the Hennessy Tour, which will stop in five countries with close ties to Hennessy: China, Russia, the United States, South Africa and France. From the Guangzhou Opera House and Lincoln Center in New York, to the Circa Gallery in Johannesburg, the over 600-square-meter traveling event presents Hennessy’s heritage through the eyes of contemporary artists whom the House supports. Each stop will feature local artists as well during live performances conceived specially for the event.

Hennessy is also launching a series of ambitious forward-looking projects in 2015. There will be a groundbreaking ceremony for the new Pont-Neuf bottling site, which will ensure increased production and shipping capacity. In addition, Hennessy has acquired a 40-hectare (98 acres) site near Cognac where it will build more than 20 state-of-the-art cellars, doubling storage capacity. Other initiatives focus on the heritage of the House, with completion of the first stage in the Hennessy archives project scheduled for mid-year. A new tour of the centre of Cognac will be unveiled too, offering an unprecedented experience.

2 responses to “The French Connection”

  1. […] Cognac. The Malt Lane whiskey bar in the Folkhouse was our venue, and Hennessy was our brand. I met two of the descendants of Richard Hennessy two years ago, but somehow on the night I managed to come away with no free bottles of booze (or […]

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