Bill Linnane meets up for an exclusive interview with members of the Hennessy dynasty and finds out why the Irish connection is still strong with the famous brandy producing family.
As birthplaces of empires go, Killavullen is more humble than most. Nestled between the lush 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.
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 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 of 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.
However, 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 battled 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 who really accelerated the expansion, forging links with the Martell Cognac dynasty through marriage and also being one of the first drink producers to begin trade with the Revolutionary Government, while 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 symbolises wealth, it implies, they embrace it because they feel ownership of it. But this sense of ownership is shared around the world, according to Maurice.
He tells me a story from the time in 1996 when Jacques Chirac sanctioned nuclear tests by the French military in the Pacific Ocean. The world was aghast, and there was an unofficial 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 ‘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 its farmers to ensure they get the best result possible from their crops and this thoroughness works all the way through the distilling processes.
But 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 in North Cork
And 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 have a strong sense of their Irish links: Maurice tells me about going to Chicago and Boston for St Patrick’s Day and marvelling 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 in 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 men it produced.
© Irish Examiner Ltd. All rights reserved