The Irishman behind an Iconic French Brand

Between popular culture references, and a long history with a loyal following, Hennessy is probably the most recognizable cognac in the United States, if not the world. But how did an Irishman come to found the iconic brand?

Richard Hennessy was born in 1724 in County Cork, Ireland. His family was Catholic, and after the Revolution of 1688, where the Catholic King James II was deposed, Richard traveled across the English Channel to France, where he joined the Irish Brigade* of the French Army specifically to fight the British. In fact, the logo depicting an axe-wielding arm is a nod to Hennessy’s military service.

It was while serving in this capacity that Richard learned of the Charente River region in the southwest of France, known for its cognac production. In 1765, he made Charente his home, and began trading cognac from his residence. Hennessy nurtured his business, and steadily began producing enough cognac to export throughout Europe and beyond (the first shipment of Hennessy made its way to the United States in 1794).

While there was a market for cognac, several of Hennessy’s dubious business decisions kept the brand from flourishing until 1788. It was then that Hennessy, his son James, and Samuel Turner partnered and the brand began to see significant success.

Richard Hennessy basically retired from business around 1791, and died in 1800 as a successful founder of the cognac business. He probably never could have imagined how much more successful the spirit bearing his name would become.

In 1806, Hennessy’s son James asked Jean Fillioux to be his master blender, and to this day, the Hennessy family runs the distillery and a Fillioux serves as master blender. The Hennessy brand also introduced the distinctions V.S.O.P. (very superior old pale), and X.O. (extra old). Hennessy’s great-grandson Maurice initiated the star-based rating system for cognac.

Hennessy merged with Moët et Chandon in 1971, which then merged with Louis Vuitton in 1987, thus becoming the world’s largest luxury brand conglomerate.

*The Irish Brigade is exactly was it sounds like – Irish exiles who really wanted to join the military fight against the British.