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Maurice Hennessy on the Past and Future of Cognac

A man standing in a stairwell.
Maurice Hennessy, an eighth generation member of the famed Cognac family faced unique pressures to forge his own path into the spirits industry. Photos courtesy of Moet Hennessy.

Cognac consumption is on the rise — and not just among the hip hop community or old timey business men sitting in high backed chairs in front of roaring fireplaces. It's currently one of the fastest growing spirits among imbibers of all kinds.

Hennessy is the most popular Cognac in the world, but the name is definitely not French. The company’s founder, Richard Hennessy, was Irish. “Like many Irish young men, he left Ireland in the mid-18th century and joined the Irish Brigade of the Queen of France,” says Maurice Hennessy, Hennessy Global Brand Ambassador and eighth generation of the Hennessy family. After his time with the Irish Brigade, he got a French passport and decided to stay.

In the beginning, Richard Hennessy purchased Cognac in France and shipped it to buyers in Ireland. What began as a simple trading business later became Hennessy Cognac — it transformed from a Cognac trading company to a Cognac producer. “Of course, the firm grew and later his son gave his name to the firm, and that’s why it’s called James Hennessy,” says Hennessy.

Recently, while in Cognac, we sat down with Maurice Hennessy to talk about the pressure of being a Hennessy and why Cognac is so special.

Is it true that your father was a nuclear scientist?

The idea of working at Hennessy was a strong recommendation for me. But my father was a nuclear scientist. He was not at all in the firm. He had been involved a little bit but was more interested in going back to his quantums. I’m not a scientist, but I can tell you that I read about quantum physics and it’s extraordinary.

Were there any other relatives who didn’t join the family business?

He had a brother who was in the Navy who joined the firm. He would have been a terribly good boss, but sadly he died very young. When I was young my father was pushing me to do anything but Hennessy. He said it was very boring. You like farming. Be a farmer. It’s a good idea. So I went to farming school.

Barrels of Hennessy Cognac. Hennessy Cognac has been a family business for eight generations.

How did you go from farming to working at Hennessy?

In this farming school, you had to do internships. And one of the internships was not really farming, but seeing what you do once your product from the farm is done. My internship was with the distributor of Hennessy in Paris. I must say, I adored the job. The job was as a sales person, visiting customers. I was even putting the prices up at the supermarket.

But, you still weren’t sure that the family business was for you?

I went to Africa for two years to sort of save the world because this was what young people were doing in those times. Think of the '60s. There was an abundance of work, abundance of everything. You had your Peace Corps and we had sort of the French version and I was one of them. I was told by my boss at the time, when I was with the distribution company in Paris, that there will be a job for me when I come back. And I when I came back, there was the first oil crisis and unemployment started to grow in France. I was very lucky to have a job. That was in 1975.

Did you feel pressure because of your name?

Nobody forced me. I have a few cousins who would have been able to do it. One tried, but he didn’t stay very long. Others didn’t try. The problem is that Cognac is Cognac. It’s a small town in the country. I like it, but it’s not for everybody. Cognac is exported all over the world. 99.9% of Hennessy is exported. That means that you don’t hang on to it here forever. You have to let it go. Not everybody likes that. My wife doesn’t like it. You have to love it. I love it.

What makes Cognac special?

It’s the quality of the product. It’s hard to produce, especially this year when we had pretty bad vintages and quality anyway. There are hundreds of years of experience from local people. There’s a very definite way of doing things. There’s a definite care involved in making Cognac. There are different styles. At the same time, it’s very human.

A vineyard. Hennessy Cognac uses grapes from select farms in the Cognac region.

Tell me about the grape farmers.

Out of 4,600 growers in this region, Hennessy purchases from 1,700. Hennessy is not a big, anonymous huge factory which owns a million acres of land. We buy from 1,700 farmers. It’s not like a big pipe line of oil or something. Each vine is pruned one by one. Kind of like if you have a rose bush. There’s a lot of care involved.

What advice do you have for Cognac novices?

They have to forget about this habit where people think Cognac means balloon glasses, fireplaces, Labradors and big cigars. Cognac was created three or four hundred years ago to be consumed with water by sailors on ships to replace wine. It was created to be consumed abroad, in countries where you didn’t have a lot of drinks and where the water was not very clean and the wine didn’t keep well. So, the idea of having Cognac as a cocktail or simply with water is very good. So, if you haven’t enjoyed Cognac, try it with ice and water. It’s very easy. In America, you have some of the best cocktail makers. Ask one of them to make you a cocktail made with Cognac if you are afraid to try it on its own.

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