It’s Cognac month here at Master of Malt and to kick things off, we’re going to take a look at how British and Irish merchants helped turn this local speciality into the most prestigious spirit in the world.

As with most things in the drinks business and indeed business in general, the Dutch got there first. Cognac has its roots in the Dutch desire to make wine easier to transport by sea. The answer was distillation. Brandy from the vineyards around the town of Cognac was handy for shipping to Holland and beyond from Nantes or La Rochelle. The Dutch encouraged the plantation of acidic white grapes that made indifferent wine but excellent brandy. The very word brandy comes from the Dutch, brandewijn, meaning burnt wine.

Cognac the British and Irish connection

Jacques ‘James’ Hennessy

Enter Mr Hennessy

Where the Dutch pioneered, others followed. Perhaps most notable and certainly most colourful was Richard Hennessy who was born in Cork in 1724, son of Lord Ballymacmoy. He was part of the Wild Geese generation of Irish Catholics who left their country to fight for France against Britain. Hennessy arrived in France at the age of just 20. According to one story, in 1745 he was injured at the battle of Fontenoy in present day Belgium and later settled on the banks of the Charente River, near the town of Cognac. In 1765, he went into the brandy business, married a local woman called Helene and had a son called Jacques, or James as he was also known. 

It was James Hennessy who turned his father’s brandy business into an international concern. His choice of wife was a canny one, Martine Martell, who he married in 1795. She was the daughter of Jean Martell, a British, or sort of British as he was from Guernsey, Cognac merchant. Today Hennessy is by far the largest Cognac house, followed by Martell, with Remy Martin and Courvoisier making up the rest of the ‘big four.’

A Devon lad

Then there was Thomas Hine, a 16 year old lad from Devon, who was sent to France in 1791 by his father to learn about the brandy business. Five years later he married a local girl, Elisabeth, daughter of a Cognac merchant. He developed links with Britain and proved such a good businessman that he took over his wife’s family’s firm which changed its name to Thomas Hine & Co. It’s still going strong and until recently a descendant, Bernard Hine, was the the face of the company. 

The trade between France and Britain could be extremely lucrative. Originally it was brandy not rum that the Royal Navy turned to when the beer ran out. Merchants like Hine, Hennessy and Martell helped change Cognac from a rustic local spirit into the luxury product we know today. Crucial to the magic is the affinity between the distilled wine and the nearby Limousin oak. The climate around Cognac, though warmer than Ireland and Scotland, has a similar dampness. The cool humid climate helped the spirit mature slowly, and the slower the maturation, the finer the spirit. British connoisseurs noted that when the brandy was shipped young in cask and then matured in the colder English climate, it was even better. You can still buy a category called ‘early landed’ which is one of the few drinks nowadays still shipped in cask and bottled in England. 

House of Hine, Jarnac

The House of Hine on the river Charente

A drink for heroes 

According to Boswell, Samuel Johnson said: “claret is the liquor for boys; port, for men; but he who aspires to be a hero (smiling) must drink brandy.” Before there was blended whisky, the drink of  British upper classes in the nineteenth century was Cognac mixed with soda. Winston Churchill wrote, “my father could never have drunk whisky except when shooting on a moor or in some very dull chilly place. He lived in the age of brandy and soda.” 

As with Bordeaux and Burgundy, there was the pure product and then something doctored to British tastes. Additives such as sugar syrup, prune juice and a wood solution made from boiling oak were added to give the brandy an antique feel. This vulgar brandy feels the full force of Evelyn Waugh’s disdain in one of the most famous scenes from Brideshead Revisited where Charles Ryder has dinner with Rex Mottram, an arriviste businessman, in Paris. Ryder orders a Cognac which is dismissed by Mottram as “the sort of stuff he puts soda in at home. So, shamefacedly, they (the waiters) wheeled out of its hiding place the vast and mouldy bottle they kept for people of Rex’s sort. ‘That’s the stuff,’ he said, tilting the treacly concoction till it left dark rings round the sides of his glass.”

Brandy revival 

From the heyday of Evelyn Waugh, the brandy habit has declined amongst the British. It became something to be drunk on special occasions after lavish meals rather than as an everyday luxury such as Scotch whisky. But there’s definitely a revival going on now as whisky drinkers are waking up to the extraordinary quality and value to be found in Cognac and Armagnac while bartenders are reviving classic cocktails like the Sidecar. Isn’t it time you discovered the magic of brandy?