The Irish origin of the French Hennessy cognac

This article deals with the route of a letter of 1789, which beyond its interest in postal matters, led me to the origins of the most famous cognac in the world.

1789: letter to Richard Hennessy from his son.
1- The recipient: Richard Hennessy

2- The Hennessy house

3- Content and postal matters of the letter

1- The recipient: Richard Hennessy

Richard Hennessy, the recipient of the letter, had an extraordinary destiny. Already in 1789, during this troubled period called the Revolution in France, Richard was already involved as producer and negociant of cognac. Let's go back a bit...

Richard Hennessy, officer in the Clare regiment (1774).

Richard Hennessy was born in 1724 in Killavullen, a small village in County Cork, Ireland. In 1743, he left Ireland for France, like thousands of young Catholics in his country, to escape English oppression. He joined the Irish brigade of the King of France and became an officer in the Clare (or Berwick) regiment, a foreign regiment, in the service of Louis XV.

Louis XV, king of France (1773).

Foreign regiments are regiments which served the Kingdom of France under the Ancien Régime (before the Revolution) and whose personnel were recruited, generally on the basis of mercenary volunteering, outside national borders, mainly in Switzerland, the German states, Ireland and Wallonia.

In 1745, shortly after the French victory at the Battle of Fontenoy during the War of the Austrian Succession in the Austrian Netherlands which is now Belgium, Richard discovered the region of Charente in France. After a few difficult beginnings, he began to invest in the Cognac brandy business. Cognac is a wine brandy, produced in France in a demarcated region centered around Cognac (see map chapter 3).

Hennessy Cognac.

2- The Hennessy cognac house

In 1765, Richard decided to settle in Charente. After having negotiated the help of Parisian bankers, he arrived in this region with his wife Hélène (born Barrett) and their son Jacques (the one who wrote the letter of this article), to create his own cognac trading house. The spirits trade then experienced a spectacular boom and the settlements of foreigners, particularly from across the Channel, in the vicinity of Cognac, multiplied during the 1760s. 

The Irish market was favorable to imports of cognac from France, first because the customs duties there were much lower than those practiced in Great Britain, then because the shortages of rum due to the Seven Years' War (1756-63), combined with a succession of bad harvests, led to a growing craze for cognac that only an increase in imports could satisfy.

French advertisement for Hennessy cognac (1960s).

As his business grew, he broadened his clientele by shipping the eaux-de-vie purchased in Cognac to London, Dublin and Flanders. He also had clients at the Court of the King of France. It was at the time of the letter that the Hennessy Co. began to produce its own cognac and took off to become a renowned house throughout Europe.

A woman checks the clarity of the cognac before labeling the bottle (1920s).

Today, the distillery founded by Richard Hennessy is one of the most important players in luxury spirits in the world, occupying the first place in the world for cognac. The brand is owned by LVMH (Louis Vuitton, Moët & Hennessy), a French holding multinational corporation and conglomerate specializing in luxury goods, belonging to Bernard Arnault, the second richest person in the world (Forbes, October 21, 2022) and the richest in Europe.

 3- Content and postal matters of the letter

It is a short letter written by Jacques (James), son of Richard Hennessy, on the way to London.

Jacques Hennessy (1765-1843).

His letter is dated Wednesday, September 23, 1789 at 4am, written near “Dover Boats or Roads”?. Jacques gave his letter to the “boate pilots” *** just before arriving in Dover so that it can be posted more quickly in France.

*** I write the words of Jacques. Perhaps Jacques wasn’t comfortable with written English since he was, in my opinion, bilingual (English with his close family and French for professional matters).

The letter in its entirety.

Richard indicated that as the letter wasn’t sent directly from a post office, he would send another one as soon as he arrived in London. 

The Calais passengers preparing to board a packet boat by Joseph Mallard Turner (1803).

"This is a squally night", these few words from Jacques were linked with the crossing of the English Channel which at that time, especially at night, could not be easy in bad weather. 

The Channel.

"I'm in perfect health" wrote Jacques, but it wasn't the case of the person who accompanies him and whom I couldn’t identify.

Cognac and Saint-Jean-d'Angély, Charente. 

This letter was posted in Calais (see French postal mark) and strangely, it didn’t arrive directly to the post office of Cognac but in Saint-Jean-d'Angély where a handwritten « déboursé » of this post can be see on back. A "déboursé" of the Ancien Régime is a rare item. Read my article: French postmark "Déboursé".

The letter with bottom right "Déb. de St Jean d'Angely".

Déboursé of Saint Jean d'Angely.

Moreover, I can't explain at the bottom left the "Post Paid to London" when the letter is supposed to have traveled only in France as confirmed by the rate (tax) of 18 soles. Rate of 1759, simple letter (Calais-Paris = 8 sols + Paris-Cognac= 10 sols). So for this letter, there are no additional shipping costs as a mail send from England. Jacques may have intended to post the letter on the route between Dover and London (all letters to abroad went through London at that time) but the opportunity to send the letter earlier by transmitting it to the pilot boat changed his initial intention.