Exactly 10 years ago I wrote a column under the headline, "Cognac plays to the hip hop nation." Cognac, the once-dowdy drink of comfortable Caucasians, had been riding a wave of popularity thanks largely to its embrace by young, urban-music devotees, in particular African Americans, who accounted for more than half the spirit`s sales in the United States.
Eminem, the Detroit rapper, had helped lift such brands as Hennessy with Drug Ballad.
Sample lyric: "Back when Mark Wahlberg was Marky Mark/This is how we used to make the party start/We used to mix Hen' with Bacardi Dark/And when it kicks in, you can hardly talk…." Busta Rhymes followed in 2001 with Pass the Courvoisier, in which he references other luxury cognacs, Rémy Martin and Courvoisier, as well as Cristal Champagne. "Give me the Henny, you can give me the Cris/You can pass me the Remi [sic] but pass the Courvoisier…."
It was an uneasy alliance between conservative French spirit purveyors and what were seen as ghetto-raised parvenus.
My column in 2000 was based on an interview with Maurice Hennessy, eighth-generation descendent of the family that founded the Cognac house. While hesitantly acknowledging the importance of the "African American" demographic in igniting cognac's once-moribund sales, he seemed to prefer that I downplay the connection in favour of plugging a $5,000-a-bottle brand he was launching.
How times change. Today, cognac houses are openly wearing their rap cachet like a neck tattoo. This month, the Landy brand unveiled a marketing alliance with Snoop Dogg in which the iconic hip-hop artist appears in ads and at Landy promotional events. Christopher (Ludacris) Bridges last year launched his own brand, Conjure, flogging the brand on the painfully mainstream The Jay Leno Show.
In the biggest move yet, this month Hennessy, the world's No. 1 brand, rolled out Hennessy Black, a lighter-tasting cognac designed - perish the thought - to be mixed into cocktails. Packaged in an opaque-black bottle and accompanied by a digital-oriented ad campaign, it was christened on a YouTube video with an original theme song, titled When I Step Into the Club, by rapper-DJ-producer Swizz Beatz.
"It's very, very new to Hennessy," Isabelle Decitre, international marketing and communications director for Hennessy, told me over the phone from Paris. "It's a new mindset, a way to go over the mental barriers. There is a kind of taste barrier with cognac drinkers. We realize we have another opportunity we'd like to capture, of high-energy beverage occasions, people looking for easily mixable spirits."
Positioned above the entry-level VS Cognac and just below the premium VSOP, it is priced at $74.95 in Ontario, $28 more than the top premium vodka, Grey Goose. Though I enjoy brandy mixed into such cocktails as the Sidecar (and cognac is brandy from the Cognac region of France), I prefer to sip the good stuff neat. On that score, I must frankly say that Hennessy Black delivers. Considerably paler than a VSOP, it's imbued with a more delicate flavour, combining honey and citrus notes with a floral quality. It would be more fitting as an aperitif, on the rocks in summer, than as an after-dinner sip with a fat cigar by the fireplace. The late Winston Churchill might have enjoyed it in one of his favourite tipples, brandy and soda.
Cocktail recipes included on the product's website include Hennessy Black with ginger ale, apple juice, lime wedge and mint sprig; Hennessy Black with a splash of cranberry; and Hennessy Black with cola. The message: Move over rum and vodka.
Hennessy Black may be just the shot cognac purveyors need as they drag themselves off the floor after a two-year, recession-induced hangover. Worldwide cognac sales plunged 12.4-per cent in 2009 to 130 million bottles, doubling the 6.2-per-cent drop in 2008, according to the spirit's industry association. In contrast, between 2001 and 2007, sales of the product known as "yak" in hip-hop slang boomed 36.8 per cent.
Though he's carried the product behind the bar for just two weeks, Vincenzo Antonacci, general manager of Brassaii, a large restaurant-nightclub on Toronto's trendy King Street West strip, likes what he sees. "To make cognac a bit more of a bad boy I think is a very positive direction for Hennessy," he said. "In terms of packaging and branding, I think they've done a tremendous job." Mr. Antonacci views c as "one of those hidden gems" that has been underused in mixed drinks.
Embracing hip-hop's counterculture certainly is wiser than suppressing it. In 2006, rap superstar Jay-Z led a boycott of Louis Roederer Cristal, the deluxe champagne immortalized in rap songs, after comments made by Roederer managing director Frederic Rouzaud. Asked by The Economist magazine if Cristal's association with the "bling lifestyle" might sully the brand, Mr. Rouzaud replied, "That's a good question, but what can we do? We can't forbid people from buying it."
Jay-Z called the comments "racist" and pulled the bubbly from his chain of 40/40 sports bars. He also slammed the brand in On To the Next One (pertinent lyrics unprintable here), which features backing vocals from none other than Hennessy's new marketing partner, Swizz Beatz.
That said, Hennessy must walk a fine line with its new product. Tom Pirko, president of Santa Barbara, Calif.-based Bevmark, a company that consults to chief executives in the food and beverage industries, says spirits purveyors must steer clear of patronizing or conflicting imagery, particularly when race is involved. For example, "you can't have white men advertising to black men," he said.
Probably a good thing, then, that Hennessy Black was, according to Ms. Decitre, merely named after the colour of the bottle.