Cognac stages a comeback as rappers' drink of choice

Sales of brandy soar as the exclusive French export attracts an unexpected new following
Click to follow
The Independent Online

Cognac is off the rocks, thanks to the likes of Busta Rhymes and Snoop Dogg. The finest French brandy, traditionally associated with conservative, white males, has become the tipple of choice for American rap musicians and their fans.

Cognac was in the doldrums five years ago, overtaken in popularity by whisky, even in France. Vines were being ripped up, grape growers were besieging the town of Cognac in the south-west of the country, and a surplus equivalent to eight years' sales - a cognac sea rather than a lake - was stored in and around the town. The future seemed bleak.

Now sales are surging again, especially in the US, where cognac - mixed with everything from Coca-Cola to beer or pineapple juice, or swigged straight from the delicately crafted bottle - is the fashionable drink among performers of hip-hop and other forms of rap.

The drink rivals sex, drugs and guns as a staple subject for rap lyrics and titles. Busta Rhymes's raunchy "Pass the Courvoisier" reached the top five of the American rap charts last year. Californian rapper Devino Fortunato first achieved success with his "Cognac Loungin'".

Hennessy, the most popular cognac brand in America, with over half the market, estimates that young blacks now buy 60 to 85 per cent of all the bottles it sells in the US. Hennessy - "Henny," "Henn-dog," or "Henn-roc" - is idolised in scores of rap lyrics.

Cognac sales in America increased 6.7 per cent last year. They have trebled in 10 years and now account for 36 per cent of all world sales. After years of decline, cognac is also booming in urban France, where the young drink it long with tonic or mineral water.

Is cognac embarrassed by its new connoisseurs? Not a bit of it. Claire Coates, director of communications for the main cognac trade association, said: "Cognac is an artistic creation. Rap is an artistic creation. We go well together. Don't you think?" Ms Coates, who has just returned from a trip to America, said that it was cognac's image as an expensive and luxury drink, a drink for the elite, that had attracted young rappers. "They also, to their credit, appreciate the taste, but rap is a world in which it is important to display your wealth," she said.

The more successful rap stars like to be seen drinking the most exclusive brands of cognac ("yak" or "nyak") such as Remy Martin Louis XIII, which is sold in a gold-encrusted, crystal decanter at $5,000 (£3,090) a time. Cheaper brands are available in the US at about $20 a bottle.

"To some, the idea of mixing cognac with Coca-Cola, or even putting ice in cognac, is a heresy, a crime, the betrayal of a tradition," said Ms Coapes. "I've tried cognac and Coke, and personally, I think they go together rather well."

In a sense, cognac is returning to, rather than abandoning, its roots. The process of double distillation to produce brandewijn (burned wine) or brandy was promoted by 17th-century Dutch and British traders as a better way of transporting wine from south-western France. It was drunk long, usually with water.

If cognac is associated with heroes, blame Dr Johnson. "Claret," he once pronounced "is the liquor for boys; port for men; but he who aspires to be a hero must drink brandy." At the time, cognac was used as a primitive anaesthetic when limbs were amputated on the battlefield.

Brandy is also associated with its use by statesmen anxious to relieve the stresses of office: Herbert Asquith's consumption was prodigious when he was Prime Minister - hence the nickname "Squiffy" - and his political demise was largely due to his brandy-drinking habits. Brandy and soda was one of Winston Churchill's war-time standbys. The same cannot be said of a later Prime Minister, Harold Wilson, whose regular and serious brandy-drinking was believed to be a major contributor to the decline in his mental powers after he left office.

The cognac industry is now looking for ways to support, and prolong, its unexpected partnership with rap. Hennessy has already sponsored private tastings and parties for rap singers and their friends. Higher-profile events are under consideration. The small town of Cognac is running its annual blues festival this month - maybe it should consider creating a festival of rap instead.

Additional reporting by Jonathan Thompson

Lyrics that put 'yak' in the charts

Nas is Coming (featuring Dr Dre), Nas

Jeep full of chickens, pull up beside, have a listen y'all, nas y'all

Fly gangsta, wavy hair teeth chipped in

My shit bump, in the courtroom drunk, links truck

Rocky bracelet, cognac kernel never chase it

Pass the Courvoisier, Busta Rhymes

Give me the Henny, you can give me the Cris

You can pass me the Remi, but pass the Courvoisier

Give me the ass, you could give me the dough

You can give me 'dro, but pass the Courvoisier

So Much Pain (featuring 2Pac), Ja Rule

And I don't give a fuck 'cause they don't give a fuck 'bout me

So I keep drinkin' Hennessy, bustin' at my enemies

Will I live to see twenty-three? There's so much pain

Gz Up Hoes Down Lyrics, Snoop Doggy Dogg

My side, as I mob to the beach, on a mission, and I'm fishin'

for my DJ Warren G, now I look for the bud's sack

and see where my loves at, on the lake where the doves at

Cognac is the drink that's drank by Gs

Saggin' like a motherfucker khakis to they knees

How 'Black Smack' helped to make brandy the ghetto's favourite tipple

By Nicholas Faith

The idea of cognac as a symbol of success among hip-hoppers and other rappers is by no means as odd as it appears at first sight.

For decades in the United States most cognac has not been sipped in exclusive gentlemen's clubs but swigged in the ghettos. There it is mixed either with Coca-Cola or, less publicly, with coke in a mix known as Black Smack. So it is not surprising that rap singers, the quintessential ghetto artists, should have brought their preference into the open.

The cognac firms have always known this - even selling their precious brandy in hip flasks - but, until now, have always preferred to retain the up-market image. Now they're cashing in - one firm, A de Fussigny, has even launched a brand called Nyak, which is how the drink is pronounced by the rappers.

Cognac's status as an item of conspicuous consumption is obvious. When Busta Rhymes sings:

"Give me the Henny, you can give me the Cris,

"You can pass me the Remi, but pass the Courvoisier"

he's equating the cognac he drinks - from Hennessy, Remy Martin and Courvoisier - with Louis Roederer's Cristal, most up-market of champagnes.

In fact, the drinkers had seized on the point now increasingly accepted by London's barmen, that even the basic VS cognac drunk in the ghettos is a far more complex, deeper and more satisfying spirit than the competition. This includes the so-called "Grape Brandy" which is merely neutral spirit flavoured with distilled grape extract.

And, for me the better qualities of cognac, culminating in such drinks as Remy's XO Excellence, Courvoisier's Initiale Extra, and Hennessy's XO Paradis are the richest, most satisfying spirits in the world, their qualities further concentrated by up to 50 years in oak casks. By then they have developed what the cognaçais call "rancio" which make them taste like a distilled rich fruit cake, full of nuts, and candied and dried fruits.

The best cognacs are particularly prized today, not by the rappers, but by an even more unlikely clientele, the gangsters and their molls in the nightclubs of Moscow. And yes they, too, drink them with Coca-Cola - and maybe there's a Russian version of Black Smack; Red Smack perhaps?

Nicholas Faith's book 'Cognac' will be published by Mitchell Beazley in February 2004