Hip-Hop Fridays: How Rap Music Saved Cognac by John Carreyrou and Christopher Lawton

Listening to a recording of Busta Rhymes's hit song "Pass the Courvoisier," Anne-Sophie Louvet cringes at the thumping rap music and says she doesn't understand the lyrics.

But what the shy French grape-grower does understand is that she owes a debt of gratitude to American hip-hop artists. Rappers' adoption of cognac, the storied French spirit, as their preferred party booze has been a godsend for Louvet and her fellow farmers.

Five years ago, the region surrounding the small town of Cognac in southwestern France was on the brink of ruin. An economic crisis had sent consumption of the brown liquor plummeting in Asia, its No. 1 market.

In 1998, furious grape growers blockaded the town for four days after cognac makers slashed grape orders.

These days, the cognac industry is thriving - thanks to America, not Asia. Exports of cognac to the United States have nearly tripled over the past 10 years, and last year Americans spent an estimated $1 billion on Napoleon's nightcap.

Behind this trend are the likes of Sean "P. Diddy" Combs, Snoop Dogg and other rappers who have embraced the pricey brandy with the 300-year history as a status symbol. That has spawned a cult cognac following among young urban black people, who mix the liquor in new cocktails with names like "Thug Passion" and "French Connection."

Long associated with gastronomes and white-shoe bankers, cognac has become ubiquitous on the black nightclub scene in New York, Atlanta and Chicago, among other places.

Eric "Kaine" Jackson, 24, half of the Atlanta hip-hop duo the Ying Yang Twins, calls cognac a mellow "man's drink" but cautions against overdoing the 80-proof liquor.

Often referred to by the hip-hop crowd as "yak," cognac figures in countless rap songs. Hennessy, the preferred brand of many rappers and the drink of choice of the Ying Yang Twins, is affectionately known in about 100 songs as "Henny," "Henn-dog," or "Henn-roc."

Cognac "is a classy, sophisticated and really smooth thing to drink," says rap star Jay-Z. His new Manhattan club, 40/40, features a "Remy room" in honor of his own favorite cognac brand, Remy Martin. He says he likes to sip Remy Martin's Louis XIII -- which comes in a gold-encrusted Baccarat crystal bottle for $5,000 -- "whenever I wanna have a really relaxing moment, usually with a cigar."

The rappers' ostentation is in stark contrast to the frugal lives of grape growers in and around Cognac, who have been tending to family-owned vineyards for generations. "It's not quite the same world," says Louvet, 44, whose great-grandfather bought the 74 acres she cultivates in 1890.

"In this region, you don't show your wealth if you have some, and you don't talk about money," she says. She is keeping an open mind, though. "We have our values here, but we tolerate the values of others. What we want is to make a living."

That hasn't been a problem recently. The United States imported 3.7 million cases of cognac last year, up from 1.3 million in 1993, accounting for 36 percent of the worldwide market. Hennessy, the biggest cognac brand in the United States, with 53 percent of the market, says young black people now account for 60 percent to 85 percent of its U.S. sales. That surge in consumption has helped the roughly 20,000 Cognac-area inhabitants whose livelihoods depend on the cognac trade.

Cognac was first produced in the 17th century, when Dutch sea merchants found they could better preserve the white wine they shipped from southern France to northern Europe by distilling it. Shipping delays eventually made them realize that the distilled wine got better as it aged in wooden barrels.

In the United States, cognac has been popular among affluent black people since the 1970s. But it didn't become big on the hip-hop scene until the late 1990s, when rappers took to mixing it with other drinks. Mixing cognac had been considered heresy by traditionalists, who savor the high-end brandy straight, in a snifter, as an after-dinner drink. Desperate for new growth, cognac makers seized on the trend, openly targeting their marketing at young black people and touting cognac in mixed drinks.

There are four main cognac companies: Hennessy, Remy Martin, Courvoisier and Martell. They buy grapes from growers but handle the aging, blending, marketing and distribution themselves. Hennessy is owned by LVMH Moet Hennessy Louis Vuitton SA, Remy Martin by Remy-Cointreau SA, Courvoisier by Allied Domecq PLC and Martell by Pernod Ricard SA. The centuries-old arrangement has left growers cut off from the ultimate consumer and often oblivious to the latest market trends.

In April, Courvoisier decided to educate its grape suppliers about the U.S. market. The 900 farmers gathered for an event near Cognac were aghast when the company played a video of Busta Rhymes's ode to the brand, which includes sexually suggestive and violent scenes. "They didn't know what to make of it," says a Courvoisier spokeswoman, who adds that the projector broke down before they could see the part where a bottle of Courvoisier gets passed around.

"We weren't expecting cognac to be associated with those types of people," says Jean-Marie Macoin, a 55-year-old grower. But, he says, "we know we have to adapt to a changing world."

In Cognac, locals try to digest the culture of their new customers as best they can. "There are times when I don't ask myself too many questions," says Yann Fillioux, Hennessy's 56-year-old master blender, who has been selecting and aging cognacs for 37 years. Asked whether he listens to rap, Fillioux, who is the seventh-generation master blender in his family, deadpans: "I'm more of a classical-music kind of guy."

Hoping to bridge the cultural chasm, Hennessy plans to fly a half-dozen grape growers to New York in fall for a tour of nightspots. Louvet, who plans to make the trip, is guardedly looking forward to her visit.

"The more Americans drink cognac and prefer it to whiskey, the better it is for us," she says.

John Carreyrou can be e-mailed at john.carreyrou@wsj.com and Christopher Lawton can be e-mailed at christopher.lawton@wsj.com

Note: This article appeared in The News Journal under the title, "Hip-hop sends cognac sales soaring
", courtesy of The Wall St. Journal

Friday, July 25, 2003