Remy Martin. Courvoisier. Martell. Hennessy.
These are just a few names of cognacs that many African-Americans have grown to love over the course of several decades. Millennials have heard about them in countless hip-hop songs, our aunties and uncles have poured them at barbecues and family functions, and there’s even a massive, nationwide day party that celebrates a new brand’s mere existence. However, loyalty to ‘the yak’ isn’t just a by-product of our culture; and it surely didn’t start the moment Busta Rhymes told us to pass it back in 2001.
According to Nielsen, African-American consumers have an annual spending power of $1.2 trillion, and it is on par to reach $1.4 trillion by the end of next year. Also, while we know that the African-American consumer is far from monolithic, our influence as a culture has and continues to shift conversations in and out of boardrooms of major corporations. Our premium tastes are just as diverse as we are, and when we put our stamp of approval on something, it won’t be long before the world is agreeing with it, too.
But before diving deep into WHY we love the brown, what is cognac exactly? How did this French brandy become the preferred spirit of choice for African-Americans specifically, and what does the future hold for it?
History of Cognac and How Its Made
Believe it or not, cognac is a fine brandy that is made just like wine and produced in its namesake town located in western France. Its origins date back to the 16th century when the Dutch arrived in Cognac in search of the famous wines of the region to take back to their homeland. When they discovered that the wines couldn’t withstand their long boat ride home, they had to come up with a better way to preserve the goods. This is where the distillation process became the real MVP. Heating the alcohol twice separated the alcohol and other harmful components from the wine’s good stuff.
Similar to Champagne, cognac can only be called such if it adheres to specific production and naming requirements. Brandy can be made anywhere in the world, but a fine cognac only comes from two regions in western France: Charente-Maritime and Charente. After pressing the white grapes, their juice is fermented for about 10-14 days and then distilled as described in the process above. It is then put in oak barrels and aged from as little as two years to as many as six. The amount of time that the cognac is aged in oak also determines its grade – ones we’ve come to know as VS (Very Special – two years in oak); VSOP (Very Special Old Pale – four years in oak); and Napolean or XO (six years in oak).
First Came Henny, Then Hip-Hop
Now that we’ve got the logistics of how cognac is made out of the way, let’s talk about how Black America came to love it so much. In a 2013 Slate article, author Reid Mitenbuler gave us the real tea behind African-Americans and their love affair with brown liquor – which started after World War II. To celebrate their contributions, the French (who in all honesty, really don’t fool with cognac) would give Black American soldiers the spirit as a way to express their gratitude. However, it wasn’t until Black soldiers returned to the states that one brand, in particular, Hennessy, took advantage of marketing to us with advertisements in Ebony and Jet, elevating this very sophisticated French spirit as something that can be enjoyed right here at home. Over time, rap artists began to mention enjoying cognac in their lyrics, which sparked even more interest within potential consumers.
Today, Hennessy still is very popular among Black beverage consumers, but there are other players in the game by well-known rapper and moguls who have also made a mark on the spirits industry. Diddy, Ludacris and JAY-Z have all launched their brands of cognac that have piqued the interest of millennials drinkers, who also enjoy the likes of wine and craft beer too.
However, as the palate of the African-American consumer continues to evolve, it will be pivotal that the industry as a whole listen to and employ knowledgeable individuals who can provide proper representation for our unique culture. The story of cognac’s penetration into our culture is unique and it continues to serve as a benchmark for brands to learn how to engage with us authentically and with intention.