How American rap and cognac became partners in crime
World Best Bar
Apr 06, 2020
10 January 2019
So, why has this digestif become emblematic of the American music scene? We try to explain.
A strong heritage
Busta Rhymes, Pharrell and Puff Daddy in the music video for Pass The Courvoisier II
This love story dates back to the Second World War when American soldiers deployed in France tasted cognac for the first time. They brought back home the first bottles of cognac from the other side of the Atlantic ocean. Later on, in the mid-nineties, while Americans were listening to The Notorious B.I.G.’s albums on repeat, the city of Cognac was going through a major economic crisis. Then the spirit was suddenly made popular by several tracks (such as the famous Can’t Knock The Hustle by Jay-Z in 1996), and cognac sales skyrocketed in the United States, keeping the French city afloat. At that time Americans already represented 60% to 80% of cognac’s consumers. A major turning point was in 2001, when Busta Rhymes released Pass The Courvoisier II, in which he spoke highly of the spirit’s qualities, alongside P. Diddy and Pharrell. So, what was the result? The brand’s sales figures rose by another 30% thanks to this unexpected promotion. What’s more, this trend had a knock-on effect for the entire sector.
In the early noughties, several cognac brands jumped at the chance to make it on the American market. Collaborations with artists made it a drink that was fashionable to be seen with in American music videos, bars and clubs. Brands see rappers as the perfect ambassadors. As a result, cognac distilleries started inviting them to France to taste their best cuvées. This is the case for cognac house Martell, who made Quavo, lead rapper of the group Migos, a brand ambassador in 2018. To celebrate his arrival, he was given a 270-liter barrel dating from his year of birth: 1991.
Quavo was given a 270-liter barrel by Martell, dating from his year of birth, 1991.
Cognac, nicknamed “yak” in songs, is a kind of brandy (from the Dutch brandewijn, meaning burnt wine): this broader term refers to an entire family of grape-based eaux-de-vie distilled worldwide, which includes cognac. Its production is limited to one specific region: the area surrounding the city of Cognac in the South-West of France (Charente). The spirit is a symbol of national identity and pride, and its bottles are often marked with a fleur-de-lis to echo the emblem of French kings and leaders.
In an interesting parallel, following the trend for ‘bling’, rappers started showing off rare cognac bottle designs set with diamonds or precious metals. These would sell for between 3000 and 15,000 dollars a bottle, cementing the spirit’s image as a flashy status symbol. Similar to gold or diamond chains, huge rocks and grills, cognac is flaunted as a high-end product to show off your wealth. One example of this is Beyoncé’s inimitable Naughty Girl video, where bottles of cognac take pride of place on the tables. The aim is always the same: to flaunt your success.
A thriving business
Today, 98% of cognac production is exported to around 150 countries. Until recently, cognac was considered a boring, outmoded drink in France, but now it has become extremely popular in high-end cocktail bars in Paris and throughout the world. For the fifth straight year, cognac exports continued to grow in 2018-2019, reaching their highest levels ever with 211.1 million bottles shipped for a value of 3.4 billion euros, according to the French National Interprofessional Bureau of Cognac. America has been the main importing country by a long shot for some time now, and over the period, 94.3 million bottles were imported by the U.S. alone. An amusing paradox is that in America, sales figures are constantly on the up, whereas the French are increasingly turning to young cognacs for an ‘American-style’ brandy, either in cocktails or on the rocks!