“They wanna knows my role model, it’s in a brown bottle…Hennessy.” -Tupac Shakur
The tie between Hennessy and the Black community is not a recent phenomenon. Marketing is not the only reason African Americans make up over 50% of Hennessy’s sales. It goes deeper than shoutouts in rap lyrics and common placement in Black media. It’s deeper than your uncles and aunties pouring it up at family cookouts over games of spades. For all you know, your grandparents and great grandparents may have been fans of the famous arm and hatchet themselves. Let’s take a history trip.
In 1896, William Jay Schieffelin (president of Hennessy at the time) befriended Booker T. Washington and joined the Tuskegee Institute’s Board of Directors. He then brought his entourage of influential Americans including the likes of Thomas Edison, Mark Twain, Andrew Carnegie, and others from New York to visit Tuskegee and encouraged them to support the institution. In 1910, Schieffelin alongside George Edmond Hanes (the first Black man to graduate with a Ph.D from Columbia’s School of Economics and also a Yale University graduate) launched the Committee for Improving the Industrial Conditions of Negroes in New York City. A year later, the name was changed to what we now know as the National Urban League. You can read the receipts in a 1906 New York Times article detailing Washington’s $1,800,000 fundraising event here.
The Black community was first directly introduced to cognac itself through the world wars. Black soldiers stationed in France took a liking to spirit’s sweetness while introducing the French to Jazz and Blues culture. “The connection between cognac producers and black consumers was likely bolstered by the arrival of black artists and musicians like Josephine Baker” per Dr. Emory Tolbert, a history professor at Howard University. Back in the States, the most popular drink at the time was whisky. Many know whisky to have a harsher, more woody taste than cognac. Whisky was also very much so a white man’s drink, often marketed and branded with Old South figures and motifs that reminded consumers of the confederacy.
Hennessy has never downplayed its ties to the Black community. The brand is well documented in its support for social reform movements as early as the 1900s. EBONY Magazine stated that Hennessy was one of the first spirits companies to run ads featuring black models, a practice that was taboo before and even during the civil rights movement. In 1951, Hennessy ran the first spirit ad to appear in EBONY Magazine. They also ran JET’s first spirit ad in 1953. In 1963, Hennessy hired 1942 bronze medal Olympian Herb Douglass to be their Vice President of Urban Market Development. This hire made Douglass only the 3rd African American to reach VP status of a major national corporation.
Hennessy continued to break the mold by embracing the black community in a luxury market. What makes them special is that they’ve managed to include the Black image from a multitude of perspectives. A luxury brand that embraces not only appreciates Black culture in its suave and opulent forms, but also our aggressive and expressive, often intimidating, language of hip hop as well. We’ve seen Erykah Badu and Nas as the faces of Hennessy’s “Wild Rabbit” campaign. Hennessy also released a special commemorative bottle celebrating the presidency of Barack Obama with proceeds going to the Thurgood Marshall College Fund.
Thank you, Hennessy, for truly being “for the culture” and happy Black History Month to you all. Cheers!