Bottle #19: Hennessy Cognac

Jun 14, 2023

Bottle #19 is a tiny bottle of Hennessy Cognac. If you want to know more about brandy in general, check out bottle #7: Martell Cognac. Both Martell and Hennessy are considered to be part of the Big Four cognac houses. Martell is the oldest, founded in 1715. Hennessy didn’t get its start until 1765, but what it lacks in age it makes up for in sales, because today it is the top selling Cognac brand in the world.

And a lot of those sales are to African Americans. The relationship of the Black community to brandy in general, and Hennessy in particular, has a long history. There are a lot of great essays by Black writers that I read while researching this bottle, and I encourage you to check out their own words. But here are a few highlights.

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Some of the first stories we have about African Americans appreciating brandy and Cognac come from the World Wars, when Black soldiers stationed in France were welcomed with open arms and feted with brandy by the French people they were liberating. Upon their return to the US, this appreciation of brandy stuck. Pre-Civil Rights America was still deeply segregated, and American whiskey was made in the south and often honored confederate leaders and used racist ideology in branding and marketing. Cognac didn’t have any of that baggage.

Cognac producers recognized this allegiance. In the 1950s, Hennessy was the first spirits brand to run ads in Ebony and Jet magazines, and that influenced an entire generation of drinkers, meaning that their kids and grandkids would grow up seeing Hennessy as the thing everyone in their family drank. And when those kids started recording hip hop in the 90s, Hennessy and other brands of Cognac were right there in those songs and that culture.

There are some other deeper historical connections as well. The label of my tiny bottle declares that it was imported by Schieffelin & Co of New York. This is a really fascinating company, with roots back to the founding of the United States. And part of that long history is supporting civil rights for Black Americans. In 1896 company president William Jay Schieffelin joined the board of the Tuskegee Institute, encouraged others to support it, and eventually became board chairman. In the early 1900s, he was particularly concerned with the working conditions of the factories that employed Black people in New York, and hired George Edmond Hanes, the first Black man to receive a PhD in from Columbia’s School of Economics, to lead a non-profit organization dedicated to improving conditions. In 1910 this organization would merge with two others in what today is known as the National Urban League, the oldest and largest organization working to promote civil rights for African Americans. Just prior to that, in 1909, Schieffelin & Co was the first corporate sponsor of the NAACP.

In the 1960s, Schieffelin & Co would hire 1948 Black Olympian Herb Douglass, who in 1977 would become the company’s Vice President of Urban Market Development, as only the third Black person to be a VP in a major US company. Herb played a significant role in continuing to cement the alliance of Hennessy with Black Americans.

Now, this is all about Schieffelin, so what does that have to do with Hennessy? The story of Schieffelin gets intertwined with the Hennessy story thanks to the usual cascade of corporate mergers. In 1971 Hennessy merged with Moet & Chandon, and then in 1980 the new company, Moët-Hennessy, acquired Schieffelin. They eventually merged with Louis Vuitton, creating the ultimate luxury brand, LVMH. But beyond who actually owned who at any given time, Schieffelin had been the sole US importer of Hennessy since 1794, so when we talk about the history of Hennessy in the US, they’re really the entity that matters, more than the producers of the actual Cognac back in France.

My tiny bottle of Hennessy is probably from just before Herb Douglass became VP of Schieffelin. There are a few clues to the date. The tax strip is the big one because like the bottle of B&B I talked about recently, it’s got “less than ½ pint” printed on the end of the strip, which means before 1977. It looks really old compared to the modern bottlings, and I can’t wait to sit down with a special guest and taste the old and new side by side!

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Bottle #19: Hennessy Cognac

Jun 14, 2023 |

Bottle #19 is a tiny bottle of Hennessy Cognac. If you want to know more about brandy in general, check out bottle #7: Martell Cognac. Both Martell and Hennessy are considered to be part of the Big Four cognac houses. Martell is the oldest, founded in 1715. Hennessy didn’t get its start until 1765, but what it lacks in age it makes up for in sales, because today it is the top selling Cognac brand in the world.

And a lot of those sales are to African Americans. The relationship of the Black community to brandy in general, and Hennessy in particular, has a long history. There are a lot of great essays by Black writers that I read while researching this bottle, and I encourage you to check out their own words. But here are a few highlights.

Some of the first stories we have about African Americans appreciating brandy and Cognac come from the World Wars, when Black soldiers stationed in France were welcomed with open arms and feted with brandy by the French people they were liberating. Upon their return to the US, this appreciation of brandy stuck. Pre-Civil Rights America was still deeply segregated, and American whiskey was made in the south and often honored confederate leaders and used racist ideology in branding and marketing. Cognac didn’t have any of that baggage.

Cognac producers recognized this allegiance. In the 1950s, Hennessy was the first spirits brand to run ads in Ebony and Jet magazines, and that influenced an entire generation of drinkers, meaning that their kids and grandkids would grow up seeing Hennessy as the thing everyone in their family drank. And when those kids started recording hip hop in the 90s, Hennessy and other brands of Cognac were right there in those songs and that culture.

There are some other deeper historical connections as well. The label of my tiny bottle declares that it was imported by Schieffelin & Co of New York. This is a really fascinating company, with roots back to the founding of the United States. And part of that long history is supporting civil rights for Black Americans. In 1896 company president William Jay Schieffelin joined the board of the Tuskegee Institute, encouraged others to support it, and eventually became board chairman. In the early 1900s, he was particularly concerned with the working conditions of the factories that employed Black people in New York, and hired George Edmond Hanes, the first Black man to receive a PhD in from Columbia’s School of Economics, to lead a non-profit organization dedicated to improving conditions. In 1910 this organization would merge with two others in what today is known as the National Urban League, the oldest and largest organization working to promote civil rights for African Americans. Just prior to that, in 1909, Schieffelin & Co was the first corporate sponsor of the NAACP.

In the 1960s, Schieffelin & Co would hire 1948 Black Olympian Herb Douglass, who in 1977 would become the company’s Vice President of Urban Market Development, as only the third Black person to be a VP in a major US company. Herb played a significant role in continuing to cement the alliance of Hennessy with Black Americans.

Now, this is all about Schieffelin, so what does that have to do with Hennessy? The story of Schieffelin gets intertwined with the Hennessy story thanks to the usual cascade of corporate mergers. In 1971 Hennessy merged with Moet & Chandon, and then in 1980 the new company, Moët-Hennessy, acquired Schieffelin. They eventually merged with Louis Vuitton, creating the ultimate luxury brand, LVMH. But beyond who actually owned who at any given time, Schieffelin had been the sole US importer of Hennessy since 1794, so when we talk about the history of Hennessy in the US, they’re really the entity that matters, more than the producers of the actual Cognac back in France.

My tiny bottle of Hennessy is probably from just before Herb Douglass became VP of Schieffelin. There are a few clues to the date. The tax strip is the big one because like the bottle of B&B I talked about recently, it’s got “less than ½ pint” printed on the end of the strip, which means before 1977. It looks really old compared to the modern bottlings, and I can’t wait to sit down with a special guest and taste the old and new side by side!

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