STEVE INSKEEP, host:
It's Morning Edition from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep. The holiday season that's just ending is an important time for cognac makers in France. They export all over the world, but the United States is the most important overseas market for French brandy. For the last several years, cognac sales to the United States have soared, and much of that is due to its growing popularity with African-Americans. As Eleanor Beardsley reports, American rap stars are updating cognac's traditional image.
(Soundbite of birds chirping)
ELEANOR BEARDSLEY: Cognac has been produced for hundreds of years in a cluster of quiet villages and vineyards in southwestern France. The region's proximity to the sea, its mild climate and its chalky soil are said to produce the perfect grape for the liquor. Cognac can only be produced here; if it's made elsewhere, it's just brandy.
(Soundbite of unlocking door)
Mr. ALEXANDER GABRIEL (Cognac Maker, Pierre Ferrand Cognac, Chateau de Bonbonnet): So, be careful when you go down here; it's a bit slippery.
BEARDSLEY: Cognac maker Alexander Gabriel, of the small, prestigious cognac house Pierre Ferrand, opens his cellar to sample some of his prime stock. Cognac is aged for as long as 60 years in porous, oak barrels that bring out its oaky flavor and amber color. Because of the aging process, the equivalent of some 40 million bottles of cognac evaporate every year here. Producers call it the angel's share.
(Soundbite of bottle opening)
Mr. GABRIEL: That was made in 1912 before First World War. And it's very creamy, very nice, very smooth. When you make cognac the right way, that's what it tastes like.
BEARDSLEY: Not far from Gabriel's small cellar lie the distilleries of one of the giants of the trade, Courvoisier, reputed to have been the cognac of Napoleon. Every Courvoisier bottle bears his image, but even an emperor's stamp of approval couldn't help Courvoisier's marketing problem a few years ago. Cognac was seen as an old-fashioned drink for old-fashioned people. That all changed in 2001, when rap artist Busta Rhymes came out with his hit song "Pass the Courvoisier"
(Soundbite of song "Pass the Courvoisier")
BUSTA RHYMES: (Rapping) Pass the Courvoisier. Pass the Courvoisier. Pass the Courvoisier. Pass the Courvoisier...
Ms. JENNIFER ZENOVITCH (Marketing Manager, Courvoisier): Well, it was huge for the brand because, first of all, of course, our volumes followed and skyrocketed, but also the amount of additional advertising was incredible, because it went on all of the big hit lists. And the truth of the matter is, is that it really showed us what the importance of having that particular status in the African-American market was all about.
BEARDSLEY: That's Courvoisier marketing manager Jennifer Zenovitch. She says African-Americans have drunk cognac since the 1940s, when black soldiers brought it home from France after the war. But only in recent years has it really taken off as a status symbol among young and successful black professionals. Skyrocketing U.S. sales led the big cognac makers to cash in with sexy packaging and advertising campaigns.
(Soundbite of people talking in French)
BEARDSLEY: Smaller cognac producer Alexander Gabriel felt left behind by big hitters like Courvoisier and Hennessy. So, 10 years ago, Gabriel created a new brand of cognac for the younger, hipper cognac drinker. And in 2007, Gabriel found his own star rapper.
(Soundbite of song "Landy in My Eggnog")
SNOOP DOGG: (Rapping) I need some Landy in my eggnog, man. We're going to do it real big. Yeah, tonight I'm going near, So, man, I need some Landy in my eggnog...
BEARDSLEY: Pop artist Snoop Dogg was already a fan of Gabriel's new Landy cognac, so Gabriel signed him on. Now, Gabriel's exports to the U.S. are booming, and Landy represents more than 80 percent of his total business.
Mr. GABRIEL: The fact that the African-American culture has chosen cognac as an iconic drink has changed the image of cognac, I think, worldwide, worldwide - in France as well. So, I think it's a little revolution.
BEARDSLEY: But some things don't change.
(Soundbite of people having dinner)
BEARDSLEY: To celebrate the company's success, Gabriel sits down to a traditional year-end dinner with his employees and their families in an old manor house surrounded by ancient vineyards. It's a simple, country affair, with thick steaks cooked on an open fire and, of course, fine cognac.
(Soundbite of spoon clinking on glass)
BEARDSLEY: For NPR News, I'm Eleanor Beardsley in Cognac, France.
(Soundbite of song "Landy in My Eggnog")
SNOOP DOGG: (Rapping) Man I need some Landy in my eggnog. I thank God that I made it. I know suck a (unintelligible) So, here pour me some Landy in my eggnog. Yeah...