Cognac’s popularity is almost exclusively African American ––meaning the French and the rest of America barely touch the stuff. So why is French Cognac Brandy such a big hit? What does Cognac contribute to Black American history?
Well, If you think it all started with Hip Hop lyrics from the 90s? Or, when Busta Rhymes told us in 2001 to “Pass the Courvoisier,” you’re not even close.
Get those brandy snifters ready! Here’s why you should celebrate Black American history with French Cognac brandy.
A Fight for Freedom in World War I France
African American affinity for Cognac can be traced back to World War I Europe, when the first group of Black soldiers from Harlem ––moonlighting as Jazz musicians–– celebrated their first taste of equal rights on the western shores of Brest, France in December of 1917.
The 369th Infantry Regiment, known as the “Harlem Hellfighters” included a magnificent forty-four-piece jazz band, led by two of Harlem’s finest musicians ––the bandmaster, James Reese Europe and the drum major, Noble Sissle.
The French fell head over heels for Jazz. In exchange, African Americans acquired a taste for Cognac brandy and a great appreciation for the country’s progressive attitudes toward race and equality.
We can thank brave Harlem Jazz ambassadors like James Reese and Harlem Hellfighters for their service! But we can also thank the French for a civilized warm embrace ––in a far away land a century ago. A taste of freedom one might say and Cognac is that reminder.
The Legacy of American Whiskey
Back in the U.S, the more common option for white Americans was Bourbon whiskey, a distilled spirit at the time intertwined with the legacy of the Confederacy and the Deep South. It’s no wonder why many African Americans, barely two generations removed from the legacy of slavery during WWI, still felt American whiskey came with a proverbial bitter aftertaste. Fortunately, many things have changed since then.
Uncle Nearest Premium Whiskey has become the most successful Black-owned distillery in history, reaching $100 million in sales.
Fear of a Colorblind Society
Like Blacks Americans, many white Americans believed the French were relatively color-blind. Fearing the new taste of freedom could spark a backlash by Black soldiers returning home, the U.S. military went to great lengths to maintain the status quo.
A Troubling Secret Military Memo
On August 1918, the U.S. Army issued guidelines entitled: “Secret Information Concerning Black American Troops.” The memorandum in effect presented the finer points of American racism, detailing how the French should interact and treat Black soldiers. Implicit was the threat that American aid might be withheld if the French did not learn the proper way of dealing with Black Americans. In particular, the document warned against intimacies between blacks and French women.
French politicians were harshly critical of the American army’s “Secret Information” memo, eventually ordering the destruction of all U.S. Army leaflets advocating discriminatory treatment of black soldiers. Black American soldiers responded with grace and humility to France’s defense of their civil rights, some even returning to live in France permanently as expats.
The memories of pleasant encounters with the French endured long after the war. French Cognac truly tasted like freedom and a celebratory reminder of what was possible for racial equality.
A soldier of the Ninety-third Division once wrote to his mother, “These French people don’t bother with no color line business. They treat us so good that the only time I ever know I’m colored is when I look in the glass.”
French Society and Black American History
The fantasmal color-blindness of the French has been bolstered by prominent African American leaders throughout history, including Booker T. Washington, Frederick Douglass and W.E.B. DuBois with his famous landmark article published in the Crisis, “The Black Man in the Revolution of 1914-1918,” that emphasized the kind treatment Black soldiers received from the French.
A steady stream of Black entertainers throughout history have been influential in the popularity of French Cognac, a trend that continues to this day.