Hennessy and Enemies: Booze, Brands and “Liquid Bling”

By Denise Balkissoon

Can you read that wine label? Cause this brand causes dictatorships.

Can you read that wine label? Cause this brand causes dictatorships.

There were many things to be upset about after last summer’s shooting on Danzig Avenue: the deaths, of course, plus the youth of the accused shooters, and how easy it seems for firearms to slip through our porous border.

Farther down on the list, but still troubling, was “Henny & Hip Hop,” a story that ran in the Toronto Star about 10 days after the incident. Dotted with lyrics by Mobb Deep and Eminem, the piece informed the reading public that “Hennessy has been part of hip-hop culture for almost 20 years.” It quoted a Brazil-based spokesperson from Louis Vuitton Moet Hennessy, who emphasized that the company “was not part of the party.” In other words, it was embarrassing and nausea-inducing, and almost a year later, it still bugs me.

Does alcohol make people violent? Unquestionably, yes. But I can’t think of a culture other than hip hop for which a string of brand citations follows every incident. When Vancouver Canucks fans tore their city up after losing the Stanley Cup two years ago, I don’t remember hearing what kind of flat beer they were overcharged for in the Rogers Arena.  An upper-class Scottish chef killed his girlfriend last fall, but the news coverage has yet to inform me about what sorts of fine wines he might have been drinking. At a time when there were many important, heart-wrenching things to consider, “Henny & Hip Hop” was just another piece of Othering tripe letting us know that “in urban culture, [Hennessy] is seen as liquid bling.”

I have some questions of my own about liquor brands and identity, questions that I might have considered stupid if the country’s biggest daily hadn’t opened these floodgates. Let’s start with the most important one, and move on from there.

1. Obviously we all want a world without prejudice or hate. Anheuser-Busch InBev is on track to own every major beer brand in the world. When Corona tastes just like Rolling Rock tastes just like Hoegaarden tastes just like Quilmes, will racism be over?

2. Speaking of Anheuser-Busch InBev, why does the Beer Store get a consumer-thwarting monopoly when none of the brands that run it are Canadian?  To quote the Star again: “The Beer Store is ultimately owned by three foreign multinationals: Anheuser-Busch InBev, Molson Coors and Sapporo. In what other country does an elected government act as an enabler for a foreign-owned cartel that wields monopoly power on beer sales in such a lucrative, captive market?” I would also like an answer to this question. If you want to politicize booze, Toronto Star, stick with stuff like this.

3. Does PBR make one’s neck beard more luscious? Does it help dull the pain of your 18th tattoo?

4. Does drinking vodka make you more, or less, likely to support Pussy Riot?

5. After the U.S. mortgage crisis, a slew of thinkers mused on whether financial types are actual psychopaths—not quite Christian Bale-esque killers, but empathy-deficient robots with no understanding of other humans’ lives. I’m wondering, does this have to do with the tannins in French Burgundy? Or is it a reaction to fine Italian wool? Perhaps the magnetic pull of Patek Phillipe watches affects their levels of oxytocin, otherwise known as “the cuddle molecule.”

6. Is the Girls’ Night Out “Strawberry Samba” flavour specifically marketed at Latin Americans, or can anyone enjoy it? Any girl, that is? Not guys, obviously. Or men. Or boys. It’s for girls. Girls’ Night Out. But all girls, or just Brazilian girls?

7. Does Cristal regret getting all racist about rap lyrics, and in turn pissing off Jay-Z? Would they consider launching a rosé called “Ni**as in Paris” to make it up to him? Gwyneth Paltrow could be in the ad.

8.  When is someone going to say something racist about rap and Patrón tequila? When it happens, will you remember that I predicted it?

9. Why are Trinidadians soooooo obsessed with Johnnie Walker? Wait, I have the answer to this one, thanks to Rishi Sankar, who blogs as Trini Traveller.

“For many years, the only alcohol you could find was rum from Caroni and the islands,” he tells me via email. “Drinking whisky was considered quite upmarket in the 60’s and 70’s. ‘Johnnie’ was pushed to be the best via some great marketing campaigns in the 80’s and 90’s. Once you add the cachet of ‘scotch’ on top of it …well, you know Trinis.”

Johnnie dominates the small, million-person market, and many Trinidadians’ palates reject fancier single malts and such. “I took a bottle of 25 yr old Balvenie to drink with my dad,” says Rishi. “He quite liked it, but one of my brothers, who likes Johnnie, said it tasted like ‘shit.’ Feeding caviar to pigs is a waste.”

10. “Liquid bling,” Toronto Star? Really? Did you really print that in a newspaper for a million people to read?

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