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Forget craft beer — Philly loves brandy

For as much hype as the craft-beer scene and the trendy gin and whiskey distilleries have accrued in Philadelphia, they don't match the popularity of E&J and its more sophisticated French cousin, Hennessy. No alcohol does.

Shakia Harris got her husband, Robert Harris, a birthday cake combining his love of the Eagles and E&J brandy.
Shakia Harris got her husband, Robert Harris, a birthday cake combining his love of the Eagles and E&J brandy.Read moreCourtesy of Robert and Shakia Harris

Philly native Robert Harris was turning 38, and his wife, Shakia Harris, wanted to improve on a previous birthday cake she had gotten him — and considering the cake was shaped and designed to look like a bottle of E&J brandy, that was no easy task.

Harris loves E&J. During the Eagles' Super Bowl run, he was drinking plenty of it. And that's when Shakia got her next idea. She ordered him a cake combining the best of both worlds — a giant Eagles logo over white frosting in the middle and a Kelly green border. Then, in the back, a gap where the baker positioned a full bottle of E&J VSOP.

"Not only did we get a cake that everyone loved and tasted good," Shakia said, "Rob got a bottle of alcohol at the end of it."

This combination of love for the Eagles and E&J shouldn't be surprising. For as much hype as the craft-beer scene and the trendy gin and whiskey distilleries have gotten in Philadelphia, they don't match the popularity of E&J and its more sophisticated French cousin, Hennessy. No alcohol does.

During the two most recent years for which  Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board data are available, E&J and Hennessy dominated, with Hennessy finishing on top and three varieties of E&J ranking in the top 10 for dollar sales in Philly. In 2016-17 (retail years for Pennsylvania run from July to June), about $4.6 million worth of Hennessy VS in 750 ml bottles was  sold in Philadelphia. No other brand of liquor topped $2.5 million. E&J's apple brandy led Philadelphia in unit sales, with 189,000 750 ml bottles sold. It was one of three types of E&J to surpass 100,000, joining Hennessy VS in that category. Just one other variety of liquor, Tito's vodka, topped unit sales of greater than 100,000 in Philly last year.

The rest of the state mostly favors whiskey and vodka, with Jack Daniels and Tito's the top two in dollar sales and in units in 2016-17 (Fireball, sigh, was No. 1 in unit sales in 2015-16). Hennessy finished third statewide in sales in 2016-17, but its popularity can be attributed to Philadelphia. Philly makes up about 12 percent of Pennsylvania's population, but the city bought about 25 percent of the Hennessy. At the state level, not one variety of E&J cracked the top 25 most popular liquors in dollar sales.

E&J and Hennessy are mostly drinks for Philadelphia and its large black population, something Harris realized when he moved to Lancaster two years ago and the gatherings he attended featured Bacardi and Fireball (sigh). How did Harris get into E&J? The way most people do. He aspired to be a Hennessy drinker, but as a younger man didn't want to pay the higher price.

Hennessy is a cognac, E&J a brandy. The distinction is purely geographical. A cognac is a brandy, too, but to be labeled cognac, it must be from the eponymous region of southwestern France. Several cognacs are imported to the United States, including Rémy Martin and Courvoisier, both of which have enjoyed widespread recognition thanks to rapper Remy Ma's taking her stage name from the former and Busta Rhymes providing a four-minute shout-out to the latter in "Pass the Courvoisier."  But none of the cognacs have the cultural cachet of Hennessy. It's long been name-dropped by artists from Tupac to Kanye West, and Erykah Badu and Nas have appeared in advertisements for the company.

Hall Gonzales, a bartender at Warmdaddy's in South Philadelphia, said people drink Hennessy not just because of familiarity, but because they identify it with success.

"Most people I know who drink Hennessy don't know where Hennessy is from," he said. "It's a status thing."

The connections between cognac and brandy and black culture go back even farther than its associations with hip-hop. According to Southern Spirits: Four Hundred Years of Drinking in the American South, slaves in the antebellum South produced and drank brandy.

Reid Mitenbuler, author of Bourbon Empire and a regular writer on other liquors, said many black troops were stationed in the Cognac region of France during World Wars I and II. At the time, American brown liquors like whiskey and bourbon used iconography from the old slave-owning South on their labels; the brand Rebel Yell had a Confederate connection right in its name. France already was home to many black expats, and its more liberal, accepting culture lent to cognac liquor the same aspirational quality it has now, but in the sense of freedom and belonging.

In the early 1950s, Hennessy became the first spirit to advertise in Jet and Ebony magazines. In 1968, Hennessy's American distributor hired a black vice president, famed Olympian and Pennsylvania native Herb Douglas, long before other big companies even thought about diversifying upper levels of management.  

For as popular as Hennessy has become in recent years, nobody — not even Hennessy — saw 2017 coming. According to parent company LVMH, unit sales of Hennessy increased 8 percent from 2016 to 2017. That was nothing compared to Philadelphia. Here, unit sales of Hennessy VS shot up 43 percent, from 96,000 to 138,000, leading to a shortage. At one point in October, just 10 bottles remained in the entire city.

"It was so inconsistent," Warmdaddy's manager Michael Williams Jr. said. "You couldn't get it."

E&J underwent a similar boom in the last two years in Philadelphia, largely because of the introduction of apple and peach flavors. E&J peach unit sales hit just under 199,000 in 2015-16,  when the only other liquor to surpass 100,000 in units was E&J VS. Both flavors, popular in the old South, also have become favorites on the craft scene.

Hennessy has shout-outs from Kanye, but E&J has local rapper GrandeMarshall, who has a song named after the liquor. And the love for E&J isn't solely because of the lower price (A 750 ml bottle of premium E&J VS sells for $11.99;  Hennessy VS is $36.99). Charima Jones, 27, and Amirah Pierre, 23, say E&J is smoother than Hennessy and better for mixing. At a Friendsgiving party last year, Pierre made a batch of punch with E&J apple and peach mixed with fruit nectar. She had Hennessy reserved for people who wanted the liquor on its own.

"You wouldn't put Dom Pérignon in a mimosa," Pierre said.

Pierre had been a gin drinker before her roommates introduced her to brandy and cognac. She's now become a major fan, even finding Hennessy White, a clear variety of Hennessy that's not sold in Philadelphia. She bought the bottle on a trip to the Bahamas and brought it back home — where she did something very characteristic of Philadelphia.

"I cracked it open," she said, "when the Eagles won the Super Bowl."