Inside the Extraordinary Cognac Brand Part-Owned by Jay-Z: Exclusive
The rapper and mega-mogul heads global strategy in addition to serving as partial owner of D’USSÉ
The business of Cognac is one rife with history, steeped in tradition and meticulous craft, and fueled by deep appreciation and respect within the spirits world.
It was a combination of all three factors that drew Jay-Z to the lifeblood of its eponymous region in southwestern France six years ago when he, alongside Bacardi, approached the portfolio’s Cognac arm, Château de Cognac, with a proposition to create a new blend that would not only honor the region’s centuries of production but also push the boundaries of traditional consumption. These circumstances were, at the time, an entirely new breed of celebrity involvement where the world of spirits was concerned: it was by no means a simple endorsement, though up until very recently the details of his involvement were kept under wraps. A vested interest in and a personal affinity for Cognac drove Jay to pursue this new venture, now known as D’USSÉ, for which the rapper and mega-mogul heads global strategy in addition to serving as a partial owner, Billboard has learned exclusively, though the details of his ownership remain unconfirmed.
Here, Billboard Style sits down with D'USSÉ's key players for an intimate look at the evolution of the brand from its inception under Jay-Z and Bacardi Limited's symbiotic guidance.
“The story started about six years ago when we had the opportunity to create a new Cognac brand with the idea that maybe beyond [existing] brands, there was an opportunity to offer something different to the consumers in the US," Phillippe Jouhaud, D’USSÉ’s Sales and Marketing Director, told Billboard. "While most of these brands were certainly doing the job that they were originally created to do more than 200 years ago, which was to drink Cognac 'neat' (i.e. sans mixers or ice) we wanted to make sure that we could create a liquid that was going to be a great Cognac to drink neat but also be an ingredient for making great cocktails."
So when Jay visited the Château for the first time in 2011 to test and taste samples produced in small batches by Michel Casavecchia, the Cellar Master, it was a welcomed surprise to see that their newfound business partner was an obvious fan of Cognac. “The first time we met with [Jay-Z], we were very pleased with the fact that he really loves it—we could see from one tasting to another that he really had strong opinions about the Cognacs he preferred and that he could recognize different samples,” Jouhaud said of the early developmental stages.
"[But] for us, being able to communicate the quality of the liquid, the making process, where it’s made, and what Michel wanted to achieve in terms of taste profile is something that was extremely important…probably as much as having Jay-Z on board and being a fan of the product himself.”
Michel Casavecchia, D’USSÉ’s Maître de Chai (Cellar Master) is a man of immeasurable talent but few words…until you get him on the subject of Cognac. In conversation, it becomes immediately clear that after 25 years of working for Château de Cognac, his palate is one of unrivaled refinement and a product of sharp training (though he’s certainly not one to brag).
While only five years in, Jouhaud and Casavecchia are persistent in their quest to ensure that D’USSÉ lives up to its lineage and surpasses the idea of existing merely as a celebrity endorsed product. "Essentially, D’USSÉ is a new Cognac in the sense that the brand is only five years old, but it is a Cognac that is produced by a company that has been producing for over 200 years in a place that has been around for more than 1,000 years by a Cellar Master who is today the most experienced of all the Cellar Masters from the major Cognac houses," Jouhaud said.
"[It was clear that we] had somebody on board who was really interested in developing a Cognac brand and building it for the long term," Jouhaud said of Jay-Z, adding that it was important to the brand that any other party who came onto the project was not just somebody who "wanted to do something in one shot without any future."
Even the physical château itself plays a huge role in D’USSÉ as a traditional and heritage-minded modern product. On the bottle, a visceral representation of the source known simply by the double-barred cross, Le Croix de Lorraine (The Cross of Lorraine), an emblem historically representative of French patriotism and, more specifically, the Free French Forces during World War II. This cross in particular denotes a theme of “courage, honor, and perseverance”—a fitting trifecta given the story behind the liquid. Additionally, the property’s proximity to the River Charente makes for an interesting and coveted physical environment for aging, giving D’USSÉ Cognacs (currently available in VSOP [Very Special Old Pale], and XO [Extra Old] expressions) a distinct woodiness and spice-forward flavor profile underneath delicate fruit and floral notes. VSOP is the second-highest level of Cognac aging (on the official age scale) with XO being the highest.
At the end of the day, the collective vision—to set a new standard for Cognac worldwide—is something that Jouhaud and Casavecchia, on behalf of Château de Cognac (and thus Bacardi Limited), together with Jay-Z have accomplished in an impressively short period of time, especially given the parameters imposed by a spirit as heavily regulated and traditional as Cognac (after all, like Champagne or Bordeaux wine, Cognac can only be called Cognac if produced in its namesake region and done so in accordance with strict regulations imposed by the region itself). And with Jay at the helm leading the global strategy for the brand, D’USSÉ is on track to continue artfully disrupting the way the spirits world perceives Cognac for years to come.
Try D’USSÉ at home either neat, on the rocks, or in one of these Jay-approved cocktail recipes.
1.5oz D’USSÉ VSOP Cognac
1oz Disaronno Originale Liqueur
2oz pineapple juice
Shake all ingredients with ice; strain over fresh ice into a rocks glass. Garnish with a lemon wedge.
THE 13TH (official tour cocktail)
2oz D’USSÉ VSOP Cognac
1oz Lime juice
.5oz Simple syrup
2oz Ginger beer (can substitute ginger ale)
Shake all ingredients besides ginger beer/ale and strain into a Collins glass over cubed ice. Top with ginger beer or ginger ale.
BAM (punch; official tour cocktail)
2oz D’USSÉ VSOP Cognac
1oz lemon juice
1oz pineapple juice
.75oz simple syrup
Shake all ingredients with ice; strain over fresh ice in rocks glass and garnish with pineapple wedge in addition to any other fruit garnish available (the more the merrier when it comes to punch). This recipe can be scaled up to serve in large format.