What is it going to take to get you to try Hennessy Black? How about a renowned DJ performing for a party in Miami Beach while suspended from a helicopter hovering 350 feet above the ocean. Would that do the trick? Because that’s what the world’s largest cognac producer did last weekend at the Fontainebleau to celebrate its latest spirit, and frankly, I don’t know how they could top it. Your move, Courvoisier.
Hennessy hosted me and a handful of other journalists for a series of events to celebrate the one-year anniversary of Hennessy Black, a cognac designed to appeal to younger drinkers and mix well in the kind of cocktails you drink at nightclubs where the patrons are all sexy or rich or both, and to introduce the 2011 ambassadors of the Hennessy Black Done Different DJ program. It was VIP treatment all the way, from the flight to my 28th floor ocean-view suite to the posh pool cabanas to the bottle service we enjoyed at the nightclubs Arkadia and LIV, and if the company’s goal was to position itself as the brand of choice for nightlife taste-makers, I think they succeeded. Because quite frankly, it was the wildest, most outrageous, and most expensive party I’ve ever attended, and it all but overshadowed and certainly outclassed the Ultra Music Festival, which was going on a few blocks down the boardwalk. By the end, it was clear. If this is what Hennessy Black is about, goodness what a drink! It also raised a few philosophical questions about the nature of product promotion and the sheer power of a dominant brand, but we’ll get to that after the parties.
We convened at the Fontainebleau on Friday night, fortunate to be there on time after a fire at the American Airlines fuel farm at Miami International canceled scores of flights. I checked into my suite, which was beautiful, of course, as the entire resort had recently undergone a $1 billion renovation that included the construction of the tower in which I was staying. Waiting for me in the room was a gift bag filled with all sorts of goodies, including, not surprisingly, a bottle of Hennessy Black. As a spirits columnist, I wanted to sample it privately, unadulterated by mixers and away from the scrutiny of publicists. After all, maybe I wouldn’t like it, and wouldn’t that make for an awkward weekend? So I shook up a couple of shots with ice in the mini-shaker from the gift bag, poured it in one of the two small glass tumblers from the bathroom, and took my first-ever taste of Hennessy Black out to the balcony to sip it while gazing at the shimmering blue water. And it was delightful – crisp, smooth, and well balanced, with a mild sweetness that brought out notes of fruit and honey. It has a golden color and a floral and citrus aroma, and while it’s one of the only cognacs in the world specifically designed for mixing, it also stands up just fine on its own. I swirled and sipped and watched the waves roll in for a few blissful minutes before heading out to dinner.
We had dinner in the garden of Cecconi’s at the Soho Beach House next door, and I chatted with our hosts from Hennessy and MSLGROUP and my fellow writers, who included Chloé A. Hilliard of Vibe, Dana Storm Santiago of The Source, Tyler Trykowski of Playboy, and Jim Shi, a freelance writer whose work has appeared in the Financial Times and Huffington Post. As we talked about Hennessy and munched on octopus and branzino, Paul Shaffer, Eugene Levy, and Martin Short sat down at the table next to ours. It happened to be Short’s 61st birthday that day, and his fellow screen legends serenaded him with rousing rendition of “Happy Birthday.” To cap off our meal, we sipped Hennessy XO out of snifters and picked at tiramisu, Key lime pie, and chocolate torte. One could get used to this.
Later that evening we all went to a nightclub on the property called Arkadia, which involved bottle service – Hennessy Black and assorted mixers – along with sparkler-adorned bottles, leather-clad models, and cyberpunk dancing girls shimmying on platforms while adorned with hundreds of pink lights. The dance floor was packed, the music was pumping, and the low ceiling gave the place the feeling of a basement party on crack. Apparently the club owners have no problem with people sitting on top of the seat backs of the banquettes, putting their feet right on the upholstery. Don’t try that at my place. I also observed that at any given moment, roughly half the people in the club were looking down at their phones, either texting or tweeting or tumbling or stumbling or whatever else the tech crowd is crushing on these days. I conked out early – if 3am is early – and enjoyed a blissful night’s sleep in the suite’s big bed.
Saturday arrived with brilliant sunlight streaming through the sliding glass doors. The pool scene at the Fontainebleau is legendary, and Hennessy Black had rented out a couple of cabanas for relaxing on settees, eating snacks, and drinking cocktails. The pools – there are about a half-dozen on the ground level alone, in addition to one on the 7th floor – were packed with hard-bodied guys and sexy women wearing jewel-adorned bikinis, and they were all splashing in the water, dancing to techno music, and laying in the sun. As Chloé from Vibe pointed out, it was like a scene from CSI: Miami before the body is found.
At this point, we were given a chance to interview Samantha Ronson and D-Nice, the 2011 ambassadors of the Hennessy Black Done Different DJ program. Samantha was a bit tired from an early-morning flight – she had done a gig at the Borgata in Atlantic City the previous evening – but was doing her best to rally for the evening’s party. She explained how she got involved in the Hennessy Black DJ project: Hennessy contacted her, she tasted the spirit, liked it, wound up inventing a pretty kick-ass cocktail with it while in Paris, and decided to be a part of the fun. But don’t expect any compromises from the New York-born, LA-based music legend. “I’m going to play what I play and drink what I drink,” she said. Fortunately for Hennessy, she happens to be fond of the stuff.
D-Nice, who, true to his name, is a sincerely nice guy, said that he appreciated how serious the brand was with its nightlife integration, since he himself feeds off the energy at clubs when he spins (“The music follows the vibe”). We talked for a while about his upbringing in the Bronx, his history with KRS-One and Boogie Down Productions, his work as a photographer (he carries a Leica camera everywhere he goes and even took my picture), and his truly eclectic taste in collaborators, including Tom Petty and Kid Rock, before he excused himself to prepare for the evening’s set. Little did we know at the time what that set would involve. I also had a few minutes with Patrick Madendjian, Hennessy’s International Marketing Manager-Premium, who explained that the brand simply sets the scene and lets the artists take it from there, mixing up music much like Hennessy Black mixes more than 35 eaux de vie to craft its signature taste. I can dig it.
After a blissful swim in the ocean, I showered, donned my
only finest Hugo Boss suit, and headed over to La Côte, the Fontainebleau’s outdoor beachside restaurant and club, for an evening of falafel burgers, Hennessy Black cocktails (I’m a fan of the Hennessy Black Xpearience, which is inspired by a cocktail created by the Fontainebleau at Bleau Bar), house music, and one very big surprise. There were models everywhere – passing out drinks, standing on platforms, and looking generally lovely. Samantha Ronson performed first, filling the dance floor with revelers by mixing everything from Jay-Z and DMX to Bob Seger.
It was at this point that I realized that Hennessy knows what they’re doing with their artist series. Samantha was doing more than just spinning records, she was actually creating a scene, sending a party vibe that worked its way through the open-air club. At one point she took the microphone and shouted to the crowd, “Are you getting fucked up?” A chorus of voices screamed in assent. (Hennessy encourages responsible drinking.) A sweet smell wafted through the air at times: Apparently one more thing that mixes well with the fine Irish-French spirit.
And then our hosts advised us to make our way to the back railing for the big surprise. I was afraid they’d say “Surprise, we’re not paying for your rooms after all!” The sun had recently set, and we looked out over the dark ocean to see a brightly-lighted object approaching in the distance while the music in the club got louder and louder. What could it be? When it got closer, we realized it was a helicopter ferrying a portable DJ booth attached to it with a cable. Inside the booth was D-Nice, who was performing his set for the party while hovering about 350 feet above the ocean, a dozen or so yards from shore. The music he was playing was beamed to the party and the crowd went nuts at the spectacle. A second helicopter and a remote video camera attached to the booth captured footage that was shown on big screens positioned throughout the club. D-Nice bounced to the music himself, despite being attached to his floating booth with a safety harness. The colored lights shining from the booth reflected off the ocean waves below, and we all marveled at what we were seeing and hearing. Had this ever been done before, we wondered?
At this point, I became a bit philosophical. This started out as a standard – if amazingly opulent – press junket. But it had just crossed the line from marketing into an actual news event worthy of coverage by any journalist. So, on the one hand, I had to accept the idea that it is possible for a company to create news and shape opinion by sheer force of money. After all, how much could two helicopters, world-class DJs, a camera crew, more than 20 models, a big block of hotel rooms, fancy meals, and an entire nightclub cost? I don’t know, but I’m thinking it’s in the millions.
Yet there was more to it than a simple show of cash. The flying DJ stunt – and the artist program in general – was actually a really cool idea. (Here’s a cool video of it.) Hennessy Black wants to be associated with nightlife. Nightlife, at the highest level, is about creating a grand spectacle and reveling in the moment. And I’ve never experienced a grander spectacle and a more sublime moment than watching a major DJ performing for a party from a light-adorned booth suspended from a helicopter floating above the Atlantic Ocean on a warm, beautiful night in Miami Beach.
And so, as the helicopter flew away and lowered D-Nice onto a barge moored offshore, where a dinghy would ferry him back to dry land, I couldn’t help but joke around with Tyler from Playboy about where Hennessy – or any of its competitors – could possibly go from there. Hennessy had thrown down the gauntlet, doubled down, raised the bar, and set a new standard in drinks promotion all at the same time. “What more can we do for you people?” I imagined the Hennessy brand masters saying. “What else could it possibly take for you to try Hennessy Black? A squadron of fighter jets? A submarine? A space ship? Forget it, we just gave you the spectacle of a lifetime. If you don’t want to try our drink after that, have a nice life, because we’re done.”
But they weren’t done. After the party at La Côte, we all headed to LIV, the mega-club of all mega-clubs at the Fontainebleau. I’d never in all my life been in a nightclub like that, with lights zigzagging across the ceiling, outrageously sexy servers, and a sound system that filled the place with music while somehow allowing you to talk to your seat mate if you wanted to. It was VIP service all the way as we breezed to our table, and within minutes the bottles started showing up. Hennessy Black was on the table, of course, but also Moët-Chandon Imperial Rosé, a fellow member of the LVMH family that I like very much. There was also a high-energy set from DJ Erick Morillo, and, at around 2am, a performance by the Hennessy girls (above) who danced near oversized bottles of Hennessy Black and waved their wings to the music. The music got louder, high-caliber cannons blasted black confetti throughout the place, laser beams shot across the dance floor, club employees tossed handfuls of green luminescent necklaces to the crowd, A-list celebrities mingled with the merely fabulous, and black-leather-clad girls danced on platforms. It was a wild party.
Eventually, high-flying DJ D-Nice (born Derrick Jones) dropped by our table, and we all congratulated him on an amazing feat. He was all smiles, and, while admitting that he was somewhat nervous about the whole affair, said that he enjoyed every minute of it. I couldn’t help but don my Kanye West shades and get a picture with the man. I wouldn’t normally embrace the rock star look, but it was Saturday night in Miami Beach, the music and Hennessy were going to my head, and it just felt right. I have no regrets.
[Images via Seth Browarnik of WorldRedEye.com, Manny Hernandez, and me]