In the beginning, there was Hennessy. “The Genesis,” the first track on Nas’s 1994 debut studio album, Illmatic, packs in four mentions of the cognac brand. “Take this Hennessy,” Nas says. “Pass that henrock, pass that henrock,” says Nas’s younger brother, Jungle. “We drinkin’ this straight up with no chaser,” replies the rapper AZ.
In the decades that followed, Hennessy became a fixture of rap lyrics. 2pac’s 1996 hit “How Do U Want It” called Hennessy “a favorite of my homies when we floss on our enemies.” In the 1998 song “Weed and Hennesey,” Master P rapped: “I smoke weed, and Hennesey / Just to make it through the days man.” Six years later, the references were still everywhere; in 2004, Trick Daddy boasted “See I know how to control my Hennessy” on his Thug Matrimony track “Gangsta Livin’.” Cristal champagne and Patrón tequila soon became rap staples, too, popularized by songs such as Jay-Z’s “Can’t Knock the Hustle,” from 1996’s Reasonable Doubt: “Waddle off the champagne, Cristals by the bottle.” In the 2006 earworm “Snap Yo Fingers,” Lil Jon rapped about mixing Patrón with Percocet: “I pop, I drank / I’m on Patrón and Perc, I can’t thank.” As rap evolved from its homegrown roots into something glossier and more commercial, the liquor name-drops evolved, too, into a kind of lyrical shorthand for opulent, larger-than-life success and its pitfalls.
But in recent years, I’ve noticed that, seemingly out of nowhere, a different liquor brand is everywhere. Turn on any hip-hop or Top 40 radio station and you’ll hear it too: Casamigos this, Casamigos that. Everyone seems to be obsessed with Casamigos. The Atlanta rapper Lil Baby name-checks the tequila on both Nicki Minaj’s “Do We Have a Problem?” (“She a lil demon off that Casamigos”) and Drake’s “Girls Want Girls” (“We got 1942 Casamigos, it’s getting heated”). Saucy Santana has referenced the brand on at least four separate songs since December 2020. Soulja Boy released a whole song called “Casamigos” last year. How on earth did a relatively new brand of tequila—one co-founded in 2013 by George Clooney, of all people—seize hip-hop culture and challenge Hennessy’s reign so fast?
Casamigos’ rise to rap prominence arguably began with Young Thug. In September 2018, the Atlanta-based artist released “Sin,” on which Jaden Smith joins him and raps, “Casamigos got me spinnin’.” There had been a handful of lyrical nods to the brand as far back as 2015 (for instance: in The Game’s “Quik’s Groove”), but “Sin” marked the first time a rapper with such clear pop-crossover appeal had name-checked it. (A year earlier, the tequila had been sold to the British drinks giant Diageo for at least $700 million, which also likely kicked its distribution into higher gear.)
By late 2021, artists from all over the country had also started citing the tequila, sometimes as a kind of truth serum or as creative inspiration, in their lyrics—among them the Atlanta rapper K Camp (“Casamigos to the head, I forget what I said”), St. Louis’s Smino (“Casamigos got me so honest, I’m sorry”), and Brooklyn’s Fivio Foreign (“Casamigo help me get in the zone”). This year alone, the brand has been referenced nearly 100 times in rap songs indexed on the lyric-annotation platform Genius.
Tahir Hemphill, a multimedia artist and researcher who created the searchable rap-lyric database Rap Almanac, has also noticed this trend. “When you talk Hennessy, you think about Black & Milds, Yankee fitteds, Timbs. You think about Hennessy, henrock,” Hemphill told me, dipping into a dramatically lower register. “Casamigos is definitely a different lifestyle.” He thinks its popularity in hip-hop has to do with the way the brand speaks to a modern take on the finer things: “It’s imported; it has four syllables; it’s [in the] Spanish language,” Hemphill said. “It makes you fancy.”
This tracks with one of the reasons rappers started mentioning specific brands of alcohol decades ago.“It’s not just ‘I ordered champagne’; they want to tell you how expensive the champagne was through the brand or how top-shelf it is,” Tuma Basa, the director of Black music and culture at YouTube, told me. “Artists are trying to paint an accurate picture of the lifestyle that they’re selling to the audience, who’s living vicariously through them.”
Though Casamigos doesn’t conjure the ostentatious grandeur of Cristal, with its gilded, extravagantly priced bottle, many of the brand’s advertising campaigns have leaned heavily on images of Clooney himself, looking gently windblown on a motorcycle or sipping tequila alongside his co-founder Rande Gerber. The 23-year-old Brooklyn musician Cassius Cruz, whose song “Pienso en Ti” mentions the tequila (“Shit got me on go, Casamigo”), told me that Clooney was part of the tequila’s appeal. “Whenever I reference alcohol in my music, I’m kind of cloaking myself in those projections,” Cruz said. “I want to take that coolness and that suave vibe and superimpose that onto whatever I’m doing.”
But some of the recent Casamigos lyrics seem to be doing something more nuanced than that too. Take the first verse of “Neo,” from the 28-year-old Portland-raised artist Aminé: “Just touched down, we in Euro / Italy summer, Lake Como,” he raps. “Driving on the boat next to Clooney’s house / Sippin’ on a lil Casamigo.” Although that scene might seem like a standard-issue lifestyle brag, it also contains a playful contradiction: Many would surely consider Aminé and his friends, young Black people, out of place in the rarefied setting of Clooney’s Italian vacation home. The disconnect between that staid European milieu and, potentially, a rowdy group of newly moneyed young Black men is fun, the kind of wink that rappers such as Jay-Z and Ye have also deployed to smugly satisfying effect.
Inevitably, all these Casamigos references end up seeping into the larger culture. On TikTok, videos tagged with “casamigoschallenge”—featuring eager participants downing a shot (or much more) of Casamigos—have netted nearly 200 million views total. In the past few years, parties advertising Casamigos open bars or Casamigos-forward cocktail lists have been joining, and in some cases appear to be replacing, the Hennessy-centric events that have long dominated nightlife in some cities with sizable populations of Black people.
Casamigos’ sudden dominance is especially notable when you consider it in historical terms. After all, earlier generations of Black consumers, Nas and other rappers included, didn’t just spontaneously decide to start buying Hennessy en masse. French cognac producers had been building ties with Black American consumers since the early 20th century, beginning with the U.S. soldiers stationed in Europe. After the end of World War II, Hennessy became the first spirit brand to place ads in Black-owned magazines such as Ebony and Jet. When President Barack Obama was elected, Hennessy made a limited-edition cognac that now sells for more than $1,000 among collectors. By the time Hennessy brought on Nas as a brand ambassador in 2013, it had long since established itself as the most popular cognac in the United States, largely because of Black consumers. By Illmatic’s 20th anniversary in 2014, Hennessy was promoting a documentary about the album’s creation.
For the brands that embraced it, hip-hop ended up being an accelerator of sorts. In 2002, a Courvoisier spokesperson told Fortune that Busta Rhymes’s infectious (and unsponsored) paean had helped the cognac line “achieve double-digit percentage growth” that year. But the relationships between alcohol brands and hip-hop artists have also sometimes been complicated. In 2006, Jay-Z had been emphatically rapping about Cristal for at least a decade when an executive at the company that produces the champagne made a comment suggesting that the brand was less than pleased with its popularity among rappers: “We can’t forbid people from buying it. I’m sure Dom Pérignon or Krug would be delighted to have their business.” Jay-Z responded by boycotting the brand and acquiring a competing one, Armand de Brignac (colloquially known as Ace of Spades). He also rapped about the slight on 2009’s “On to the Next One”: “I used to drink Cristal, them muh’fuckers racist / So I switched gold bottles on to that Spade shit.”
Cristal is not the only brand that has alienated Black customers by seeming to try to distance its image from hip-hop culture. In 2018, the organizers of a mega-popular Black party series known as Henny Palooza—which had begun as an impromptu gathering thrown by a few friends in New York in 2012 and evolved into a multicity, ticketed event with thousands of attendees—tweeted that Hennessy had never sponsored Henny Palooza because it didn’t “value us, us being the young, ambitious, creative minorities that are actually the culture that they claim to be a part of.” (At the time, the company instead pointed to its “long history of supporting the African-American community,” and a Hennessy spokesperson told The New York Times that the company does not comment on details of any sponsorships.) The party series got sponsored by D’Ussé cognac instead—a brand partly owned by Jay-Z.
According to Liz Paquette, the head of consumer insights at the alcohol-delivery service Drizly, Casamigos sales now outpace both Hennessy and D’Ussé in New York and Atlanta. In New York, it’s the best-selling brand of any spirit in 2022 to date.
Casamigos has been very coy about its founders’ views on its prevalence in rap. Much of its publicly available marketing materials don’t seem to be targeting Black consumers in the way that, say, Hennessy’s Nas-led 2021 film tribute to Black businesses did.
In 2015, Casamigos launched another campaign called “House of Friends,” featuring young people sitting around a campfire, strumming guitars amid a few scattered tequila bottles. It’s idyllic in an early-2000s-Hollister-ad way; it’s also remarkably white. Through a representative, Casamigos’ co-founder Rande Gerber didn’t answer a question about the brand’s popularity among rappers in particular, opting instead to give a conveniently generic statement: “So many people are drinking it more and more every day and they spread the word,” he said via email.
What Gerber didn’t say, but what seems true to me as someone who has been listening to rappers name-drop liquor brands since well before I could legally drink, is that Casamigos has edged out Hennessy in part because of the brand’s own canny self-positioning. Its price point is high enough to seem luxe but not so high that it feels inaccessible; its bright, simple packaging makes it an appealing social-media prop; even its founders’ silence on the topic of Casamigos’ role in hip-hop can be read as a strategic move intended to keep the brand’s demographic appeal as broad as possible.
Or maybe the reason is simpler than any of that. Hemphill’s Rap Almanac does linguistic analysis of songs, and when we chatted about Casamigos’ popularity in hip-hop, he offered a theory that seemed almost suspiciously obvious. It was the kind of theory that comes not from studying hip-hop formally but from having been immersed in it, from having belted songs with friends at parties and recited verses in the mirror alone. “It might just be,” he said with a laugh, “that Casamigos is more fun to rhyme with than Hennessy.”