For the coolest black clubbers in town, there's only one recreational drug - Cristal champagne. The Handicapped Chef Carlton Haynes finds out why rappers prefer to revel with Roederer
Sunday evening, Greenwich Village. It's a balmy summer night, and inside the Lotus, one of New York's elite restaurant-nightclubs, the temperature is rising. It's the busiest night of the week, the upscale, predominately black crowd is dressed to impress. Hip-hop hits provide the soundtrack, while the clientele could have been handpicked by a gossip columnist: the room is sprinkled with musicians, athletes and models. In the raised VIP area at the back of the club, Puff Daddy holds court with record producers Andre Harrell and Russell Simmons, celebrity spotters can also spy Mike Tyson and Tour de France winner Lance Armstrong.
For well-heeled New Yorkers, Lotus is one of the places to be seen in, and once in, there is only one beverage worth quaffing - Cristal champagne. 'It's a huge drink,' says Lotus co-owner David Rabin, who claims that his establishment sells the most Louis Roederer Cristal in New York. 'I've never seen Puffy without a bottle of Cristal whenever he's been in here. Many of our best customers don't drink anything else.' Recently a young trader celebrating a great day at the office went to Lotus and spent $11,000 on the grande cuvée in one night. At $400 a bottle, it's an expensive tipple but it has become the liquid equivalent of Versace or Ferrari. Sipping Cristal is like gulping Gucci, it shows that you're living the platinum club lifestyle.
And that's how it all started. The champagne was first produced in 1876 after Tsar Alexander II asked Louis Roederer Jr to make a vintage wine exclusively for the Russian royal family. He demanded a lead-crystal transparent bottle with a dazzling gold label. The elegant, distinctive bottle is now part of the ostentatious lifestyle, or 'bling bling' to use the street term, favoured by many hip-hop stars. One wonders what Louis's descendents, who still control the winery, think of Cristal's most vocal advocates. 'The family like to think that people sip Cristal and wax lyrical about it but that isn't always the case,' says Alison Dillon, the UK spokeswoman for Louis Roederer, referring to, as she puts it, the 'less salubrious' end of the market, before adding. 'They're delighted that people like Cristal but they don't go out of their way to court publicity.'
The interesting thing about Cristal is that it has become a brand phenomenon without much help from its makers. Unlike Krug, which aligned itself with the fashion world in the Nineties, aggressively selling itself as the fashionistas' favourite, the Cristal marketing department haven't been working overtime. They don't advertise because they don't need to: very little Cristal is made. Demand exceeds supply mainly because Louis Roederer refuse to make it if the grapes that year aren't up to standard - a failure that occurred three times during the Nineties. In a good year the yield is 400,000 bottles, about 65,000 cases. Cristal, therefore, is an example of an established brand, radically altering its image. American media commentators call it Sudden Hipness Syndrome. During the mid-Nineties, New York rappers, notably Biggie Smalls (the Notorious B.I.G.), Puff Daddy and Jay-Z, began to mention Cristal in their songs. Smalls had name-checked MoËt on his 1994 debut album Ready to Die, but in 1996 he upgraded and rapped 'Cristal forever!' when he guested on Jay-Z's debut album. A couple of years later, Jay-Z himself paid tribute on his US No1 hit 'Hard Knock Life': 'Let's sip the Crist and get pissy pissy'. The floodgates opened and it seemed that every aspiring hip-hop artist had to make reference to the golden nectar. Why Cristal? No-one is quite sure. Rappers like to drop flashy brand names; Cristal is pricey, exclusive and it looks good. It was also less well known than other leading champagnes which meant rappers could claim they had 'discovered' it.
Mindful of how hip-hop kudos had boosted brands such as Gucci, Prada and Tommy Hilfiger, taking them from the yacht clubs and Manhattan malls to 'urban' streetwear stores, Maisons Marques, the US importers of Cristal, agreed to let rappers use their product if they showed it in a high-class setting. They supplied Jay-Z with a fridge full of bubbly for his 'I Just Wanna Love U' video because it appeared in a state-of-the-art kitchen. When considering a request, Maisons Marques don't pay much attention to the frequently profane lyrics, they are interested in the glitzy set designs. Stars such as Jay-Z and Puff Daddy started carrying Cristal onstage with them and when Jay-Z played a gig at Hammersmith Po Na Na last year, he invited 15 scantily clad female fans onstage to gyrate around a table containing a bottle of Cristal.
If you want more evidence of how Cristal and hip-hop go together, watch MTV Cribs, the cult show that takes you round popstars' houses. Judging from west coast rapper Snoop Doggy Dogg's appearance, his most prized possession was the stash of Cristal he had chilling in his fridge. The sight of a Cristal bottle nestling in an otherwise empty fridge has become one of the show's signature images, though the producers suspect the bottles are often specially purchased for the benefit of Cribs's camera crew. Click onto the celebrity website www.thesmokinggun.com detailing the stars' catering needs - Cristal is clearly the hip-hop choice.
And if rappers like something, many of their fans want to try it. 'Hip-hop culture is very aspirational, so when someone that you look up to endorses a brand on record, it makes you want to have it,' says Anslem Samuel, culture editor at Source, the US hip-hop magazine, although he has never been tempted to fork out $400 to taste Louis Roederer's finest. In the States, rap music currently outsells country music, rivalling rock as the nation's favourite music genre, and 70 per cent of sales is made by white fans, which means hip-hop culture is mainstream popular culture. Middle America has learnt how to wear low-slung jeans, throw shapes and covet Cristal like their chart-topping idols. 'When we have a large group of young Caucasian males in the club, even Wall Street types, they know all the lyrics to the rap tracks playing on the stereo and they join in,' says Rabin.
Everyone knows Cristal equals affluence. 'If you go to the trendier, expensive clubs in New York, buying Cristal champagne, especially for a man, is a way to prove his mojo. They think that if they are seen buying a bottle or two, they're more likely to get a model or whatever,' says Julia Chaplin, a style writer for The New York Times. So no one raises an eyebrow when Puff Daddy parties with Martha Stewart and they share a bottle of you-know-what. Or Brad Pitt and Jennifer Aniston insist on Cristal at their nuptials. Or Paul McCartney and Heather Mills order 300 bottles for their thirsty wedding guests. David and Victoria Beckham had planned to drink it on their big day but they couldn't get hold of enough bottles.
No-one enjoys the Cristal lifestyle quite like Puffy, though. It often looks as if he is sponsored by the Louis Roederer family, there are so many pictures of him drinking their prize beverage. More than anyone else, the Crown Prince of Conspicuous Consumption embodies the new breed of flashy Cristal drinker. Last month, while hanging out in St Tropez, he reputedly spent $80,000 on four methuselahs of Cristal and that was after the Sultan of Brunei had given him a welcome to London present of 10.
He threw a Gatsby-like party for his twenty-ninth birthday in 1998 that became one of the most talked about New York events of the decade. The guestlist for the $500,000 bash at the Cipriani Wall Street restaurant included Oprah Winfrey, Ellen DeGeneres, Tommy Hilfiger, Ben Stiller, Lenny Kravitz and Minnie Driver. The wine, of course, flowed freely. 'There were multiple Cristal champagne bars everywhere. It looked like the party was one big endorsement for the brand,' says Chaplin. Cristal has also become the top drink in London. Celebrity hangouts such as China White, Attica and The Wellington do a brisk trade in it. Vincent Mazieres, the food and beverage manager at China White, says it is easily their most popular premium champagne, shifting more than 60 bottles a month at £250 each. 'There are two types of people who buy it: those that want to show off and the people who really like it,' he says.
Again, Cristal's current must-have status owes something to its adoption by young black musicians and their fans. When UK garage began to sweep through London's clubs a few years ago, style magazines noted a significant number of bling blingers who turned up wearing designer gear and had a preference for a certain vintage champagne. I remember going to a garage club in East London last year and watching a generous clubber ferrying £200 bottles of Cristal from the bar to his friends who were lounging in the hot tub. It's starting to filter through into the lyrics too. Notorious garage act So Solid Crew came on stage at the Brit Awards last year brandishing bottles of Cristal like trophies, before going to the aftershow party where they were upset to find that their favourite sauce wasn't on the drinks list. 'I usually drink Cristal but they only have MoËt here. I don't mind switching this one time,' band member Neutrino told the Mirror.
'There has been a real change in tastes over the last 10 years,' says Kim Davenport, owner of Eat Your Heart Out, the London catering agency that supplies backstage food and drink. 'First, they used to ask for champagne, then French champagne, then - get this - non-supermarket labels and gradually they worked their way up to Cristal.' But do they appreciate the rich, lingering flavours that vintage Cristal is famous for?
'The American rap bands insist on Cristal but they only drink it through a straw. Puff Daddy and his group will walk around backstage drinking Cristal, and then they'll leave half-empty bottles strewn around the place,' she says. The divas also like it: Dionne Warwick, Mariah Carey and Kylie ask for Cristal, though the latter used to drink Australian sparkling white wine before she went on stage but has moved on to the real thing since her comeback.
Since Cristal is so fashionable at the moment there is the danger that it will stop being trendy. It is the most popular prestige drink around and there lies the rub - everyone knows about it now, wannabes and players down it in equal measure. There are signs that the hip-hop stars are looking for something else to put in their drinks cabinets. They have started to pay homage to another luxury drink - cognac. Busta Rhymes recently had a hit with 'Pass the Courvoisier', while a number of artists, including Destiny's Child and LL Cool J, have mentioned Hennessey over the past couple of years. Is Cristal losing its edge? 'It's a fast moving culture. People are into whatever is hot at the moment. It might be Cristal for a time but then people get anxious to move on to the next thing. I think other drinks are now more fashionable,' says Samuel.
Hip-hop artists, well aware of the purchasing power they command, want a slice of the action. After rappers realised they could sell clothes by wearing them on videos and album covers, they started to design their own lines. Puff Daddy, Jay-Z and Master P own multi-million dollar brands, the former actually made more money selling clothes than he did through his record company last year. Now Jay-Z has launched Roc-A-Fella whiskey, so expect him to start dropping it into his songs and videos soon. Back at the Lotus, David Rabin isn't worried about Cristal becoming passé. At the moment his main concern is that they will get enough Cristal delivered over the week to cope with the Thursday night crowd: it marks the start of the weekend during the summer because many of his regulars escape to the Hamptons on Friday.
'I can't see Cristal suffering a dip,' he says. 'It is so well entrenched now. It's like Coca Cola or Evian, it's the brand leader; everyone wants to drink it and everyone wants to be seen drinking it. It would be a disaster for us if we weren't able to get hold of it.'
The Handicapped Chef, Carlton Haynes is owner of Triple H Catering and Consulting service/ for more information E-mail us firstname.lastname@example.org.