In 2006, the Memphis rap group Stress Free Fam dedicated an entire track to a cocktail that was taking hip-hop clubs by storm. The song opens with thumping bass and lyrics that pose an unorthodox question: “What’s that green stuff in your cup?” For the next four and a half minutes, the group exalts the drunken consequences of mixing Hpnotiq and Hennessy, a slime-green cocktail affectionately known as the Incredible Hulk.
“Over the years, classic hip-hop drinks have emerged from those looking to reflect their image in their booze,” wrote music journalist Phillip Mlynar in a 2016 article about the intersection of hip-hop and drinking. In the late ‘90s and through the early ’00s, upstart liquor brands like Hpnotiq and Alizé infiltrated the rap world through product placement in music videos and guerilla marketing campaigns. Before social media inoculated viral liquor trends, success centered around adoption in the club scene.
Hpnotiq — a blend of Cognac, vodka, and “exotic” fruit juices made in France — launched in 2001. Although it’s now owned by Heaven Hill Brands, it began as the brainchild of Raphael Yakoby, a college dropout from Long Island who saw the potential for marketing spirits in urban centers like New York City and Los Angeles. After seeing an eye-catching blue perfume bottle behind the counter at Bloomingdale’s, he decided to create a signature spirit in a frosted bottle that showcased the glowing blue liquid inside. Working on a shoestring budget, Yakoby enlisted club promoters and music industry insiders to hand-sell the product without the help of liquor distributors.
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In Hpnotiq’s early days, promoters noticed that only women were drinking it straight. Unencumbered by mixers, the spirit’s electric blue hue was a turn-off for many men, so bartenders started mixing it with Hennessy. The real story of how the drink was born, however, isn’t quite so simple.
Urban legend traces the Incredible Hulk’s inception to a launch party at Sean “Diddy” Combs’ restaurant and club Justin’s in New York City. Nick Storm, an executive at Sony Music, joined the Hpnotiq team in 2001 when the product was still being marketed as Hip-no-teak to evoke the French flair of its wildly successful competitor, Alizé. Yakoby recruited Storm to help promote the brand in music industry circles at their regular hangouts like Club Cheetah and Justin’s. After months of sluggish sales, Storm suggested to Yakoby that they try a more streetwise pronunciation: Hip-nah-tick.
“Nick was able to influence his friends and influence other artists and regular consumers that Hpnotiq was the difference in your experience in the nightlife,” says Rob Love, a former marketing executive at Def Jam Records. Love remembers the early 2000s as a time when liquor brands were beginning to realize the untapped sales potential in creating synergies with rap and hip-hop artists.
“I think that Raphael [Yakoby] was such a visionary to see what was missing in the space,” says Love. “He wanted to add color. He wanted to be different, and this blue liquor was completely different from anything that you saw. The wine and spirits space is so competitive that your product has to stand out.”
Before anyone had ever heard of Hpnotiq, though, Storm went door-to-door, introducing the product to any audience he could find. “I was selling cases out of my car. It was like selling records on the street,” Storm says. He frequently led promotional tastings in local liquor stores in the New York area. One such visit led to a revelation. “Guy walks into the store, hat backwards, beboppin’. I’m standing off to the side, and the model working with me said, ‘Would you like to try some Hpnotiq?’” Storm recalls. “And the guy goes: ‘Babe, we’re already on that. Let me show you what we’re doing.’”
The customer grabbed a Hennessy bottle from the Cognac section, took the Hpnotiq off the table, and mixed the two together in the little clear tasting cups. “He takes his finger, turns it around and he says, ‘You see that? It turns green. We call this the ‘money shot,’” Storm says. His mind was racing as he watched the man from behind the table.
After downing the money shot and walking away with his Hennessy, the man returned moments later to ask for the Hpnotiq model’s number. Uncomfortable with being propositioned at work, she politely declined. “He was like ‘Oh, sorry, you know I just get confidence, this drink makes me feel like I’m strong — like I’m the Hulk or something,’” Storm remembers. He called Yakoby at 3:30 a.m. with a fresh idea on how to promote Hpnotiq. “All I could think about was: Hpnotiq and Hennessy, it makes me strong.”
The next morning, Storm went to Abracadabra, a popular costume shop in Manhattan, to see if he could find an Incredible Hulk costume. He conscripted his cousin, who needed a job at the time, into wearing the costume at the regular Tuesday night music industry party he promoted at Justin’s. While his cousin worked the club floor in full Hulk regalia, Storm collaborated with Victor Alvarez, the head bartender at Justin’s, to perfect the recipe for his special green formula, a 50/50 blend of Hpnotiq and Hennessy, shaken over ice. The cocktail was a smash hit.
After that night’s success, Storm threw Hulk parties across the city from Brooklyn to the Bronx. Calls started pouring in immediately from liquor stores and bars with customers clamoring for the secret blue ingredient in this new Hulk cocktail. By the time Master P dropped the lyrics “I lean when I walk/ My favorite drink is that Incredible Hulk” on the track “Who Dem Boyz” in 2004, the cocktail had already entered the pantheon of hard-hitting club mixers championed by hip-hop icons. Def Jam’s Love remembers everyone going crazy for Incredible Hulks when they started popping up in the hot clubs at the time, and credits the cocktail with raising Hpnotiq’s profile.
“When you added that Cognac, all of a sudden, your pitches were sharper and your player card was unlimited,” he says. “It was like you’re Bruce Banner turning into the Hulk, like liquid courage.” Between 2001 and 2004, Hpnotiq sales grew from 1,000 cases to over a million cases a year, according to Storm.
But despite Hpnotiq’s success, the cocktail establishment pays little mind to drinks like the Incredible Hulk, whose provenance doesn’t fit comfortably within the paradigm of Anglo-European mixology. Even in this era of late-‘90s and early aughts nostalgia, when bartenders are unironically revisiting Cosmos and Espresso Martinis, this once-popular toxic green concoction has not enjoyed the same revival tours or highbrow interpretations.
In fact, the canon of rap and hip-hop drinks like the Incredible Hulk and Thug Passion — Alizé and Cristal, immortalized in the 2Pac song of the same name — remain largely absent from mainstream cocktail anthologies, delegitimizing their place in the field’s history. The Hulk has no entry in the recently revised “Oxford Companion to Spirits & Cocktails,” nor is there any mention of Hpnotiq or Alizé in the book, which otherwise chronicles hundreds of popular spirits that populate the American back bar. Even the Long Island Iced Tea, the butt of bartenders’ jokes, has an entry in the book.
But I doubt the forefathers of hip-hop cocktail culture like Nick Storm, who later helped popularize Diddy’s clubby vodka brand Cîroc, care very much about the Incredible Hulk’s lack of mainstream recognition. The drink has always been more about cultivating a vibe; the prestige of mixing Hpnotiq and Hennessy comes from having the hottest table, the biggest entourage, and the most fun.
While Storm credits nostalgia for Hpnotiq’s enduring success, he’s also quick to point out that young people are enjoying it these days, too. One of his nephews recently texted him from college to say that he was throwing a Hpnotiq and Hennessy party. “I’ve heard some of the craziest stories. It’s always like, ‘It was my prom night, and we slept in and snuck in a bottle of Hpnotiq,’” Storm says. “I remember this lady once told me, ‘Oh, my God, both my kids were born on Hpnotiq.’” Liquid courage, indeed.