In 2001, Raphael Yakoby was a 25-year-old college dropout with zero business experience, living on Long Island. In 2002, he was $50 million richer and the owner of the fastest-selling liqueur in history.
That would be Hpnotiq, the iconic club-scene beverage of the early aughts. For some, its bright-blue, sex-toy-shaped bottle is ironic — it’s “classy-trashy,” as one bartender in this story describes it — while for others it never stopped signaling a good time. For better or worse, many of us will be forever Hpnotized.
Have you heard of a drink called the Incredible Hulk? It’s equal parts Hennessy and Hpnotiq; when you stir it, the drink gets angry and turns green. It’s a relic of a forgotten time, but a guy at my bar ordered one the other day — only he just asked for Hennessy and “blue stuff.” “The only blue stuff I have is blue curaçao,” I told him, “and I can totally put that in Hennessy if you like, but I can’t guarantee it’ll taste good.”
Reader, it did not taste good. Nor should it have. Hpnotiq is a very particular, dare I say impossible-to-replicate flavor. It’s fucking weird, but for some reason, it’s delicious.
And now it’s back. Or maybe it never went away.
When I sat down at the bar at Citizen Public House near Fenway Park a few months ago, the bright-blue bottle practically jumped at me: Holy shit, you have Hpnotiq?! What is that doing here?
I was in middle school when the brand launched, and while Hpnotiq made its way through our high school parties, the liqueur had pretty much come and gone by the time I could legally drink, and definitely wasn’t stocked when I started bartending in 2010. A well-established whiskey bar, Citizen was the last place I expected to see Hpnotiq.
But there it was, it all its frosty-blue glory.
“Oh, yeah, it’s part of our Bartender’s Dare,” the bartender on duty told me. Sure enough, at the bottom of the house cocktail list was the Bartender’s Dare: a shot of Hpnotiq and a High Life.
It was hilarious, like finding chicken McNuggets on the menu at a swanky restaurant, or wearing a Spice Girls shirt: a nod to people who remember, who can laugh at pop culture’s (and drinking culture’s) previous incarnations and obsessions, and maybe even get a little nostalgic for them.
Which is exactly the point. It takes a lot of guts and pop-culture savvy, but bartenders around the country are committed to making Hpnotiq part of their schtick again. Are you ready for the Hpnotiq renaissance?
The Perfume-Bottle Booze and the Million-Case Man
“I was walking through Bloomingdale’s and saw this blue perfume in a beautiful bottle on a counter, and I thought, Wouldn’t that be great for a liqueur product?,” Yakoby told the New York Post in 2007.
That is literally the origin story of what is still today one of the best-selling liqueurs in the U.S. With seed money from who-knows-where, Yakoby holed up in his Long Island apartment for a year cranking out combination after combination of alcohols and fruit juices until he landed on the sky-blue combination of French vodka, cognac and “exotic fruit juices” recognized worldwide today.
Hpnotiq may never have left Long Island if it weren’t for Nick Storm, the so-called Million-Case Man.
Storm, a Yonkers native, started his marketing career in the music business with an internship with Sony in 1993. In 2001, Yakoby approached him asking for a hookup in the music scene.
Storm took a case of Hpnotiq (which Yakoby was originally pronouncing hip-no-teek) to a massive Sony party, and a switch was flipped: “Everybody [at that party] was drinking it,” Storm told Westchester Magazine in 2015.
“I saw something. And I learned at a young age that if you really feel something in your gut, you have to take the chance and go for it. And I did it. I left Sony.”
Storm couldn’t sell a single bottle.
The magic moment came at 3 a.m. (as they often do). Storm and Yakoby were working through ideas, and Storm said, “What if we pronounce it differently? What if it’s hip-nah-tick?” Yakoby replied, “Try that name tomorrow,” and when Storm did, he sold 17 bottles.
From there, through connections in clubs and the hip-hop community cultivated at Sony, Storm landed a bottle in Fabolous’ video for “Trade It All.”
“That’s when it changed,” Storm said. “When that video hit, we were getting calls from all over. Not only in New York, but in New Jersey to Delaware to D.C. Hpnotiq blew up.”
Between 2001 and 2004, Yakoby and Storm went from having sold 1,000 cases of Hpnotiq to 1 million cases, the fastest-growing sales in booze history.
After “Trade It All,” Hpnotiq bottles and references were virtually everywhere in hip-hop: Fabolous’ later video for “It’s My Party” opens with “Ain’t no tellin’ what this Hpno’ll do to me,” R. Kelly sings most of “Ignition” in front of a wall of Hpnotiq bottles and Missy Elliott name-drops the blue liqueur in “One Two Step” with Ciara. (That’s just naming a few.)
And because Hpnotiq entered the national radar from the backdrop of hip-hop music videos, the bright-blue spirit has always had a home in the club scene. And that’s where we’ll pick up the story — from the bartenders who made it big, then brought it all back again.
Lavoska Barton, DJ and Bartender at Nickel City, Austin, Texas
I’ve always been big into hip-hop and R&B, and I remember seeing those bright-blue bottles in music videos.
And it was big in the clubs, too. It still is.
Originally from Atlanta, Barton remembers those bottles being featured prominently in the bars of music venues and nightclubs. She says if they ever left, it’s hard to tell.
Atlanta is a new Mecca for hip-hop-producing artists in the South. You’ll see Hpnotiq out in the clubs. Right now it’s nostalgic. It’s in rap songs all the fucking time from the mid-2000s. So bringing it back, doing bottle service with that and a bottle of Hennessy, it’s a way to connect back to those first big years of hip-hop.
In the same way that hip-hop music moved from larger cities and urban communities onto Top 40 airwaves and into suburban kids’ stereos, Hpnotiq jumped from largely black communities to bars and clubs across the country. The drink is a siren song to everyone who’s ever spent time in front of MTV.
Vlad Cood, San Francisco Bar Owner and Events Promoter
Between 2002 and 2009, I owned and operated the Whisper Lounge, a three-floor hip-hop club with a 2,000-person capacity in San Francisco that to this day retains a kind of Studio 54–style infamy in the Bay Area. We hosted a large amount of weekly and monthly hip-hop events and went through more Hpnotiq than most other venues in San Francisco.
Personally, I did not like the taste, but the celebrity endorsements, appearance on Jersey Shore and being in music videos made the flavor irrelevant. We stocked cases at nearly every party we had. We included [Hpnotiq] as a choice with most bottle service.
The brand showed a lot of love to my club for our support.
There was lots of love for Hpnotiq on the East Coast, too.
Jenn Harvey, Bar Manager, Temple Bar, Cambridge, Massachusetts
I was working at a place called Thirty-Three Restaurant and Lounge, a restaurant and then a pseudo-club at night. We had promoters and DJs and whatnot. People wanted, you know, fun drinks.
This was 2003 or 2004, and the bar manager before me had put together a bunch of muddled fruit things. Our signature drink was the Thirty-Three Tini, because, you know, everything was tini, and it was equal parts Hpnotiq and sour-apple pucker with muddled strawberries. People loved that shit.
Over the years as bar manager there, I tried to toy with it, you know, add a base spirit of some sort… and nope. I tried strawberry vodka and a puree, and nope. People liked those muddled strawberries and low alcohol, I guess.
The Thirty-Three Tini was a mainstay until the club closed in 2010.
Ann Boschini, Bartender at Franklin Cafe and Citizen Public House, Boston
I’ve carried Hpnotiq in every bar I’ve ever managed, starting with Kitchen Bar in Providence, Rhode Island. I’ve always loved having it. It’s considered trashy, but “classy-trashy.”
It started because I’m from North Carolina, and Evan Williams green label is in every well down there. So when I moved to Providence and started managing bars, I brought in Evan Williams green label as our well whiskey because I missed it, and I really fucked up Rich Fiorillo’s day.
Rich Fiorillo, Northeast Sales Manager for Heaven Hill Distilleries, is responsible for representing and placing dozens of liquor brands in bars across the Northeast. Heaven Hill’s portfolio includes Evan Williams black label, but not green label, so when Ann started running bars in Providence, not only did she hurt his sales, she brought in competition.
Rich came in and was like, “You’re the girl that has Evan Williams green label in every well you’ve ever worked,” and I was like, “Yeah,” and he said, “You know that’s not good for me.”
I was like, “What’s in your portfolio that you can’t sell? I’ll sell it, to make up for it.”
“How do you feel about Hpnotiq?”
I said, “DONE.”
It was 2016. I looked at my cocktail goddess, Audrey, and said, “Are you in? Do you want to make Hpnotiq a thing again?” And she said, “Oh, I’m in.”
We had a frozen-drink machine, [so] we made a frozen Hpno-rita. We featured it in everything. I would buy the 1.75-liters and smash through it.
We’d throw festivals and make the Hpno-rita. Hpnotiq ended up sponsoring Bragging Rights, the first Rhode Island drag competition, and we had bottles on every judge’s table.
In this world of cocktails, my whole thing is, like, Shit is not that serious. We can have fun and be nostalgic.
Everybody sees Hpnotiq and has a reaction like, “Oh, what is that?,” or like, “OMG, I can’t even look at that.”
And you’re like, “But seriously, take a shot.”
Rich said I was nuts, and I said, “Hey, I told you I’d make it a thing.” I’d go through eight 1.75 ml bottles a week. Once you pour one, everybody wants to experience that again.
And it’s a great reminder that cocktails and cocktail culture doesn’t have to be the tie-and-apron-style seriousness. It’s more about memories and reconnecting with when you first experienced alcohol. I think a lot of us in bartending culture miss the trashiness — we appreciate and love the way the industry has evolved, but man, sometimes you really just want to drink a blue alcoholic slushie.
It’s a great way to create a community. I’ve had people in their 60s sitting at the bar like, “What is that stuff,” and then buy rounds of shots for their friends.
It’s really important to me to enjoy drinking in a lighthearted way. Nobody takes a shot of Hpnotiq and doesn’t smile or laugh.
It started as a joke with Rich, you know, like, “You don’t think I can do this?” And it became this huge thing in Rhode Island.
Rich Fiorillo, Northeast Area Manager, Heaven Hill Distilleries
The brand has had this really organic resurgence and no one really knows why. We’ve all got our theories, but it did really, really well from, like, 2004 to 2007. It was in music videos, people gravitated to the brand, they wanted these bright colors and fruity drinks. It was huge in the urban community. And it spread across the club scene, into the Asian cuisine scene, and then it all kind of fell off.
What Ann did with Hpnotiq is just insane. It’s incredible. She started cranking out Hpnotiq drinks. That girl did everything, and that’s what we’re starting to see in other places again. Heaven Hill has a lot of people with cocktail backgrounds, so it’s finding its way into bars again. I threw a Hpnotiq ’90s night last year, and after that first three or four nostalgic times, you end up with it in a cocktail, and then people start drinking it again, and the cycle repeats.
You’re not gonna catch me ripping shots of Hpnotiq at bar at 1 a.m., but I’m also not gonna say I haven’t done it. It’s nostalgia, it’s your young adulthood and it’s funny, and at the end of the day, it tastes pretty goddamn good.
People drink what they drink. Cocktail culture has had a major impact [in terms of] the [booze] knowledge available to the average consumer, but at the end of the day, you cannot push a Chartreuse swizzle on someone who wants a Bud Light Lime.
It’s all in the eye of the beholder. If you’re going to look down on something because it’s trashy,” you’re in the wrong industry.
I mean, like Ann says, if you take your shit so seriously you can’t take a shot of Hpnotiq, I don’t really want to be friends with you.