A Story About Stories: Bourbon Marketing Through The Centuries
All whiskey, and specifically bourbons have stories attached to them. Some are true, some are half-truths, many have zero truth to them. All are fantastical tales to make a sale. We’ve all heard stories like ‘My great-great-grandpappy’s lost recipe’ or ‘we accidentally blended these two recipes and discovered something truly amazing!’. Who’s heard distilleries calling someone the ‘Father of Bourbon’ (hint: we don’t have an exact person that created bourbon as we know it).
In a time of crowded markets, marketing is often a big part of what sells bottles. It’s been a huge part of selling bourbon over its long history and we’re here to get into it!
Let’s take the way back machine to 1792, oh yes, we’re taking it back to the beginning. You can’t really speak to the history of marketing in bourbon without speaking to a brief history of the spirit itself. As settlers moved west to Kentucky (at this time Kentucky was, in fact, the west) they were encouraged, coerced, and told to plant corn. Corn was an extremely versatile plant that fed a population of humans and animals. It was in 1792 that corn supposedly accounted for more than half the plantings of all soil. My beloved home also became a state that same year. Now a country of our own, we were past the mandates of King George II to not use corn for distilling.
Still, despite this mandate being lifted, rye was the preferred grain for distilling, carried over from Pennsylvania and Maryland. Fast forward a bit to 1813 and corn is now the predominant grain for distilling in Kentucky. It was around this time that a combination of corn and rye distillation became popular.
Harrison Hall of New Jersey, a renowned distiller of the time, quickly promoted Tennessee and Kentucky distilled spirits as being superior due to their use of corn. Also around this time, between 1813 and 1820, major east coast newspapers would run ads requesting copper distilled whiskey and Kentucky whiskey. I won’t get into the rye distillers and we’re past the whiskey rebellion at this point, but it was safe to say that this new, corn whiskey had overtaken what was once the immensely popular rye whiskey of the time. This is due. in part. to market pressure and marketing!
I’m also not going to get into the “who is the actual father of bourbon” here either to debunk the claims. It’s likely an impossible to pinpoint who actually fits the title but the closest we come is a Lexington grocer requesting whiskey stored in charred oak containers in 1826. Distillers weren’t particularly good at keeping records at this point in history so the original creator of bourbon remains a mystery!
Now in the 1820s and the 1830s a lot of whiskey advertising focuses around the medicinal use of whiskey in the household. If you had any malady whatsoever the answer was whiskey. If you were dying, you drank whiskey, and if you survived, the answer was the whiskey, and if you died, the answer was you needed better whiskey. Businessmen of the time leapt in advertising the benefits of whiskey as a medicine as well as advertising behind closed doors to taverns and brothels alike.
Marketing Sprouts Forward
The 1840s brought about the revolution of the lithographic press and colored illustrations in newspapers. Advertisements for whiskey went from single lines to half page, beautifully illustrated wonders. Branding also started to become a mainstay with bar and tip trays advertising the distilleries and the whiskies themselves.
As some of you may know, bourbon and other whiskey became extremely popular in the mid-to-late 1800s. During this time distillers were doing their best to make a quality product while at the same time rectifiers (the middle-men so to speak) were adding all kinds of unsavory and even unsafe things to the whiskey to extend their profits. These adulterated products would be advertised as straight (meaning neat back then rather than at least 2 years old now). By 1869 Japan specifically was sick (both figuratively, and in some cases literally) of receiving this rectified whiskey that was falsely advertised as straight. The Japanese government actually ended up suing the US companies over said false advertising. Alphonso Taft, father of President W. Howard Taft, ruled that for exports, neutral spirits or other additives could not be included in straight whiskey.
The First True Marketers
Enter the first true marketing genius in American whiskey, Edmund Haynes Taylor, Jr., also known as Colonel E.H. Taylor. I wrote a piece on he and George Stagg that I’ll pull a bit from here, the man was a marketing genius. Greatness was in the man’s blood as was pure salesmanship. During the American Civil War he used his wife’s connections in the south to trade commodities like cotton. When the war was finally over, Taylor joined Gaines, Berry, & Co. as a junior partner, they held brands such as Old Crow.
Edmund’s gift, and later his curse was that no matter what he did he strove for greatness. He didn’t simply want to distill bourbon like the rest, he wanted to make the best whiskey imaginable. He spent a year in Europe learning distillation methods that he brought back to the firm helping to build the Hermitage (named after Andrew Jackson’s estate) distillery for Old Crow. This would have been in 1867 when he returned. He had learned the importance of things like keeping the liquids in copper kettles.
He took that information with him when he purchased the Leestown Distillery on the Kentucky River (the other side of Frankfort) and named it the Old Fashioned Copper (O.F.C. distillery) in 1869.
While traveling in Europe, Taylor became enamored with the beer tourism of Germany. He decided that the US, and specifically bourbon, needed something similar. He rebuilt O.F.C. using the best methods he’d learned but also in order to make it attractive to tourists from all over. The man was also a brilliant marketer, creating a trademark for the barrel head, using brass barrel hoops for appearance, and using the newly invented lithograph for letterhead and color advertisements.
When James Crow died (Taylor at this time worked at the Crow distillery) Gaines, Berry, & Co took Crow’s methods and leftover stocks and created the brand Old Crow thus continuing the name that carried so much weight at the time. Taylor, a young marketer for the company, took advantage when a Pennsylvania judge declared his state’s rye whiskey better than Kentucky bourbon. A taste-off as it were was set between the two with Old Crow coming out overwhelmingly on top. Taylor, the keen marketer that he was, sent out a press release stating: “After the evidence was all in and well digested, the judgement was rendered in favor of Kentucky’s Old Crow as being the most mellow, rich, full yet delicately flavored and surpassing in bouquet”. This shot Old Crow into national attention where it was the preferred drink of the casual drinker all the way to the White House.
As with JTS Brown & Brother of time, who hired George Forman as a salesman in 1872, Taylor realized that simply selling by the barrel to salons, taverns, pharmacies and others wasn’t enough. So much more could be done. For the future Brown-Forman it was the safety, convenience, and novelty of being the first bottled (a very expensive process at the time and even today). Brothers Brown were also keen chasers of the pharmaceutical market and knew how to adapt to the times which is how they survived prohibition.
Prior to Taylor, for the customer to know what they were buying they simply had to trust a barrel or a named decanter at their local. Taylor started by creating a stamp that covered the whole barrel head and read ‘O.F.C. E.H. Taylor, Jr. Proprietor’ as well as using brass hoops to make the barrel stand out against others. Taylor also reached out to well known people of the time for endorsements that he would then send to bars on his colorful, beautifully lithographed station head. Others followed suit including framed posters and other advertising media for bars.
With the advent of bottling also came the opportunity for advertising on said bottles. Labels were crafted and designed to draw attention. Full page and half page advertisements were taken out. Suddenly, in the waning years of the 19th century marketing became a key focal point for American whiskey.
Early Advertising Quality
While the lithograph process could produce beautiful pieces for bottles and papers alike, unfortunately the content wasn’t always up to par. Media that was racist, sexist, bigoted, and often very offensive to all sorts of different crowds was used across whiskey media at the time. These very pieces were used by the temperance movement to later attack the spirits industry. Prohibition came and brought a smashing realization that handling these issues within the industry could have prevented, or at least aided in their untimely downfall.
After prohibition the industry created rules on marketing whiskey. No more advertising drunkenness, or advertising to minors, no women in advertisements and no advertising on the radio. While many of these have changed since the 1930s, the Kentucky Distillers Association and other groups still maintain and monitor advertising in whiskey today.
By 1937 there were more than 530 Kentucky bourbon brands alone. All of them were competing for space in a tightly packed market of mostly young whiskey (coming off of the repeal in 1933). Despite friendliness among the production staff of the distilleries, the marketing and sales people were cutthroat. The market in the 1930s was perhaps one of the most competitive in all the history of American whiskey. All of the ads proclaimed themselves the best this or the best that in bourbon. Some even tried to use artificial (although there was again, a real lack of product at the time) scarcity to convince buyers. The good news for distilleries of the time is that people were begging to invest and it allowed for massive expansions of both product and marketing. Those with the most capital were procuring the few aged stocks left over from prohibition and blending it in and using it as a selling point.
There was a downside to bourbon’s popularity. There were still a number of pro-temperance politicians and simply greedy politicians that wanted to tax bourbon as much as they could to limit its advertising potential.
During the 1940s the bigger distilleries used their distributor connections and overwhelming marketing budgets to squeeze out the little guys. This would allow for them to be scooped . During this period there was a lot of consolidation until the Federal Government became concerned about whiskey monopolies in the US. During this same period a lot of the bigger Canadian and Scottish distilleries were pushing blended whiskies on the US market while pumping in huge marketing and advertising dollars they had built over the course of prohibition. This was to the detriment of the existing bourbon brands and the brands that these entities like Seagram’s had purchased. While these were often not particularly good, they were very inexpensive compared to their bourbon counterparts.
Crow Revisited, Decanters, Celebrities, and Master Distillers
After prohibition, National Distillers, who then owned Old Crow, came up with the masterful decision to put out the chess decanter series in the 1960s. These really kicked off the trend for the decanters that lead the way into the dark years of the 1970s and 1980s for whiskey. Old Crow is also where we see marketing and popularizing the master distiller as a leading figure for the brand. Old Crow purchased full page ads in things like Life for their master distiller of the time, George Donehoo.
Is Master Distiller a marketing gimmick or a true title? The answer is, it’s both. The title actually goes all the way back to the 1790s in Ireland as an earned and respected title. The title doesn’t appear in the early United States but when it does start to appear, it is reserved for the very best of the best in the trade. What you see today are the leftovers of some incredible distillers still working like the Russell’s (Jimmy and Eddie) and Jim Rutledge. For some, the title simply means you have public duties of speaking, pairing, and media appearances, hence, it’s still both a marketing gimmick and a true, earned title.
During the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s there was a huge surge of celebrities endorsing bourbon brands. Of course there is the infamous connection between Frank Sinatra and Jack Daniels starting in 1955 when he espoused his love for it on stage.
After Marilyn Monroe appeared in Playboy in 1953 bourbon distillers decided it would be a good idea to advertise in the publication. Beam, Yellowstone, I.W. Harper, Bourbon Supreme, Old Crow and many more of the time started advertising in the magazine. Ironically, though women drank bourbon, nearly all the distilleries refused to advertise to them and focused on a male audience. At the time it was found that women in the household purchased around 5% of the liquor in the household.
Also in 1953 Old Stagg began advertising itself as “America’s Largest Selling Kentucky Bourbon”. Brown-Forman contested this and ran advertisements in the Washington Post claiming itself as the “America’s Top Selling Straight Whiskey”. This controversy would go back and forth with government involvement and sales figures being provided. Eventually the government sided with Early Times as the best selling whiskey. While Stagg continued the claim through 1955, the government eventually stepped in to shut it down. In the end it was good for both brands continued growth. Multiple other brands would claim themselves as Kentucky’s best selling bourbon including Old Heaven Hill. Jim Beam would eclipse them all in 1970 and never lose said spot save to Jack Daniels.
As mentioned above, bourbon advertisements had to pull back tremendously and in the 1950s faced extreme political pressure. Temperance groups tried to have alcohol advertisement as a whole. It was argued that this was simply another form of prohibition by spirits producers. These bills didn’t make it particularly far as the producers themselves were self regulating and the ATF were reviewing each piece.
From 1966 to 1974 Sean Connery appeared on advertisements for Jim Beam. Coincidentally, Suntory Whiskey appears in 1967s You Only Live Twice and Suntory would go on to purchase Beam. During the same period Elliot Gould and others also advertised for Jim Beam.
Despite their reticence to advertise to women, and despite agreeing to not display scantily clad women the bourbon producers often display women both scantily clad and not. Bette Davis appeared in ads for Jim Beam. In 1967 Ancient Age commissioned Sophia Loren for advertisements.
During the 1960s and the Civil Rights movement distilleries were among the few advertising to the African American community. Black consumers refused to support companies that ignored them.
The Dark Ages of Bourbon
By the mid-1960s neutral grain spirits started to take a lot of the edge off bourbon. Distillers had to start distilling vodka themselves and started to have to compete with vodka advertising. Companies started advertising bourbon for cocktails and even making pre-mixed cocktails.
Brown-Forman tried to filter all of the color out of its bourbon creating Frost 8-80. Despite spending $4 million on advertising the product as an abject failure.
In 1969 Light Whiskey would become the industry’s last ditch attempt to compete with vodka. It would unfortunately not succeed. A new generation, on the back of Vietnam, didn’t want to drink their parent’s whiskey and no amount of marketing or advertising at the time could overcome such a deficit.
1972 saw the downfall of Stitzel Weller selling, Taylor Distillery closing, and Vodka becoming the number one spirit. It truly was one of the saddest years in bourbon.
Distilleries were suddenly interested in advertising to women in the 1970s as well as young drinkers. Most of the distilleries jumped on the light whiskey band wagon hoping to regain their lost market and it would go through to Seagram’s LDI distillery even into the 1990s. Both Jim Beam and Heaven Hill were the two distilleries that chose to ignore the light whiskey trend and focus on bourbon. They also both saw reasonable success in the 1970s and 1980s.
During the 1970s and 1980s brands attempted to bottle the glut of whiskey in decorative and collectible decanters similar to Old Crow in the 1960s. While decanters remained a trend in whiskey the number exploded as brands tried to find ways to offload and sell their whiskey. The contents weren’t even focused on so much as the actual collectible decanters themselves and what they represented. From train cars to memorials to Christmas decanters, brands tried everything to move product during this dark time.
The 1980s also saw the lowering of proofs to the minimum in order to maximize product and profit.
Red Wax to the Rescue
I once wrote a piece called Maker’s Mark: How Red Wax Saved Bourbon and I’ll pull some from that. I’ll start by saying that the litigiously defended trademark red wax of Maker’s is perhaps the greatest marketing work in the history of American Whiskey.
The first bottles wouldn’t hit retail shelves until 1958. When Maker’s Mark first hit store shelves in 1958 it already stood out selling at $6 a bottle when most other brands were selling at $2 a bottle. This allowed for rather unique marketing centered around how expensive the brand was, because it was worth it:
“It tastes expensive… and is. Maker’s Mark is made expensively; by hand; in small amounts and flavored with homegrown wheat to make it softer. It’s the softest spoken of the bourbons; you can stay with its easy taste. Bill Samuels, a fourth generation distiller, makes it on his farm near Loretto, Kentucky. Unless you really care how your whisky tastes, don’t pay the price for a bourbon as good as Maker’s Mark.”
Not only did it change the marketing landscape for bourbon (look at the premium prices today) but also quickly became one of the fastest selling brands.
What made Maker’s a made Bourbon was a 1980 article in the Wall Street Journal (for those under 30 physical papers used to be a big deal, just go with me on this) which described how it had been discovered by a traveling businessman. This man then started a word-of-mouth campaign which led to surging sales and a chronic shortage. Suddenly the world didn’t just see Scotch as the one true quality, high end whiskey. This is generally where people mark as the beginning of the bourbon revival. It’s where people’s perception on bourbon shifted back.
Maker’s Mark has never stopped pushing its creative marketing through advertisements and through its ambassadors club (see the ugly sweater contest of 2011). By 2007 we saw bourbon shooting back and by 2012 when Bill Samuels Jr. retired bourbon was in a full swing comeback. At his retirement party he was even credited with saving bourbon through marketing. Rob Samuels would take the reins and would attempt to lower the proof feeling the pinch of not laying down enough make much like the rest of the industry. The quick and steady backlash brought the proof back to 90 but also generated plenty of press (and no press is bad press right!). Maker’s has also done everything in their power to protect that wax drip and has been possibly the most litigious bourbon company to date.
Premium is Back on the Men
Elmer T. Lee introduced the first commercial single barrel in 1984 with Blanton’s, named for Colonel Albert Blanton. At the time you couldn’t just walk into a liquor store and get a single barrel select of anything. While distillers tended to pick single barrels for private selection use, the average consumer had no access to them. For all intents and purposes, this was the first commercially available single barrel.
Lee set the standard for Blanton’s for the future:
“An aroma that is a full rounded bouquet of caramel, vanillin, and alcohol that is pleasant and not raw or medicinal. Taste is slight caramel and vanillin semisweet alcohol that is smooth and pleasant, without bite or bitter taste. There is no lingering after-taste or burning sensation.”
Blanton’s was actually created for the Japanese market where bourbon was booming at the time but entered the U.S. market at $24 a bottle. When it launched in September 1984 it was advertised in the New Yorker, the Wall Street Journal, and Ivy League alumni newspapers. It was targeting the upper echelon of markets at the time. It was a flop in the domestic market, but a huge hit in Japan.
Jim Beam followed a similar but different path. Booker Noe would bottle small batches of whiskey straight from the barrel as gifts in the form of Booker’s Bourbon. It went public in 1988 as one of if not the first Small Batch bourbons and was also priced at a premium to kick-start the “Super Premium” side and repopularize bourbon in the US.
The 1990s saw the growth of Jim Beam’s Small Batch Collection as well as the growth of single barrels in both the United States but especially Japan. The Japanese market helped to sustain and grow the bourbon market while it recovered from the dark times. This slow growth led to the explosion of bourbon-mania starting around 2011.
Modern Day Marketing: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly
Let us start with a trend I think we’re all familiar with and only touch on it just enough as it’s unofficial marketing. I speak, of course, of private single barrel pick stickers. Many of us are familiar but for those that aren’t, when a group picks a single barrel of whiskey and the bottles are delivered, they often choose to adorn the bottles with a sticker designed for that pick. Sometimes the stickers are funny, sometimes goofy, sometimes eye-roll worthy, and sometimes even offensive. Oftentimes these can be seen as good, free advertising for the distilleries. Great word of mouth, but sometimes they can lead to embarrassment and consternation. One such was the so-called 2020 “Two Face Riff Pitino” depicting a two-face version of Rick Pitino on it. It went viral and made national news and caused a stir at New Riff who received undue pressure despite having nothing to do with said sticker. This led to some distilleries drafting agreements where inappropriate stickers would lead to no more barrel picks!
Some have gone incredibly overboard on these picks with legos, wax, etchings, etc. To each their own. At the end of the day these are generally some great free marketing for the distillery.
In 2018 Heaven Hill announced the beautiful decanter series for Old Fitzgerald reviving the decanter trend in both a respectful and wonderful manner. Even not using decanters, other brands have focused heavily on bottle styling. Look at New Riff and their wonderful bottle design and all the myriad different shapes and sizes we see today. It’s not the past where there were three bottle shapes and a few snazzy labels. Bottle shape, design, and labels are a huge part of marketing in bourbon today.
Celebrity whiskey and celebrities representing whiskey is all the rage once again today. Jim Beam kickstarted the celebrity endorsement and representation of whiskey again as they did in the 1960s. In 2014 Jim Beam started ad campaigns with Mila Kunis as the new global spokeswoman for the brand. With the explosion of drinkers under 40 and more women and minorities drinking bourbon, this was a move to capitalize on those markets and show that bourbon was back in full swing.
In 2016 Wild Turkey took a similar approach to Beam and hired Matthew McConaughey as their spokesperson and creative director, going so far as releasing Wild Turkey Longbranch with his name attached. McConaughey is still a part of the brand and appears to take his role quite seriously.
Today we have everything from celebrities with their name on a whiskey to celebrity brands. This includes but isn’t limited to:
- Metallica’s Blackened line
- Slipknot No. 9
- Peyton Manning’s Sweetens Cove
- Bob Dylan’s Heavens Door
- Scottie Pippen’s Digits Bourbon
- Drake’s Virginia Black
- Terry Bradshaw Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey
And of course there are many more and more with celebrities representing the brand versus having their name on the bottles. The point being that celebrity whiskey and celebrities representing brands has come back in a huge way.
Of course Non-Fungible Tokens have seeped into the whiskey world, with whiskey NFTs slowly starting to appear. NFTs are simply unique digital items that are non-reproducible. They are not a physical purchase. Given the unfortunate and popular trend that is NFTs these days there is already the first Liquid Craft and the Heart Distillery backed NFT for American whiskey. I suspect while this is the first NFT related American whiskey it will not be the last.
Bourbon distillers and brands stay very much on the bleeding edge of marketing. Over the many years these brands have existed they have gotten exceedingly good at marketing to many and varied audiences. Some of these are huge marketing wins, some fell flat, some were absolute failures. All provided lessons and valuable history for all of the brands and for all of us to reflect on.
This was a really fun piece to compile. I’m not sure there’s another like it out there and I guarantee I missed some nuanced pieces from history. It’s amazing to remind myself and others how much of a cross section American whiskey has with the history of America itself. I hope you enjoyed this very long read!
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