Thursday, March 6, 2008

We'll Get Back To You, Not.

A month ago, I wrote here about likely bullshit in the marketing of George Dickel Tennessee Whiskey. Though perhaps my process is backwards, the next day, better late than never, I sent my questions to the Manager of Public Relations at Diageo, Dickel's parent company. Two days after that, I received a call from one of the minions in Diageo's PR Department, wanting to know why I was asking so many questions. We had a pleasant conversation and she said she would get back to me.

Since then, squat.

Today, I sent an email to the original contact, laying out the chronology above. However, since it has been a month since my original inquiry, I now feel confident in saying that the new story Diageo is telling about Dickel, about how George and his young bride, Augusta, visited Tullahoma in 1867, where he dreamt about "creating the finest, smoothest sippin’ whisky," and then started a business there in 1870, is pure fiction.

Why does is matter?

The Keebler Elves were created in 1968 by the Chicago-based advertising agency, Leo Burnett Co. One of Burnett's trademarks was the use of mascots, fictional and, usually, illustrated characters who personified the brand's advertising proposition. The difference between Ernie Keebler and George Dickel is that George Dickel was a real person. So was Agusta Banzer Dickel, who had a younger sister, named Emma, who married George Dickel's business partner, Victor Shwab. All real people.

Not only were all of those people real, with real histories, but the things they did matter. The history of commercial enterprises may not be as significant as the history of governments, but they are part of the overall story of how we developed as a nation and people. The history of America's alcoholic beverage industries may be more important than most because they contributed so much to the nation's development in terms of taxes, and alcohol is the only industry that has prompted two constitutional amendments.

Part of what stimulated me to start taking a hard look at Dickel was the Associated Press report in December about a shortage at retail of George Dickel No. 8. Diageo spokespeople at that time cited the distillery shutdown between 1999 and 2003 as the cause of the shortage, and further stated that the shutdown was a result of overproduction in the early 1990s.

What caused that overproduction was an ambitious but ultimately unsuccessful attempt to make George Dickel a one-million case brand. One-million cases is the traditional threshold in the distilled spirits business for a major brand. One of the things they did at that time was try to put together a real history of Dickel. The person who spearheaded that effort was Dr. Nicholas Morgan, who was archivist at that time for Dickel's parent company in Great Britain. He had some research done and put together a timeline of key event's in Dickel's history. I have a copy of that timeline and it is through comparing that to what the company is saying now that the pattern of historical falsification (aka, bullshit) is revealed.

Nick Morgan is still at Diageo and is a big marketing honcho for their single malt scotch portfolio.

The practice of playing fast and loose with history is not unique to Diageo. Far from it. Virtually every company that sells American whiskey is guilty of at least some fudging with history. To some extent, it depends on how it is handled. Many of the things Brown-Forman says about Jack Daniel's are unproven and probably unprovable, but they call them "Legends and Lore." Jim Beam has no real evidence that, as they say, Jacob Beam sold his first barrel of whiskey in Kentucky in 1795, but the family has been saying that for a very long time so it's probably at least as good as some of the Daniel's claims. On the other hand, more recent fudging such as writing out of their history the contributions of Jim Beam's brother, Park, and his descendants, is of more recent vintage and, in my opinion, deplorable.

In one sense, at least, I can't complain too much about any of this because it gives me something to do. If you want the real history of the American whiskey industry, you pretty much have to come to people like me, because you're sure not going to get it from the companies.

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