Friday, February 4, 2022

Whiskey History and Why It Matters


Keebler CEO Ernie Keebler, flinging fudge in front of his cookie factory.
June, 2022, will mark the 30th anniversary of the premiere of "Made and Bottled in Kentucky," the documentary about bourbon that I made for KET (Kentucky's public television system) to celebrate the bicentennial of Kentucky statehood. KET still shows it from time to time.

It effectively marks how long I have been writing about bourbon. From the beginning, my primary interest has been history, the history of American whiskey and that history's many intersections with American history. When I have been in conflict with producers, that's usually why. The temptation to corrupt history for profits seems irresistible. 

In 2007, Diageo rolled out some new marketing for George Dickel Tennessee Whiskey. They had invented a fanciful tale about George Dickel and his new bride, Augusta, visiting Coffee County in 1867, where George dreamed about "creating the finest, smoothest sippin’ whisky," and then started a business there in 1870. It was full of other ridiculous and unsupported claims. 

Does is matter? I think it does. Here is why. 

The Keebler Elves were created in 1968 by the Chicago-based advertising agency, Leo Burnett Co. One of Leo's hallmarks was his use of mascots; fictional and, usually, illustrated characters who personified a brand's advertising proposition. A half-century later, Ernie and crew are still making cookies in the hollow tree.

The difference between Ernie Keebler and George Dickel is that George Dickel was a real person. So was Augusta Banzer Dickel, who had a younger sister, named Emma, who married George Dickel's business partner, Victor Shwab. All real people. No one is expected to believe that Ernie Keebler is CEO of a cookie company whose factory is in a hollow tree and no one does. But when the makers of a brand make historical claims about real people, we're expected to believe them, aren't we?

Not only were 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 beverage alcohol industries may be more important than most because they contributed so much to the nation's development. Beverage alcohol is the only industry that has prompted two constitutional amendments. 

When Diageo treats important historical figures such as the Dickels and Shwabs as if they are cartoon elves, they do a disservice to the product and the industry. (They have cleaned up their act somewhat since. The newlyweds and their carriage ride are gone.)

The practice of playing fast and loose with whiskey history is not unique to Diageo. Far from it. Virtually every company that sells American whiskey is guilty of at least some fudging. Many of the things Brown-Forman says about Jack Daniel's are unproven and probably unprovable. They call them "Legends and Lore" to give themselves an out. Jim Beam has no evidence that, as they often claim, "Jacob Beam sold his first barrel of whiskey in Kentucky in 1795."  

Heaven Hill falsely claims that Elijah Craig invented bourbon and that Evan Williams was Kentucky's first distiller. Sazerac falsely claims that William Weller invented wheated bourbon. Diageo falsely claims that the Bulleit Bourbon recipe originated with Augustus Bulleit in the 19th century. The people are all real, the claims are all false.

I can't complain too much because all this misrepresentation gives me something to do. If you want the real history of American whiskey, you pretty much have to get it from people like me, because you can't trust the producers.

(I recommend Bourbon, Strange. Surprising Stories of American Whiskey, where you will find a 36-page chapter entitled "George Dickel and the Trouble with Diageo," followed by a 19-page chapter entitled "Fact and Fiction in Bourbon History." If you like that sort of thing.)


Stacy Thomas said...

Chuck, your discussion neatly summarizes what I enjoy about your blog and books: American whiskey is a worthy subject both historically, and because of the merit of what's in my glass today. You know what you're talking about when you take up the subject, and you point out instances when erroneous and misleading marketing fog appears to confuse the matter. Reality is preferable to marketing baloney, and it's refreshing when you clear the air in a straightforward, non-sanctimonious manner.

Earl Jones said...

Nice piece, Chuck, as we've all come to expect. The juxtaposition of cartoon elf mascots alongside real people, recast as mascots, brings to mind Col. Harland Sanders, who was a real person, then a marketing mascot/spokesman, then a cartoon mascot. I find what KFC did to his image and legacy as a person to be as reprehensible as the whiskey marketers' puffery.

Anonymous said...

Let us not overlook the BS that is Blanton's and the entire concept of "single barrel" whiskey.