Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Mini Skirts And Straight Bourbon.

Mini skirts were the fashion craze of the 1960s. Designers, always trying to profit by creating the next new trend, followed that up with something called the maxi skirt.

As the name implies, the maxi skirt was long, typically ending mid-calf. As fashion leaders always do, they urged women to discard their mini skirts immediately in favor of the new maxi skirts.

Women refused (and men cheered).

Much like the introduction of New Coke, the failure of the maxi skirt proved that there is a limit to what marketers can shove down the throat of the American consumer.

At about that same time, some of the largest distilled spirits companies tried to wean Americans away from straight whiskeys such as straight bourbon and straight rye. Instead, they thought we should drink blended whiskey or the newly-developed light whiskey.

Americans were turning away from straights at that time. They were drinking more blended scotch and blended Canadian whiskey, but also a lot more vodka, gin, rum and tequila, all of which were lighter in taste than American straight whiskey.

All of those products were also cheaper to make, which is why the producers were so enamoured of them. They even tried to get the Standards of Identity changed so they could make a lighter and cheaper product, by reusing barrels and distilling at higher proofs, and still call it straight bourbon.

That proposal was rejected by the BATF and light whiskey was solidly rejected by consumers. Blended whiskey--which combines a little straight whiskey with a lot of vodka (i.e., neutral spirit)--gained a little traction but never got close to unseating the straights.

When American whiskey began to rebound in the 1990s it was Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey that led the charge.

This is essentially the story of Four Roses. The brand started in the mid-19th century as a straight bourbon and returned after Prohibition that way too. Eventually it was acquired by the Jos. E. Seagram Company, a Canadian producer that only made blends there and thought that's what we should drink down here too. In the U.S. market they converted Four Roses into a blend, although they sold it in the rest of the world as a bourbon.

As time went on, competitive pressures caused Seagrams to cheapen the blend by reducing its straight whiskey component. The legal minimum is a mere 20 percent. Even among blended whiskey drinkers, Four Roses was considered rot gut.

When Seagrams was sold for parts a decade ago, Kirin (which had been partners with Seagrams in Japan) became the new owner of Four Roses and immediately began to reintroduce it into the United States as a high quality straight bourbon whiskey. They had to overcome the blend's bad reputation, but by that time the brand was such a loser that most younger consumers had never even heard of it. To them, Four Roses Bourbon was a new brand.

They began the revival in Kentucky, naturally, and gradually expanded as they were able to produce enough to meet the growing demand. That process is now just about complete. With the new year, Four Roses is now available in Michigan, Maryland and New Hampshire.

No, they were not expanding alphabetically. For a variety of reasons, they chose to expand into control states last.

So the next time you enjoy a fine straight bourbon, think about the American consumers who refused to be herded like sheep so many years ago.


Sam Komlenic said...

Points well taken, Chuck.

Four Roses Single Barrel is my favorite bourbon these days, and Yellow Label may be the only acceptable 80 proofer, but as you mentioned, they remain unavailable here in PA. I can only hope that Kirin's plans include eventually opening the entire country, including ass-backward states like mine!

David Goldberg said...

Only kind of related... I was watching the original Rocky the other week, and in the scene where Rocky visits Paulie in the meat packing plant (where Rocky shows us how he tenderizes his beef), there's Paulie, still drinking... out of a Four Roses bottle!

A little internet research shows why that's so... and a stronger connection between Rocky and Four Roses...

Chuck Cowdery said...

What Paulie drinks in the original, made in 1976, is the rot gut blend, which probably is what Paulie should drink. Stallone's childhood memories (b. 1946) were likely of the blend as well. I suspect the appearance in 2006's "Rocky Balboa" was a paid placement.