Thursday, June 15, 2023

In the United States, We Take Our Whiskey Personally

"A conversation with Mr. Van Winkle."

The question was one of those clickbait things on social media. "To whom do you turn when the going gets rough?" More than one person answered, "Jack Daniel's."

Americans like that about our whiskey. In Scotland and Ireland, whiskies are named after places, with a few notable exceptions. (Yes, Mr. Walker. We see you.) In the U.S., the most popular whiskeys are mostly named after people.

We have Jack and Jim, of course, Elijah, Ezra, Evan, Elmer, Issac, Jimmy, Parker, George, Abraham, Augustus, Cyrus, and Pappy. I'm sure I missed a couple. Back in 1989, George Jones sang, "Last night, I broke the seal on a Jim Beam decanter that looks like Elvis. I soaked the label off a Flintstone Jelly Bean jar." I worked on the Jim Beam account at the time. Beam never made an Elvis decanter (that was McCormick), but the folks at Beam sure did love that song.

When the bourbon category was dying, it seemed like any brand with "Old" in its name was declining fastest, even though most of those were people's names too, e.g., Crow, Taylor, Fitzgerald, Weller, Pepper. If you had a round bottle with "Old" in the name, you were screwed. Square bottle with a full name on it, you were okay. I worked on Early Times. They couldn't change the name but did switch to a square bottle.

When sales are crashing, you try anything.

My dad, who enjoyed Van Winkle Rye, would say he looked forward to "a conversation with Mr. Van Winkle" after an especially taxing day.

Back then, it wasn't hard to get Van Winkle Rye, but it was one of the most expensive American whiskeys on the market. Dad and I would talk about whiskey from time to time and he said he remembered rye from his youth (the 1940s) tasting like rye bread, so I got in the habit of bringing him different ryes to try, to see if we could find one that scratched that itch for him.

I went through almost everything before I got to the Van Winkle, not so much because of the cost as because I thought it very bourbon-like, which was what I liked about it, but it certainly did not taste like a traditional rye. This was about 15 years ago, when there weren't as many ryes as there are now. After he'd had the Van Winkle a few times, he commented, "It doesn't taste like rye bread, but I sure do like it." 

That ended our quest for a rye-bread rye but I kept him supplied with Van Winkle Rye thereafter. When he died, there was about a third-of-a-bottle in his cabinet. I finished it for him.


Rob K said...

I still have the little packet of rye grain and the booklet that came on the neck of the one bottle of that I ever bought, all those many years ago

Chuck Cowdery said...

I remember that. Probably the initial release. People were so unfamiliar with rye whiskey it seemed smart to introduce them to the grain itself. I should have planted them.