Of Origin Stories and Product Placement

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November 20, 2013 by Bourbon Empire

I can only imagine the audience reaction if a movie about the Founding Fathers featured a scene where John Adams and George Washington are both sitting around drinking Coca-Cola. Or a scene where a highly attitudinal John Hancock showed up to sign the Declaration of Independence driving a Ford F-150 pickup truck and wearing Oakleys.

There’d be a predictable amount of outrage, consternation over the warping of history by corporate interests, etc.

HBO

HBO

Which is why I was amused at a recent story in Esquire about Bulleit Bourbon and its strong connection to San Francisco drinkers, which make up the spirit’s strongest market. The story gushes over the retro-cool-neo-Old-West look of the bottle and how it stands proudly in an episode of HBO’s Deadwood, a great show that went off the air because all the Old West cowboys spoke in iambic pentameter and nobody could understand them. But the story doesn’t mention that Bulleit had nothing to do with the Old West or cowboys.

It’s funny placement for a brand that was created in 1987. Today, Bulleit’s advertising calls it the “Frontier Whiskey” that is “The Last of the Great Bourbons.” I suppose the frontier in question is the law office where brand creator Tom Bulleit signed the paperwork to contract production of the bourbon, which falls under Diageo’s corporate umbrella, to Four Roses. Tom Bulleit’s distant relative, Augustus Bulleit, was apparently producing a rye whiskey under a totally different recipe for a brief period during the mid-nineteenth century. This is what the modern brand hitches Its creation myth to.

When building a House of Heritage, this kind of foundation is loose sand, not bedrock.

But oh well. Bulleit is tasty, offers excellent value, and is probably far better than anything Augustus was making. Bulleit’s marketing angle is nothing new–It’s hard to find any brand that doesn’t employ any hokum on its label–and rather par for the course.

In fact, a little bit of snake oil might actually enhance the spirit’s flavor. If most brands were to advertise in complete honesty, liquor ads would bore you to death. The true stories of many brands, especially modern brands, have to do with corporate lackeys quitting their day jobs, buying the rights to a lapsed trademark or creating one out of thin air, and hiring a graphic designer to make their label look like it was originally printed on the back of the Magna Carta.

I can’t really blame them for trying to dress things up a little.

But then again, some take it further than others. Bulleit’s real history and lineage isn’t terribly hard to track down, and I know exactly what I’m buying and what’s in the bottle. Other brands, like Templeton Rye, are a little more complicated. The brand in its current form isn’t even a decade old, but claims it was the tipple of Al Capone. There’s about as much truth to that as me saying that Muhammad Ali is somehow the lovechild of Catherine the Great and Paul Bunyan. We could go on and on and on and on doing this kind of myth busting for other brands, so I won’t belabor the point.

Regardless, there’s something about the marketed story that’s admittedly more fun. As long as the real creation myth isn’t entirely buried, and the brands let me know that the story they’re telling me comes packaged alongside a sly wink, I’m not losing any sleep over that part of it. I actually kind of like that part of it.

Other bourbon drinkers disagree, and I see the point in their arguments. When hiding your heritage means it’s impossible to know exactly what’s in the bottle, what grains you use, how long it was aged, and other information connoisseurs need to know, that’s where we have a problem. Tell me as much as you want about your family’s supposedly long distilling heritage or how Jesse James drank your juice while out robbing trains, just don’t forget to tell me exactly what I’m actually buying.

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