Opinion: The power and problems of celebrity-backed whisky brands

Opinion: The power and problems of celebrity-backed whisky brands

How do brands make the most of having friends in high places?

Thoughts from... | 11 Sep 2023 | Issue 193 | By Liza Weisstuch

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When we were kids in New York in the 1980s, my brother and I would make a mad dash for the cereal aisle whenever our parents took us to the grocery stores. We wanted to grab the latest box of Wheaties. But it wasn’t the healthy wholegrain flakes we were after. The cereal, which dubs itself ‘Breakfast of Champions’, featured a continuous roster of professional athletes on the box: Olympic gymnast Mary Lou Retton, American football star Doug Flutie, baseball great Pete Rose, basketball legend Michael Jordan. The marketing scheme has endured; a quick Google search reveals Simone Biles, Serena Williams, and golf pro Jordan Spieth among the more recent luminaries to appear on boxes in the cereal aisles.


The simple fact that I remember this so vividly is testament to the power of celebrity endorsement (though it still doesn’t make me crave wheat flakes for breakfast). Over time, that’s turned into the power of celebrity brands. From Air Jordan, which netted US$256.1 million (approximately £200 million) for the sportsman in 2022 – nearly four decades after its introduction – to the George Foreman Grill, Jessica Simpson’s clothing brand, and Rihanna’s make-up line, celebrity-branded products give fans a more visceral connection to an admired public figure. It’s no longer enough for a pop star to hitch their name to a known product, which cynics might read as a desperate attempt to stay relevant or rake in some extra cash. Today, celebs want to show us who’s boss. In an age of start-ups and entrepreneurship, even the highest-ranking icons want to add co-founder or creative director to their credits.


These musings have been brought to you by the newly released Wolfie’s, Rod Stewart’s blended Scotch, which arrived in May after much hype on his Instagram account. Its tagline? “A rascal of a thing.” Also see: Bob Dylan’s Heaven’s Door Straight Bourbon Whiskey, Jason Aldean’s Wolf Moon Straight Bourbon Whiskey, and basketball legend Scotty Pippen’s Digits Bourbon. Perhaps most famous are Metallica’s Blackened, a project with the late distilling star Dave Pickerell, and Wild Turkey Longbranch, Matthew McConaughey’s collaboration with Eddie Russell, another whiskey celebrity in his own right. The list of neo-whiskey celebs goes on: David Beckham, Conor McGregor, Jamie Foxx, Brad Paisley. I must, however, call out Nick Offerman’s involvement with Lagavulin’s master blender to create his eponymous single malt series, a genuine exercise in craftsmanship and thought. Now that George Clooney made his cool billion from selling Casamigos Tequila to Diageo, maybe a whiskey is on his to-do list.


But back to Sir Rod’s Scotch. A widely quoted comment in the New Zealand press reads: “Wolfie’s is a rascal of a thing and with just a sip the whisky takes you back to the good old days. Fine-tuned and perfectly balanced, Wolfie’s is a delight both over ice and mixed into a favourite cocktail.”


He goes on: “It’s a fine tipple, whether you’re partying with friends, celebrating a Celtic win or reminiscing with family. For me, Wolfie’s depicts the carefree behaviour of my more mischievous days and the excitement of what life still has to offer – let the good times roll.”


Uhh… what? What’s he selling? Whisky or psilocybin-infused carrot juice? I understand he’s an icon, but even legends have to be careful when promising the world. I understand he partied in the 1970s and ‘80s, and maybe the 1990s, too. Who knows, maybe his merrymaking is still part of his daily life.


Once I worked through my emotional journey, from amusement to doubt and suspicion to disgust for the immunity fame affords, I am left feeling a little offended. At the risk of sounding like a curmudgeon, whisky is a drink with history, craft, integrity, and human involvement, as anyone reading these pages knows. A brute “depiction of carefree behaviour”? More like care, heritage, and artistry. By no means am I saying that a dram must be reserved for contemplative fireside moments, but let’s tone down the language that easily reads like parody. Sir Rod may have sung about staying forever young in the 1970s, but it took until 2023 to reveal that he’s forever immature. 

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