History

A free sofa with every case

The dignified advertisements you see in this publication belie the rough and tumble past ofAmerican whiskey promotion. Charles K.Cowdery reports
By Charles K Cowdery
Although advertising historians usually cite soaps such as Ivory and Pears as the first products to be promoted with modern mass marketing, American whiskeys such as Old Forester first appeared at about the same time – in the late 19th century – and pioneered many of the same techniques.“I’m convinced Old Forester was the first bourbon to advertise to the consumer,” says Brown-Forman master distiller Chris Morris, an avid student of American whiskey history.The claim makes sense because of the unique way Old Forester was marketed.In those days, distillers sold their whiskey by the barrel, usually to middle men who dealt it – still in wood – to saloons and grocers.Barrels then were not necessarily the big 55- gallon jobs that when full weigh 500 pounds and are standard today; some were smaller.But most whiskey was sold in some kind of barrel. If you didn’t want or couldn’t afford a whole cask you either brought your own stoneware jug or glass bottle to the store to have it filled, or purchased one from the proprietor for that purpose.Likewise, saloons would have a supply of bottles into which whiskey and other spirits could be decanted for easier serving.When bottles were smashed in a bar brawl it was a costly loss. Glass bottles did not become cheap until after Michael Owens perfected the automatic bottle-making machine in 1904.Among other problems, distributing whiskey in barrels made it impossible for a distiller to control what happened to his product after it left the plant. That is why, in 1870, George Garvin Brown decided to sell his bourbon, which he named Old Forester, only in sealed bottles; a first.“You really couldn’t do consumer advertising unless you were in a bottle,” says Morris.The first consumer ads for Old Forester ran in local Kentucky magazines in about 1881.The American “Wild West” was a key Old Forester advertising market in the years that followed.Another innovation, railroads, made national distribution of whiskey and other manufactured goods practical. Going east, the trains were full of western steers headed for the stockyards and slaughterhouses of big eastern cities. Going west, they were full of whiskey for thirsty cowboys.Other companies and brands quickly followed Old Forester’s lead, both by bottling their product and using advertising to let whiskey drinkers know about it. “I don’t think anybody can debate the point that Old Forester is the longest advertised bourbon brand on the market today,” says Morris.Some other early advertised whiskeys were I.W. Harper, Four Roses, Old Crow, Old Grand-Dad, Yellowstone, and such now defunct brands as James E.Pepper, Green M o u n t a i n , Kentucky Dew, Royal Velvet, Old Nick, Cyrus Noble, Belle of Nelson, Old Tub, Deep Spring, Old Underoof, Cream of Kentucky, Hayner’s Rye and Harvard Rye.In the 1890s, Harper’s Weekly was one of the first popular national magazines to run whiskey advertising.Until the late 19th century, advertising for whiskey (and everything else) was what we would call classified advertising today – no pictures, no clever headlines – and most of that was what we would call business-to-business or trade advertising. The nearest thing to consumer advertising was when a merchant would list some of the items he had for sale, such as the Louisville grocery store that in 1814 placed an announcement in the local newspaper to let it be known that “rum, French brandy, old rye whiskey, common rye whiskey, spple and peach brandy” were all available there for purchase.Creation of the earliest whiskey brand names may have been something of an accident. Dr. James Crow, who worked at Oscar Pepper’s Kentucky distillery, was an innovative whiskey maker whose product earned a far-reaching reputation. References to “Old Crow” appear in private letters long before the name was ever used in paid advertising. When James Crow died in 1856, leaving Pepper with a warehouse full of Crowmade whiskey, Pepper decided to keep using the name, as did the subsequent owners after Pepper’s death.As whiskey advertising became more common, it also became more creative. “Old Greenbrier” was a bourbon made in Bardstown, Kentucky, at a distillery very near to the modern day headquarters of Heaven Hill. This advertising doggerel for the brand refers to the Spanish-American War of 1898.Tis said that Dewey favors it And "Uncle Sam" does say That without it at Manila We would not have won the day.Our victories on land and sea Are grand, and 't will inspire The boys to greater efforts If you give them "Old Greenbrier."The routine bottling of whiskey was such a good idea for ensuring that the product was what it claimed to be that in 1897, the U.S.government passed a law called the Bottled-in- Bond Act. If the distiller would follow a set of strict rules, including selling their whiskey in sealed bottles, the government would guarantee the authenticity of the bottle’s contents.It was the first ever truth-in-labeling law.As the 20th century dawned, makers and purveyors of alcoholic beverages came under increasing pressure from temperance forces.Some U.S. states enacted laws that prohibited all alcohol sales within their borders, but there was a large legal loophole. The post office was a federal enterprise, the states could not outlaw mail order sales of liquor. This loophole was plugged by Congress, over President Taft’s veto, in 1913.Until then, competition in the mail order whiskey business was fierce. Liebenthal Brothers & Co. of Cleveland, Ohio, offered blended whiskey for 10 dollars a case, plus a free sofa with every purchase. A Cincinnati distillery offered its customers a choice of several different premiums, including a grandfather clock or a 500 pound safe.The Casper Company of Winston-Salem, North Carolina, which billed itself as the nation’s largest mail order whiskey house, offered its Mountain Dew 5-year-old corn whiskey, normally 60 cents a quart, for just 40 cents a quart if you ordered the 20-bottle case.National Prohibition in 1920 did not stop whiskey advertising. Doctors were allowed to prescribe whiskey “for medicinal use”, it continued to be advertised in medical and pharmaceutical journals.Whiskey advertising to consumers resumed in 1933 when Prohibition was repealed. It disappeared during World War II. The postwar period was the “golden age” of American whiskey marketing, with full-page, full-colour ads in national magazines.But when broadcast advertising began to explode in the 1950s, whiskey was left behind.As part of the deal to repeal Prohibition, distillers had agreed to a tough set of “voluntary” restrictions. This “voluntary” code banned radio and television advertising for all distilled spirits products. Since beer and wine were not similarly limited, this put spirits at a huge disadvantage.Finally, in 1996, the Distilled Spirits Council got up the nerve to revise its Code and TV ads for whiskey gradually began to appear, although the major American broadcast networks still won’t accept them.Whiskey advertising remains very cautious, usually limited to a beautiful shot of the bottle and a few words about the drink’s exceptional taste and quality.And there are no more free sofas.