If you’re the type of drinker who is brand loyal, rarely deviating from your Maker’s, Grey Goose or Patrón tequila, listen up. There are secrets your favorite brand might be keeping from you. Lucky for you, we tapped Mark Spivak, author of the forthcoming book Iconic Spirits: An Intoxicating Story, out this November, to help us uncover some of the fun (and scandalous) facts about the world’s best-known tipples.
“I have a heightened bullshit meter,” says Spivak, slightly misquoting Hemingway. “Every brand has a story. And if they don’t, they pretend to have one.”
Here are eight you should probably know…
1. Your body thinks Campari is trying to kill you.
Beautifully bitter, the Italian aperitivo is an acquired taste. Literally. Our taste receptors for bitterness naturally function as an early warning system to alert us when we’re about to consume something toxic or poisonous. Amazing then that so many of us have trained our palates to love Campari, which sells 3 million cases per year.
2. Patrón Tequila was started by a homeless guy and the founder of Paul Mitchell hair products.
Oh, and they’re the same person. John Paul DeJoria grew up in a foster home, was in a street gang and was homeless twice. He founded John Paul Mitchell Systems with a friend on a $700 investment, and grew it into a billion-dollar company. Years later, he started Patrón, which today sells 2 million cases annually.
3. Maker’s Mark spells ‘whisky’ without the ‘e,’ the Scottish way. Or is it?
Certain bourbons and other American whiskeys spell ‘whisky’ without the ‘e,’ which is largely associated with Scotch’s spelling of the word. But a 1968 directive of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms specifies ‘whisky’ as the official U.S. spelling, although adding the ‘e’ for ‘whiskey’ is also allowed.
4. Speaking of Scotch, it only got globally popular because of a plague.
In the late 19th century, the grape vine pest phylloxera devastated the vineyards of France. No wine meant no Cognac, so connoisseurs had to find something else to drink. The savvy marketer Tommy Dewar seized the opportunity and created a worldwide market for his White Label blend.
5. The French wine industry made people fear absinthe.
A century ago, moral crusaders claimed that a single sip of absinthe could lead to insanity and death. They were aided by the French wine industry in their campaign against über-popular absinthe, which was stealing much of its market share at the time. Research chemist Ted Breaux had to debunk many old myths to get the spirit legalized in 2007 and get his Lucid brand on the shelves.
6. Grey Goose was designed to be expensive and not much else.
Sidney Frank wanted to be a billionaire and set out to create a vodka brand that would make him one. His three main strategies: market a vodka that came from France, package it lavishly, and price it at twice the cost of the most expensive vodka on the market. In the process, he arguably initiated the entire “super-premium” spirits category.
7. Moonshine created NASCAR.
Bootleggers were known to be speedy fellows: they needed to outrun authorities, after all. These fast drivers would soup up their cars for faster booze runs and eventually started holding informal races for sheer bragging rights. In 1947, they decided to make their racing league official, establishing NASCAR: the National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing. Branded “moonshines” today, like Catdaddy, are now shipped like any other spirit.
8. Bacardi is a true connoisseur’s rum. No, really.
No, this isn’t advertorial for Bacardi. The modern incarnation of the brand is definitely not a testament to the sweet, warm glory that rum can be. But if you ever have the privilege of sipping the original-recipe Bacardi, distilled in Cuba in the early 1900s, you are in for a treat. Here’s a suggestion: befriend a rum collector like New Orleans resident Stephen Remsberg, best known for his 1000-strong collection.
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