A fire was sparked, and a whiskey romance was rekindled. But let’s face it, the attraction has always been there, from as long ago as the 1700’s, where, in Harrodsburg, Kentucky, the place of the first permanent settlement west of the Alleghany Mountains, the settlers graced us with the first recorded instance of the use of a simple still. So our love affair with bourbon, scotch, and whiskey shouldn’t be a surprise, as whiskey in one form or another has long been an iconic and integral part of our history. The popularity, usefulness and importance of whiskey were further documented along the Lewis and Clark expedition in the early 1800’s. It’s been reported that Lewis and Clark carried upwards of 120 gallons of the brown water for their high-risk expedition, spanning two years. They carried three varieties, all for specific purposes. Bourbon was carried specifically for cooking and any medicinal purposes the men needed along the way, not including those fake (cough, cough) symptoms, hehe. What was considered Tennessee sippin’ whiskey was carried, held back, and used specifically for gift giving, likely to the Native Indian tribes that they encountered along the way. And the Rye that was on the trip? That was included in the daily rations of the personnel, strictly for their own use. You can’t help but picture those pioneers sitting around a campfire or on the edge of a stream sipping on that Rye, talking, bonding, and rebuilding morale while relieving the stress from the daily grind of their risky and unpredictable journey. Similarly, in Civil War times, while the life of a soldier was a combination of being miserable, stressful, and even boring because of all the downtime they had, whiskey became a staple for these soldiers, used to relieve their anxiety and stress while providing entertainment and mental escape from the daily rigors of their lifestyle. Sounds a lot like that pour we grant ourselves after a particularly challenging workday.
Whiskey had indeed become the passionate choice for many iconic figures, including some of stature and notoriety. From whiskey fans like Daniel Boone, eventually owning his own tavern, to legendary men like General Ulysses Grant, who always had to have a bottle of Old Crow nearby, and Colonel Albert B. Blanton, who devoted his entire life to producing fine whiskey and preserving its heritage, these men, among others, have helped incorporate the whiskey lifestyle into our country’s history and fabric.
Whiskey was a drink that was shown to have a strong following by pop culture as well. The great Frank Sinatra loved Jack Daniels so much that he was laid to rest with a bottle of it securely tucked into his pocket, per his request. Mark Twain shuddered at the thought of no bourbon in heaven, and proclaimed that if that were the case, then he just wouldn’t go.
Both the big screen and television have done their part in increasing the visibility of whiskey, bourbon, and scotch in their media. Wild Turkey is perhaps the king of product placement, with the popular bourbon making it’s presence known while being portrayed as the drink of choice for the macho star, the rough around the edges character, or the down on their luck lovable loser in movies like National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation, Rambo: First Blood Part II, Mystic River, Pulp Fiction, In The Heat Of The Night, Silver Bullet, Who Framed Roger Rabbit, Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas, The Punisher, and Stephen King’s IT, just to name a few. On the television side, Wild Turkey is referenced in popular shows like NCIS, Justified, Married With Children, The Sopranos, Buffy The Vampire Slayer, and the always brown water friendly Parks And Recreation.
The persona of the lovable, worldly drinker became looked on as favorably as W.C. Fields stumbling through scenes with flask in hand, while even the iconic “Bond, James Bond”, has incorporated The Macallan scotch into his drinking repertoire. And who doesn’t want to be more like James Bond, right? With celebrities like Matthew McConaughey (Wild Turkey) and Mila Kunis (Jim Beam) becoming more involved in brand recognition, the distillers have upped their game to try and gain market share.
While there are as many thoughts on why this resurgence pushed forward as there are distillers, it usually comes down to image and perception. Pop culture always plays a major role in product trends, and the popularity of shows like Mad Men and even Boardwalk Empire are always mentioned as strong players in the resurgence of the whiskey boom. They combine the romantic notion of going back in time to a so-called “easier, simpler and better” America while enjoying the classic liquors, cocktails, and drink combinations. Customers started ordering those classic drinks and cocktails, so more bartenders started gaining interest, using it as an opportunity to add their individual twist to a popular classic. It was a win-win situation.
Bourbon led the way in this upswing because of its versatility in flavor profiles. It became the everyman/everywoman drink of choice because of it’s ability to be enjoyed on it’s own, yet also able to hold up when combined with mixers and various flavorings for cocktails. And flavorings bring up another point. Whiskey distillers have cleverly flooded the market with specific, flavor infused products that will appeal or at least draw interest from normally apprehensive consumers. While sometimes frowned upon in whiskey and bourbon circles, these flavor-infused spirits have been enormously welcomed by the general public, complete with clever names, eye-catching labels, and enclosed recipes in case you didn’t quite know what to do with that flavored liquor after purchasing it. This made bourbon immediately accessible and demanded by consumers looking to stay trendy or try new, popular, flavor profiles. Following in the footsteps of the craft beer and foodie crowd, distillers now had successfully created their own niche for their products, and it’s a trend that still remains.
So the relationship with the brown waters may be stronger now than in the past, but if you look back at our history you will see that it’s always been there, waiting for us to sift through all the trends and fads, and come back to what the Lewis and Clark themselves knew to be true, that there is a whiskey, bourbon, or scotch for every occasion, serving its own unique and individual purpose.
And the purpose for this particular bourbon drinker may be the purest, most basic purpose of all, generously poured in the presence of friends, a good old web lawn chair, and a roaring bonfire, reminiscing past memories while creating new ones.