Whiskey Thoughts – With a picture of Chocolate

Yes, it’s another picture of chocolate. But whilst reviewing several photographs taken over the past few weeks, I was overjoyed that I actually found one that I liked. So I decided to share it with the world, whilst I play with some thoughts going through my head.

The overarching theme of my whisky travels has been the idea of ‘heritage’, this weirdly nebulous idea that somehow, some way, tying one’s brand and/or label to the past imparts some level of quality that wouldn’t exist otherwise. Ireland folks talked about their place in creating the drink, Scotland talked of honing it, America talked of the people involved in making it, and Canada? Well, Canada was the exception to the rule. I’ll get to them in a moment.

But the reality of the heritage of whisky is completely different than what is sold by the marketers and PR folks. Some of this reality includes:

  • Bourbon’s popularity is a recent thing – Post world war II. It existed prior, certainly. But many of the bourbon companies that exist today did not exist in 1930.
  • American Prohibition killed the American Whisky industry.
  • American Prohibition made Canadian Distilleries millions upon millions of dollars.
  • Irish Whiskey, from the 16th through 18th centuries, used peat regularly.
  • Scotch’s popularity in the mid 20th century came from the collapse of the Irish industry at the beginning of the 20th century.
  • The English, thanks to their excise laws, did as much, if not more than, the Scots and the Irish to shape the state of the Whisky industry today.
  • Most multi-national corporations are only interested in a brands heritage when it can be used as a selling point, and many times not even then.

I could go on, but you get the picture.

What’s so interesting about this is that there were many places that knew their place in history and acted accordingly, and yet there were other places that completely manufactured their past. Cooley bought an abandoned distillery in Kilbeggan, Ireland so that they cold put the year 1757 on their bottles (even though Cooley has only been around since 1988. Bushmills, as a company, has only been around since the early 1800′s, rather than the 1608 upon their labels. Jim Beam insinuates that they’ve been around of several generations with the pictures of past distillers upon their label, but they’ve only been around since post-prohibition. I find this behavior immensely fascinating.

Imagine for a moment that you wanted to claim that you were directly related to George Washington. For proof, you purchase Mt. Vernon. That’s what’s going on in the industry.

But that doesn’t diminish the historical significance of the history they buy. In some ways, in kinda/sorta adds to it. It’s fascinating that Bushmill’s is on the same land since the 1780′s, and their ties to the license of 1608 remind us how the patent and licensing system used to work. Locke’s distillery in Kilbeggan was a fascinating place, being more of a archaeological site than a distillery. Jim Beam reminds me how much distilling was a family affair. Had someone not purchased or marketed these aspects, these components of history may be gone.

Which is why I find myself with a tender heart for the Canadian Industry. Canadian Club has started to embrace their place in history in regards to prohibition, something not done prior to be owned by Jim Beam Brands. John Hall at Forty Creek makes a point of NOT following tradition, looking for his own way. Considering the current state of the other brands of Canadian Whisky, it was interesting to see both of these companies forge their own identities in distinctly different ways.