About Drunk & Unemployed
When I was a kid, there were 3 or 4 brands of premium vodkas, and they all came in one flavor–plain. There were 3 brands of gin, Bombay, Tanqueray, and Beefeater. Tequilas had worms in them, and American beers were all pilsners, but no one knew that. It was just American beer. Wine was just beginning a surge, thanks to California wineries bottling decent vintages, but about a decade before, all the average consumer knew about wine was cheap Italian Chianti and expensive French reds. The cheap stuff wasn’t good, and the expensive stuff was wasted on the average American palate.
What we did have when I was a kid was a cola war. In an effort to capture maximum shelf space in the American supermarket, cola companies began to offer different flavors of cola. If Coca-Cola had six types of sodas, while Pepsi had only four, Coke would have 50% more sodas on the shelves. Diet, lemon, caffeine-free, one-calorie, clear–those were just the colas. Suddenly, everyone had a specific type of cola that they preferred. Smaller companies couldn’t compete with the big brands of cola, so they began to concentrate on juices. Snapple initially made natural sodas, including a clear cola made from real cola beans. It wasn’t that good. But when they started to bottle iced teas and lemonades in those ubiquitous glass bottles, they started to gain shelf space in every deli and quick mart. The cola companies began to feel their growing market-share slow. Soon, they purchased the juice companies in order to hold their edge. And, again, the best way to maintain the strongest hold on the market was to constantly offer new flavors. Today, the shelves are filled with bizarre flavors like mango-kiwi and pomegranate-acai.
Simultaneously, the marketing-wizards behind the cola-wars began to reshape advertising for premium liquors. It started with a moderately-palatable vodka from Sweden, called Absolut. The bottle it was sold in was noticeably different from other vodkas. It would eventually become iconic. But even before everyone recognized the shape of the bottle, Absolut would do a couple of things to change the premium liquor market forever. First, they advertised the vodka as a brand. There have been well-known premium distillers and bottlers for years–Johnny Walker, Chivas Regal, Seagrams, and the above mentioned gins, to name just a few. But most of these brands were known for the taste of their products. These brands were premium because they were created with quality ingredients, were expensive and, supposedly, tasted better than other liquors in the same class. Absolut, as a vodka, didn’t have an exceptional taste. Vodkas, in America 30 years ago, were mixers. Asking for an Absolut gimlet made as much sense as asking for a coffee to be sweetened with Domino sugar.
But Absolut branded itself as the vodka to ask for by name. They blanketed magazines like Playboy and Esquire with ads that had tag-lines saying, “Absolut Success,” or “Absolut Quality.” They got contemporary artists to draw versions of the bottle for some ads. Very occasionally, these ads would boast that Absolut tasted better than other vodkas, but that was never the point. Absolut established its brand as the contemporary drink for successful people.
The marketing-wizards weren’t done, though. What good was a successful brand if there was only one row dedicated to it on a liquor store’s shelf? Absolut took a page from the cola-war playbook and began to offer three additional flavors–limon, peppar, and currant. Essentially turning its vodka into gin, Absolut now had four times the visibility on the shelves.
It took a long time for other premium liquor marketers to catch up with Absolut, while small beer brewers ran with this fairly quickly. Micro-brewers found that having a number of styles of beer actually created loyalty to their brands, instead of fracturing their market-share, which was always a concern for the cola manufacturers and larger brewers. Consumers, the ones who grew up with a dozen cola flavors, scores of flavors of iced tea, and hundreds of brands of water, weren’t satisfied with single-item brands anymore.
There were always flavored premium-brand liquors before. Malibu was a coconut rum, and Captain Morgan was a spiced rum. But now, both Malibu and Captain Morgan come in a variety of flavors. Kahlúa is one of the best-known coffee-flavored liquors, but now there are now at least three flavors of it.
Combine this with hundreds of vinters from dozens of grape-growing regions around the world using dozens of grape varietals, and between the wine, beer, and liquor on sale, it is increasingly difficult to know what the hell anything tastes like anymore. Everyone has a cocktail named after them. People think martinis are made with vodka. Hipsters drink Naty Ice and PBR as anti-consumerist protests, but not because they’re particularly good beers. What is good? What to drink?
Well, I’ve got the time to check it all out. There’s a world full of alcohol out there, and I’m a novice who is eager to learn. I don’t expect most people to agree with my particular tastes, but I can assure my readers that I will honestly judge what I write about. Branding means very little to me. And if I am wildly successful and importers are sending me cases of premium vodka, I will not pull my punches. Absolut tastes like the stuff that the school nurse used to use to clean off the thermometer before checking if I had a fever.
I hope readers will find my opinions and discoveries interesting enough to continue to stop on by. I’ll be posting reviews and recipes for all types of drinks. I’m just learning my wines, and very slowly learning to appreciate whiskeys, but I’m game for anything. I’m always looking for suggestions, too, so if there is a particular brand or class of beer, wine, or liquor, or recipe for mixed drink, that you think I should try, please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org. If I am going to try your suggestion, I will post your email, but I will omit any personal details, so you’ll remain anonymous. Thanks for reading.