The Trouble with Whiskey ‘First’ Marketing

In American whiskey, distillers have this odd desire to say they were the first with something.

“We were the first distiller on this hill, who started on a Tuesday.” (Nobody made this claim.)

“We were the first distiller here since Prohibition.” (Even if true, nobody cares anymore.)

“We were the first to distill barefooted.” (Okay, nobody really makes this claim, but all eyes are on Smooth Ambler to make it soon.)

Upstart distillers are notorious for “first” marketing. Likely hoping to garner attention and instant market share, they try to find the one area to stake their “first” claim. And so many times, it’s wrong.

In 2014, Heartland distillery claimed to be the first new distillery in Indiana since Prohibition. Chuck Cowdery called them out, and they no longer say this. A  distillery in Lawrenceburg, Ind., has made whiskey long before Heartland opened.

Of course, the larger distillers make silly claims, too, but theirs are often from the long, long ago. From Bulleit, whose recipe allegedly comes from the 1800s-era Augustus Bulleit and is coincidently similar to its contracted distillers, to Elijah Craig, who touts Craig as the “Father of Bourbon” on its label despite historians questioning the 1789 claim, whiskey labels are not where we go for the truth. But they’re really just stories, and I think I’ve grown numb to pre-Internet marketing BS. Hell, Coca-Cola shaped the image of Santa Claus. Does that invalidate my Transformer collection Santa got me last year? (I mean, when I was 12.)

For some reason, I’ve just completely written off all marketing pre 1995 as typical whiskey BS, a time honored tradition for distillers. Remember, this is the same industry, where whiskey makers claimed to cure cancer and everybody had the original sour mash whiskey. Where I draw the line is the post-Internet generation. It’s probably unfair, but there’s no excuse for creating non-verifiable marketing claims. If you want to find a historic figure and build a whiskey brand around that person, I’m all for it, but please do so in accordance to that person’s history. In fact, I’m a fan of the historical efforts put into the likes of Magnus, Pepper and Chicken Cock, all NDPs resurrecting past whiskey names.

What drives me crazy is the  unnecessary  “first” angle, even if the local media inserts the message and it then gets purported as fact. (I believe this is how the Elijah Craig legend took off, as noted in my book, Bourbon.) That’s the case here: According to WALB, Six & Twenty Distillery makes the “world’s only” five grain bourbon.

I don’t know why the news organization extrapolated first five grain, but Six & Twenty does not tout its five grain bourbon as the only one in the world. Rather, they say it’s “one of a kind.” That’s absolutely true, as they distill all local grains. Arguably, though, all whiskeys are one of a kind, because of their yeast, fermentation, distillation and aging techniques.

But five grain bourbon is nothing new. Woodstone Creek made five grain bourbon long before it was cool.

However, somebody will pick up WALB’s claim and report it, and another “first” error will populate the whiskey business. In my book, Six & Twenty gets a pass here, but many distillers would then attempt to turn the media into fact.

Therein lies the problem: Whiskey companies are all so hellbent on gaining a marketing edge that they are willing to allow lies or half truths as fact.

At some point, we must all realize that just because something is the “first” doesn’t mean it will win us over. If the first is historically mind blowing, such as the first distillery in Bourbon County since Prohibition or the first peated Bourbon, I think that opens the doors for a distillery. But the “first” to use corn from St. Louis urban farmers doesn’t pique the interest of many.

In the end, if your whiskey is good, you’ll sell it. If it stinks, well, good luck in your next career.


Fred Minnick is the author of Bourbon. Sign up for his free drinks newsletter

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