Hollywood has long had a love affair with bourbon. From Dean Martin singing “Bourbon from Heaven” to John Dutton pouring a glass of Bulleit Bourbon on Yellowstone, Hollywood loves bourbon.
Product placement is nothing new in Hollywood. For example, in a scene in The Hustler (1961), Paul Newman, aka Fast Eddie Felson, says, “Preacher! Go on down and get me some bourbon. J. T. S. Brown. No ice, no glass.” There are numerous other mentions of bourbon on the silver screen. So, what is Hollywood’s fascination with bourbon?
Bourbon is sexy, but not every whiskey can be considered bourbon. The only native American spirit has strict guidelines that distillers must follow. One of the rules is that only whiskey produced in the United States can be called bourbon. Along those same lines, there is only one Hollywood in the world.
In 2017, Brown-Forman partnered with 20th Century Fox and completely upended the product placement pyramid with “The Kingsman: The Golden Circle” (a sequel to the 2014 movie “The Kingsman: The Secret Service”), releasing a premium blended bourbon called “The Statesman,” by Old Forester. Not only was the bourbon part of the story, but it was also the British agency’s counterpart in America.
Old Forester President Campbell Brown said in a 2017 news release, “Director Matthew Vaughn wanted the product of ‘The Kingsman’s” American counterpart to have a business that was as focused on craftsmanship and legacy as the bespoke business of the first film and thus, the idea was born. As the oldest bottled bourbon in America and the only bourbon to be bottled and sold before, during and after Prohibition, Old Forester was the right partner to craft the line of bourbon.”
(Note the bourbon was not just a throwaway; the spirit received high marks at the 2021 Ultimate Spirit Challenge, scoring a 94 out of a possible 100.)
So, do producers or directors request the product or does the distillery reach out to promote its brand?
According to fastcompany.com, product placement is a $23 billion industry. Major distilleries such as Old Forester, Buffalo Trace and Heaven Hill have marketing teams that rely on product placement companies such as Front Row Media, Green Product Placement and Forth6Eleven to lobby on behalf of the company.
Beth L. Fossen, an assistant professor of marketing at the Kelly School of Business at Indiana University, explains, “As advertisers struggle to reach consumers, they’re increasingly turning to product placement, spending advertising budgets to get their ads into media content in ways that can’t be skipped or muted. I’ve found that viewers are most influenced by product placements in which the product or brand name is spoken by one of the characters but not shown—what’s called ‘verbal product placement.’”
A great example of verbal product placement is in the movie “The Internship” (2013), where Vince Vaughn and Owen Wilson are watch salesmen who are so confident in closing a massive sale that Vince’s character, Billy McMahon, orders a round of Pappy Van Winkle. He states, “It’s pricey, but I want to spiritually invest in our success.”
Pappy was popular before, but once it was spoken for the first time in a movie, the brand rose to be mythical in stature.
Pappy Van Winkle never pays anyone to mention its product. Preston Van Winkle, the son of founder Julian Van Winkle, said in an interview, “We’ve never paid anyone to mention our products and we’ve never given anyone live product. We have never sought out the entertainment industry.”
Pappy has been more famous in recent years due to “Pappygate,” where Buffalo Trace employee Gilbert “Toby” Curtsinger used his inside connections to steal hundreds of bottles of Pappy Van Winkle bourbon estimated to be worth half a million dollars.
Bourbon is becoming a staple in Hollywood. For example, the fictional Bourbon Room, made popular in the Broadway hit and Hollywood movie “Rock of Ages,” is now a real bourbon bar and live event venue located in Hollywood’s Vinyl District.
Even James Bond—007 himself—ditched the martini a time or two for bourbon. In “Live and Let Live,” Bond—as portrayed by Roger Moore—relaxed with a dram of Old Grand-Dad Bonded Bourbon. In “Diamonds Are Forever,” Sean Connery’s Bond orders bourbon with branch water. Connery, in fact, was a paid spokesperson for Jim Beam from 1966 to 1974. The Beam ad reads:
The taste is distinctive.
The man is Sean Connery.
The bourbon is JIM BEAM.
Could bourbon get any cooler? The answer is a resounding “yes.” Hollywood stars such as Matthew McConaughey, Bob Dylan, and Wille Nelson have created their own brands of bourbon. And celebrities aren’t just lending their name to the bourbon. McConaughey began his creative partnership with Wild Turkey in 2016 and, with the help of the current Master Distiller Eddie Russell, created Wild Turkey Longbranch. The bourbon is moderate in price and overall taste.
Bourbon is here to stay and is part of popular culture now. More and more states are producing bourbon. Texas, Wyoming, Washington and many more have opened distilleries to catch the bourbon wave.
Some may say, “Too much of a good thing is too much,” especially when Hollywood gets its hands on it. Anything that brings light to our unique and wonderful spirit cannot be bad. Bourbon has had its ebbs and flows like other spirits, but bourbon continues to rise because of the stories’ popularity and the people behind the brands.
Let’s toast to Hollywood: “May we never be out of spirits.”
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