Yes, bourbon. Though bourbon is often thought of as a warm weather drink, something to be served on the rocks, with iced tea or lemonade, or in a mint julep or similar cocktail, there’s actually a long-standing history of bourbon mixing well with wintertime. It’s generally consumed year-round in the south. And throughout the 20th century, makers of bourbon spent a lot of time and effort attempting to bring build the audience for their product, launching ad campaigns and positioning this quintessentially American whiskey as a vital element of the holidays – perfect for drinking straight, suitable for inclusion in all manner of festive beverages, and an ideal gift item for friends and co-workers.
After the end of Prohibition, American whiskey makers faced an uphill battle to regain their market share. Tastes had changed over the previous thirteen years; the only readily available whiskey in much of the country had been the lighter and smoother Canadian varieties, and the richness and body of bourbon was at odds with the popular palate. On top of that, American distilleries were starting from scratch, trying to rebuild their stores for coming years while having to rush-release un-aged stock after blending it with flavorings and neutral spirits, while Canadian and Scottish companies had plenty of well-aged varieties ready to go. (Irish whiskey was barely an issue at this point, accounting for only a tiny fraction of the US market.)
So, it was time for advertising and publicity, to remind the public of the glories of homegrown all-American bourbon. And what better time than winter, when everyone needs a warming beverage?
Four Roses became the most popular Bourbon in America after Prohibition ended, outselling all competitors by a healthy margin, conducting extensive holiday ad campaigns throughout the ’30s, ’40s, and ’50s, and becoming an essential part of Christmas parties for an entire generation.
Other distilleries got in on the action too, creating their own memorable marketing strategies, encouraging consumers to use bourbon not just in their eggnog, but in holiday punches and other cocktails.
And by the mid ’60s, Jim Beam even adopted its highest-profile campaign to create a Christmas-themed advertisement.
And through this time, bourbon was slowly rebuilding its reputation as a noteworthy libation. Dean Martin sang of being showered with “Bourbon From Heaven”. Ringo Starr named it as his drink of choice in Beatles press conferences. The tough-yet-glamorous leads in movies were bourbon drinkers: Kirk Douglas in Lonely Are The Brave, Paul Newman in The Hustler. And in 1958, the whiskey industry created a new trade organization called The Bourbon Institute, who worked tirelessly to promote their namesake spirit.
The Institute was headquartered in New York City, and operated on different levels: lobbying on behalf of the industry, working with distilleries to maintain quality and productivity, masterminding seasonal promotional campaigns, and throwing a holiday ‘Bourbon Ball’ at the Plaza Hotel that quickly became a highlight of New York’s autumn society calendar.
It seems The Institute’s efforts paid off. By 1962, Bourbon was the best selling distilled spirit in the US, and sales more than tripled between 1958 and 1970. Kentucky’s homegrown whiskey had established itself as a year-round favorite.
Bourbon is what George Bailey orders for himself and Clarence the angel in It’s A Wonderful Life — you can’t ask for more of a seasonal endorsement than that!
And aside from all this historical perspective, it’s worth mentioning that bourbon just makes sense to have on hand for the holidays – it’s a good base for hot toddies, it pairs well with many heavy wintertime meals, it goes brilliantly with eggnog. And of course, with its warm flavors of oak and caramel, it’s cozy and comforting to just sit back and sip with family and friends while the snow swirls outside.