Philip Duff – History Wars

Pulling the wool over our eyes

By Philip Duff

There is nothing I like better than being outside the tent, pissing in. Like, huge surprise, right?


This will not be the first column where I castigate drinks firms for pulling the wool over our eyes (or trying to) but it might be the first one where I point out whose fault it is – yours. A typically entertaining and well-researched piece by Wayne Curtis recently set me thinking. In it, Curtis explained how many of the brands that use ‘heritage’ as a large part of their appeal are actually selling porky pies. It’s been going on for a while and we’re not just talking St. Germain, Chambord and Bols, y’know. Benedictine was actually started by an 19th century millionaire who (even back then) saw that people loved old shit, so he spun a whole story about monks and 1510 etc. Ka-Ching!

All that lovely Scotch marketing showing Highlanders drinking single malt? Balls. Scottish people don’t drink single malt in any quantity, they never have – it’s blended, baby, all the way. Well, actually, vodka is Scotland’s best-selling liquor category, but that’s another story. (That story might be Ketel One – the firm, Nolet, dates from 1691 but had never made vodka in any real quantity until the 1980s.)

So far, nothing new. But why do booze marketers continue to do this? Simple. Because it works. Because we buy it. Yes, you there, at the back. If these patently transparent ploys didn’t actually sucker us in nobody would bother with them. Modern culture has been wallowing in nostalgia, like an exceptionally lethargic hippo in mud, for the best part of thirty years. Music endlessly samples, recycles and mashes up. Sequel after sequel after sequel cram into the cinemas. Bookstores – real and virtual – bulge with ‘series’ books from every author. Our TVs – or BitTorrent streams if you’re me – gush retro-programming: Mad Men, Downton Abbey, Boardwalk Empire. We can’t get enough.

Why do we love stories of history? Well, do you know the difference between a historian and a journalist? Historians don’t have to check their facts! You can write as patently deranged a story as you like and chances are that everyone involved in it is now dead, so you’re off the hook. Now more than ever, when we buy a product, we don’t just want it to do its job we want it to take us on a magical roller-coaster ride of experience.

Boring products have to be sold at rock-bottom prices as commodities: everything that aspires to be a brand has to have a story and that’s where the porky pies creep in. Jim Beam bought the Cooley whiskey firm recently for a lazy $95million. The firm has 1.5 distilleries: the main one, Cooley, was originally an industrial distilling plant designed by a Czech architect in the 1920s as a local stimulus project by the government, and it looks pretty much like you’d expect an industrial distilling plant designed by a Czech architect in the 1920s as a local stimulus project by the government to look – bright green and singularly unattractive.

The other 0.5 is the Kilbeggan distillery, which is actually Ireland’s oldest registered distillery, and which Cooley operated as a visitor centre and lately as an ageing warehouse: since last summer it has been coming slowly online. Kilbeggan was started because Cooley’s founder, John Teeling, had an exceptional eye for what consumers wanted. Famously, the first person hired when he rejuvenated the Cooley distillery in 1987 was a historian, to discover how Irish whiskey used to be made back in the day. Then Teeling went about buying extinct Irish whiskey brands, like Tyrconnell and Kilbeggan.

The very first announcement by Beam after the recent takeover? The global priority brand from Cooley that would get the most money and attention would be Kilbeggan – and I bet a large part of this is because Kilbeggan looks exactly like you expect an Irish whiskey distillery to look, impossibly picturesque and reeking of history. Cooley (and that other, mega, Irish distillery at Midleton) appears decidedly unlovely by comparison. It makes far, far better whiskey than Kilbeggan, but think of the visitor centre!

Fairytales of heritage and nostalgia only let us down when someone inconveniently points out that the emperor has no clothes. So here’s my suggestion: don’t buy brands that lie to you. Even little lies. If a brand or it’s people won’t tell you where it’s really made, what the verifiable history truly is, or how they actually make it, spend your money on a brand that will.

Drinks firms will sell us their brands using what appeals to us and maybe this honesty thing will eventually catch on.

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