It’s 5 AM. You drive to a nearby park to meet up with some friends for a pre-work run. The streets are quiet. The traffic light turns red. You stop. You could go, but you don’t. You stop because you’re part of a social contract. We’re willing to suspend some of our liberties for the greater good, like public safety. Laws allow us to leave the house each day without fear. The bunny hopping on your front lawn isn’t as fortunate. Prior to Prohibition, American distillers could advertise as they saw fit. Telling the truth was optional. People had to rely upon, as Abraham Lincoln put it, the better angels of ones nature.
In the beginning, God created misleading bourbon advertising...
Elijah Craig fathered 7 (possibly 10) children, and was the one-time father of the Blue Run church in what’s now the Commonwealth of Virginia, but to say he was the father of bourbon is pushing it. No one truly knows who invented bourbon. Recipes aside, records weren’t really kept. Thankfully, the lies of today mostly come in shades of white. The lies of the past, however, had the potential to cause serious harm. There’s one company that turned irresponsible marketing into an art form, Duffy’s Pure Malt Whiskey.
In the late 1800s and early 1900s, whiskey was still being used for medicinal purposes. I own a pharmaceutical whiskey label from that period. Just below Fine Old Bourbon Whiskey, it reads, “For Family Use.” Whiskey was a trusted remedy for all sorts of maladies back then. Of course now, we all know the only thing whiskey can mend is a broken heart. Duffy’s had no shame. They’d say anything. Here are just a few of my favourites:
“Vigorous At 148 Years Of Age.”
“Mrs. Nancy Tigue, of Lafayette, Ind., Although in Her 106th Year, Says: I Really Don’t Feel Like I’m a Day Over 60.”
“Two ounces of alcohol contains more nutri-ment than twelve ounces of meat.”
“U.S. Has 3,536 Centenarians, Almost Every One of Them Owes His or Her Ripe Old Age to Duffy’s Pure Malt Whiskey, the Elixir of Life.”
Duffy’s claimed to be everything to everyone all at once. It worked too. At its height, Duffy’s was one of the most popular medicinal whiskies in America. In my piece, “Blurred Lines,” I talked about native advertising. Duffy’s made their ads look like articles, and put them in reputable newspapers and magazines. We would’ve been duped too. Who doesn’t want to look vigorous at 148 years of age? As you’ve probably guessed by its absence on your liquor store shelves, Duffy’s is no longer with us. Duffy’s reputation as a cure-all began to wane once articles surfaced about its questionable claims. The one that always cracks me up was when Duffy’s received an endorsement from a “clergyman.” The clergyman in question ran a quickie marriage parlour. Duffy’s, like all whisky outfits, fell on hard times during Prohibition. They went out of business in 1926.
After Prohibition, distilleries were terrified. I had a bully in Grade 3. Back then, kids had to repeat a grade if their abilities weren’t up to snuff. Wilfred, my bully, should’ve been in Grade 4. He was a tall, angry boy. On the day of my scheduled execution, I noticed his lunch lacked treats. I cowered over to his table, and asked him if he wanted my cookies. My stay of execution was granted. I gave him my cookies for the next 5 months. The last thing distilleries wanted after Prohibition was another Prohibition. Temperance groups were still popular, and very powerful. It was time to play it safe. No more health claims. No more advertising to women or minors. No more advertising on Sunday, and no more advertising on the radio. This code of conduct remained in place for 60 years, from 1936 until 1996.
Today, marketing departments aren’t as important as they once were. Many companies now use influencers to push their products (native advertising). Up until recently, one man was the undisputed king of all influencers, Jim Murray. I was helping out a local liquor store when he made Alberta Premium Cask Strength his Whisky of the Year. The stores that carried it (we didn’t), sold out in less than an hour. The phone rang all day. The people who called always asked the same question, “You guys carry the best whisky in the world?” Like there’s such a thing. That was his power though. I don’t really consider myself an influencer, but I do wish I could go back in time and work for the Duffy’s marketing department:
“Duffy’s makes me look so young, I now have to buy Duffy’s with a parent or guardian present.”
“I was keen on a girl, but she found me to be a real flat tire. I replaced my old cologne with Duffy’s Pure Malt. Now we’re getting hitched!”