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The Names Behind the Booze
Posted: October 14, 2003
The product of his curiosity, Big Shots: The Men Behind the Booze (New American Library, $11.95), is at once a history of some very influential liquor producers, an education into what and how you drink, and an insight into how frivolous the names on booze can sometimes be.
The author tells the stories of such legendary whiskey men as Beam, Daniel and Johnny Walker who put their names legitimately on bottles. He also discusses Captain Morgan, who never made rum, and the Smirnoff brothers, who, although having made vodka, have nothing to do with the present product of the same name. Baime tackles all with an ironic voice that will keep even teetotalers entertained. For instance, he relates a rollicking trip with Beam grandson Booker Noe to the Bourbon Hall of Fame in which Noe seems to take credit for his forebear's demise (something about giving him some bad quail).
While many of the bottle names make sense, a few are mysteries or just blatant marketing gimmicks. The Bailey Original Irish Cream had been an enigma until Baime delved into its origin (not that long ago -- in the early 1970s) and discovered that marketers were simply trying to come up with an easily pronounced Irish name. Coincidence provided them with one -- two of the parent company's facilities had establishments name Bailey nearby. The marketing boys came up with the initials R.& A. for the fictitious Bailey brothers on their own.
Captain Morgan, while a real person, was something of scallywag who wouldn't have been much of an advertisement for the rum he never produced. He killed, tortured and possibly raped people on his way to drinking himself to death with, yes, rum. In 1983, Seagram put him on a label. You can read both the Captain's story as well as the meteoric rise and dismal fate of the Bronfman family, which named their company Seagram after a distillery they bought.
The Smirnoffs were brothers who made vodka, but were imprisoned by the Bolsheviks for being capitalists. One was executed, the other died penniless. Neither saw the vodka named for them turned into a worldwide best seller by an Englishman in Connecticut.
We also learn that the Beefeater on the gin label was out of business centuries before the drink was invented. The name, however, is not just a comment on the portly size of Tower of London guards who earned it. They were actually paid in cuts of steer. The section regarding Jose Cuervo tequila not only tells the family history, but compares that spirit with mescal and charges that the worm in the latter's bottle is nothing but a marketing ploy. We also learn about men behind Hennessy Cognac, Dom Perignon Champagne, Martini & Rossi vermouth, Jameson Irish whiskey, Old Grand-Dad Bourbon, Tanqueray gin, J&B Scotch and others.
Better yet, Baime is generous with suggestions on how to mix each of these spirits, and that comes in handy when you tire of reading about them.
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