Perspective: Message in a Bottle

You cherish your dad’s old tweed jacket—but you don’t drink his whiskey

As a cocktails columnist and occasional bartender, Michael Dietsch often runs across old decanters and barware at flea markets near his home in Providence, R.I. But there’s one artifact he’s yet to encounter: “I’ve never seen a bust,” Dietsch says, referring to the kitschy piece of plaster handiwork that takes center stage in this 1962 ad for Old Grand-Dad.

Well, maybe one day. But the very fact that Dietsch is finding old decanters and barware at junk sales in the first place is the more telling point. Why? It proves that Americans aren’t drinking distilled spirits like they used to. (Not at home, anyhow.) It also helps explain the dramatic shift in marketing themes between the 49-year-old ad and its modern counterpart. As Dietsch explains: “The very elements of conformity and longevity [celebrated] in these 1960s ads ended up hurting distillers by the 1980s because people didn’t want to drink their old man’s booze anymore.” Poor Old Grand-Dad.

According the Smithsonian Institution, the 1950s through the ’60s was the cultural heyday of the home bar—built by dad (usually in the basement) and fitted out with decanters, ice buckets, and highball glasses. And that’s exactly where the ad at right takes us. “It was aimed at male consumers, and it told them what guests expected to see,” Dietsch says. By evoking tradition (which, if anything, is what that bust is doing) the ad also reassured: Serve your company Old Grand-Dad, and you stand within acceptable social parameters; drink like your father (and his father), and you’re going to be OK.

Just not for very long. After all, the late ‘60s shook every social construct to pieces. Basement bars ceded to discos. Women started careers—and went out for cocktails. Drinks at home morphed to drinks at celebrity-chef bistros. Before you knew it, dad’s old standby hooch was a poor fit for the individualistic millennial consumer. “Small batch, single-barrel became the aspirational thing to drink,” Dietsch notes, “not the brand your father drank.”

So whiskey ads changed, and Woodford is a textbook example of how. Small batch, not big. A high-rise bar, not one in the basement. And instead of a presumed male drinker, “the Woodford ad is [sexually] ambiguous,” Dietsch points out.

Which is to say: Whiskey’s marketing message has been broadened, contemporized—the inevitable work of time. It’s just too bad someone tossed out that nifty bust.