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Mad Men and Whiskey, the Story of a Comeback

Posted by Colonel Bourbon on

"Keep a bottle of something in your desk. Mr. Draper drinks rye."

That's one of the first things Peggy learns about her new boss, when the Mad Men TV series began.

Throughout the show, libations play a big part in the characters' lives, driving the narratives, almost being characters themselves. In the 1950s and 60s people seemed to drink more, or at least more openly. Three martini lunches, bars in offices, and in the desks of secretaries. There was sexism and prejudice that was about to get challenged as  the counter-culture moved in and "tuned out." Peggy broke the glass ceiling by drinking whiskey with the boys. 

Mad Men and Whiskey, the Story of a Comeback

(Photo: Madison Ave, home of the advertising industry. Creative Commons, Wikipedia)

The days of conglomerates, TV dinners, and Schenley

It was a different time in many respects, and the brands they drank in the middle of the 20th century reflected the nature of the time. Many of the great distilleries went out of business when Prohibition came. Only six licenses were issued for the production of alcohol for medicinal purposes. With distilleries being shuttered, the craft and the recipes were being lost, forgotten. When the prohibition was repealed, it took time to not only rediscover distilling, but to age the whiskey. Bourbon must be aged in charred new-oak barrels. Aged for a minimum of two years to be able to be called Straight Bourbon.

Then there was World War Two, which put a strain on resources, with rationing in place. President Harry Truman, the bourbon president, "had to close the distilleries  in the U.S. for a couple of months (after the war), to send grain to Europe, which had been ravaged by war."

Today, we enjoy the craft of bourbon. But as the 1950s dawned, it was a decade of the conglomerate and the man in the grey flannel suit. The ad men in Mad Men were looking to land the big corporations: Lucky Strike ("It's toasted.") Kodak (which is basically gone today, having failed to evolve), Heinz Ketchup, Hershey's.

Don Draper's go-to was often Canadian Club, a brand of Canadian, mass-advertised, much like Lucky Strike. Roger Sterling drank Smirnoff. Nothing wrong with these brands but it wasn't the time where enthusiasts camped in front of liquor stores waiting to get a hold of a rare allocated bottle of Pappy. It was the age of the TV dinner.

The largest alcohol distributor for many decades was Schenley Industries. It owned a few bourbons/whiskies, including Schenley-brand, Golden Wedding Rye I.W. Harper, James E. Pepper, and the Old Quaker Company. At the top of their game, they had four floors in the Empire State Building. Today, with the possible exception of Pepper, which someone is trying to revive, you've probably never heard of Schenley.


Speaking of 20th century big business, Conrad "Connie" Hilton, figures prominently in Mad Men, as a nemesis to Draper. Hilton of course is the fictionalized version of the Hilton Hotels founder,  albeit it's been said the portrayal is rather accurate. They meet for the first time, coming from different events at a country club bar that seems to have been abandoned by the bartender. They are both looking for a drink and Don jumps over the bar to make them both an Old Fashioned. There is no bourbon. "Rye, okay with you?" Don asks. Here is the scene:

They leave only knowing each other's first names. 

 Don Draper's Old Fashioned Recipe

  • In shaker, add ice, 2 ounces of Rye whiskey, 1 1/2 ounces of club soda and stir.
  • In a rocks glass/ lowball, add one sugar cube and four dashes of Angostura bitters.
  • Muddle (gently mash to release the juices)
  • Place ice in the glass, with the muddled/mashed sugar cube and bitters.
  • Pour shaker into the glass
  • Add orange slice.

Old Fashioned cocktail

(Photo: the Old Fashioned cocktail, with ice ball and twist. Creative Commons, Wikipedia.)

Bourbon makes a comeback

Mad Men introduced new generations to whiskies that had gone out of favor by the time the 1970s arrived. Baby boomer's considered bourbon to be their father's Oldsmobile. Vodka and other "light" spirits were taking over. Whiskey producers and distributors tried to market "light" whiskey, to predictably terrible results: "Lighten Up," "Let there be light"...

In 1971, in the episode "Dead Weight"  of the Columbo TV Series, a character whose daughter is being wooed by Major General Hollister (Eddie Albert) exclaims "Today bourbon, tomorrow Champagne." The former had hit the  bottom.

But cultural events like Mad Men have helped bring the whiskey back, in a very big way.  Distilleries have come back to life. A bottle of good bourbon can be more expensive that the wine from Champagne, France.

Don Draper aka Richard "Dick" Whitman was born June 1, 1926. Others born in 1926: Marilyn Monroe, Hugh Hefner, Elizabeth II, Chuck Berry, Miles Davis, Mel Brooks, Tony Bennett, Jerry Lewis, Don Rickles, John Coltrane, George Martin... Quite a cast.

Mad Men's third season takes place in 1963. The 1926 babies were 37; what a life they lived; a few are alive today.

Cheers to them; a toast in a tumbler they would appreciate. The Old Fashioned clip above was in the third episode of the third season. Nine episodes later, in the episode "The Grown-ups," JFK was assassinated.

It's good to have a drink  to the before-times.

“This is America. Pick a job and become the person who does it.” – Bobbie Barrett, Mad Men, Season 2, Episode 5, “The New Girl”

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