Sports have long been a marketing tool to create interest in your product and whiskey was among the earliest products to do so. Horse racing is one of the earliest sports to have ties to Bourbon. Legend has it the horse industry in Kentucky has its founding as Kentuckians coming back from New Orleans in the 18th and early 19th century purchased fast horses for the return trip up the Natchez Trace. The idea if their horse was faster than the bandits and native Americans who preyed upon such travelers along the Trace, then they would have a better chance of getting home alive and with their profits.
Many distillers invested in these horses and had horse farms as well as distilleries. The Gaines and Pepper families in particular owned horses as well as distilleries in the late 19th century. The Pepper farm produced horses that ran in the Kentucky Derby and their horse “Miss Dixie” won the Kentucky Oaks. Early in the 20th century these ties were complete when the horse and the brand “Rosebud” were directly tied in their fame. Horses and racing imagery were used on labels and distilleries to this day sponsor races at Churchill Downs, Keeneland and elsewhere. Woodford Reserve and Maker’s Mark are well known for their bottles created just for specific races such as the Kentucky Derby or opening day at Keeneland.
Baseball was another sport that inspired marketing of Bourbon brands. The sport was particularly popular in the late 19th century up through the late 20th century. Distilleries would often have baseball
teams formed among the distillery employees and large companies like Schenley had their own league for each distillery team to compete with each other. Schenley had about eight teams in the league in the early 1950s. Isaac Wolfe Bernheim’s brother-in-law even went so far to purchase the Pittsburg Pirates early in the 20th century. Baseball was popular and there were whiskeys that created brands like “Home Run” to capitalize on this popularity. They also had professional baseball players in magazine advertisements endorsing brands. After prohibition this tie was modified as the distillers tried to avoid advertising to children, thus there was not the advertisements in the ballparks like there would have been before prohibition, but there were still many ties between the sport and whiskey including Jim Beam’s recent Cubs World Series commemorative bottle.
Sports that did attract a more mature audience attracted distillery sponsorship and marketing. Chief among these sports was boxing. James E. Pepper distillery was well known as a sponsor of boxing matches including the big fight between Jack Johnson and Jim Jeffries in 1910. “Born with the Republic” banners were found at many ringsides at pre-prohibition arenas. After prohibition there were still banners but many boxers had their own brands of whiskey. Jack Dempsey had his own brand stated he did not tell that you should drink, but if you did drink, you should drink the finest, his Jack Dempsey brand.
Many other sports are found in the Bourbon labels of the past. Football, basketball and other team sports all had brands that used the imagery for advertising and often as brand names. Other sports were also found in the marketing of Bourbon. Hunting and fishing were quite common themes for marketing. I W. Bernheim and Paul Jones had advertising pieces that featured hunting lodges with game hanging by the door. N.M. Uri had a poster of fishing in the north woods for his Rye whiskey. Cabin Still was often advertised in sports magazines as a Bourbon to found at the cabin by the lake while hunting or fishing. American whiskey brands are known to sponsor bass fishing competitions to this day.
In the more modern world starting in the last half of the 20th century, auto-racing has been another sport that attracts Bourbon marketing. A few brands have been major sponsors of drivers and their cars in NASCAR races. All distilleries will at one time or another use the imagery in their advertising and advertise directly to the fans at the racetrack. At the same time they will use the drivers to help push the “Drink Responsibly” message to the fans.
Sports and sporting events will continue to attract distillery dollars as the marketing departments look for ways to sell their brands. Whether it is sponsoring races at a track or fishing tournaments on the lake, if the distilleries think there will be Bourbon drinkers present, they will sponsor and advertise at the events.
Cover image courtesy of Maker’s Mark