For most of the 19th century, marketing of whiskey was mostly done by word of mouth and through newspaper advertisements. These newspapers advertisements were not fancy half-page ads with illustrations, but single-line advertisements such as those printed in the classified section of modern newspapers. Things began to change in the 1840s with the introduction of the lithograph process, making not only illustrations affordable, but also colored illustrations, printed on paper or even metal, allowing for items such as bar and tip trays to be produced. The economic uncertainty of the 1850s followed by the American Civil War slowed the progress of this new advertising media, but that all changed in the 1870s.
When E.H. Taylor, Jr. entered into the business of distilling in 1870, marketing of whiskey was still a fairly primitive process. The distillers were selling their whiskey by the barrel to either liquor dealers or saloons and taverns. These barrels would be lined up behind the bar with the brand name on the barrel head and the better bars had bar decanters made of heavy glass with the brand name enameled on the decanter. The bartender would fill the bar decanter from the barrel as needed to serve his customers. The distiller depended upon the customer seeing the barrel or bar decanter to know what they were drinking. Taylor started to change the way things were done to sell whiskey in the 1870s.
Taylor was selling his O.F.C. Bourbon by the barrel. He started by looking at the barrel and how to make it attract customers. Taylor started by creating a brand for the barrel head that covered the whole head – “O.F.C. E.H. Taylor, Jr. Proprietor”. He then had his barrels made with brass hoops to help them stand out amongst other barrels on the back bar. Taylor then moved on to the word of mouth aspect of marketing. He pursued written endorsements for his whiskey from doctors and prominent citizens such as former Civil War Generals from both sides of the conflict. He then used the lithographic process to create an elaborate and colorful letterhead on his stationary and sent these endorsements to bars in major cities such as New York and Philadelphia.
Other distillers soon stepped up their marketing programs. Advertising art such as lithographic posters and framed advertisements were made available to bars, taverns and liquor dealers. Bar ad tip trays with brand names were also made by the distillers and given to establishments serving their whiskeys.
As glass bottle production was mechanized and bottling whiskey became economically feasible, colorful label designs and embossed bottles became popular marketing tools. Newspaper and magazine advertising became more elaborate with large, half and full-page advertisements, sometimes in color. Marketing had become a major concern for brands.
As marketing became more important, the advertisements themselves became more radical for the times. In order to grab the attention of the drinking public, advertisements used tools such as sex and drunkenness as subjects of ads. Women in seductive poses were featured in bar art. Newspaper and magazine ads had people laughing at drunkards. Racism was used in advertisements depicting blacks either as poor, rural hicks or as the servants to “Southern Gentlemen”. Many of the advertisements were offensive and the temperance movement used these offensive ads to show the lack of moral character of the alcohol industry. Much to their later regret, the alcohol industry ignored these concerns as long as they were selling whiskey. Then came Prohibition. The industry realized that they should have done more to clean up their image with the public. The industry realized that self-regulation might have prevented Prohibition. With the repeal of Prohibition, the industry did create rules on marketing whiskey, putting into place some self-regulation. They had learned their lesson. No more advertisements that featured drunkenness. No advertising that would appeal to children and minors. No women in advertisements and no advertising on the radio. Many of these regulations have been put aside since the 1930s, but the industry, through DISCUS, the KDA and other such organizations, still maintains regulations on advertising and marketing today.
Photos Courtesy of Rosemary Miller