On-premise sales of whiskey is the sale of drinks in a bar or restaurant. Whether it is a pour over the rocks, neat or mixed in a cocktail, the bartender is influencing that consumer of whiskey. The choice of the well spirits, the recommendation of a whiskey to the customer from a waiter or bartender, what other people at the bar are choosing, and the advertising located in the bar are all factors that influence drinkers. There is a long history of this influence and it has never gone unnoticed by the distilleries. On premise sales are important distilleries marketing their brands.

In the 19th century the sale of whiskey to bars was in the form of barrels of whiskey. These barrels would be lined up on the back of the bar and the bartender would ultimately be pulling the whiskey from the barrel. The bar tender would fill a decanter to use to pour the drinks or make the cocktails. When it was empty, he would go to the barrel and refill the decanter. Distillers would give bars decanters that were either embossed with their brand or would have the brand enameled on the decanter. 

E. H. Taylor, Jr. went one step further to influence consumers – he created an elaborate trademark to brand on barrel heads of his whiskey and then had the barrels made with brass hoops to catch the consumer’s eye. Distilleries would also provide artwork and mirrors to hang in the bar. This artwork would feature one of their brands, often in a subtle manner with simply a bottle of their whiskey in the corner of the scene.  They would also furnish bar trays and tip trays that featured their brands.

By the turn of the 20th century, bottling whiskey became profitable for the distilleries. Back-bar barrels were being replaced with shelves full of bottles with elaborate labels. E. H. Taylor, Jr. once again saw an opportunity to make his brand stand out. He replaced the white label he was using for his Old Taylor brand with a bright gold label so it would stand out on the shelf. He also saw how the bars influenced what people drank, so he hired an advertising firm in New York City to go to all of the most popular bars and place empty bottles of Old Taylor in their trash heap behind the bar to encourage people to think that the patrons in that bar were drinking a lot of Old Taylor.

Prohibition halted the legal sale in bars, but after repeal, the distilleries quickly resumed their promotion of their brands in bars.  They provided bars with bar and tip trays, artwork and mirrors as they did before Prohibition, but they expanded their promotions to bar napkins, swizzle sticks, ink pens for the servers, and notepads to write drink orders. Old Mr. Boston brand started printing their Deluxe Bartenders Guide in 1935 and released a new edition every year. 

By the end of the 20th century, distillers were still doing all they had been doing since Prohibition, but they started adding a new element – promotional visits by people who made the whiskey. This was often the Master Distiller, but it could also include the owners or top executive of the company, going into bars and hosting tastings of their whiskey. In modern times, people like Parker Beam, Booker Noe, Bill Samuels, Jimmy Russell, Al Young and other people who worked at the distillery would go into the bar, host the tasting and talk with the customers. Sales increased and many of these people became celebrities, something unknown a hundred years earlier. The distillers expanded upon this by creating educational programs for bartenders and wait staff at bars. Sometimes that took the form of a class held at the bar, but it often was a trip to the distillery to see how the brand was made.

The sale of whiskey in bars and restaurants has always been an important part of brand promotion. Distillers have always known that bartenders are the unsung heroes of the industry. They are doing more to educate these people about their brands than anytime from the past. Today’s bartenders and wait staffs are achieving a standard of professional knowledge that is greater than ever before. And they are still influencing what people drink.

Photos Courtesy of Rosemary Miller