Martin Luther one noted, “Beer is made by men, wine by God.” I’m not sure what that German monk liked to sip in his spare time, but if whiskey had been around during the Reformation, he might have thought it to be made by man, improved by God.
For once whiskey goes into the barrels, any number of random things can occur to change its flavor profile. Sure, producers can continue to manipulate it, trying to control the climate or by moving barrels to different spots in the aging warehouses, but the change they're able to impart is fairly limited. What happens, however, when the Big Guy above decides to throw an occasional disaster your way—tornadoes, earthquakes, hurricanes? Then what? Luckily, whiskey companies have long loved incorporating the mythology of disaster into their products.
Because whiskeys need to be aged for years at a time, they inherently have a connection to the world occurring around them. Whether it’s something as simple as a scorching hot summer or an unexpectedly frigid winter, whiskey becomes a part of the ebbs and flows of nature. Heat can cause barrels to expand, and liquid inside to even evaporate. While cold causes barrels to contract, their pores tightening up, the vanillin flavors able to be released from the oak and into the liquid. Likewise, whiskey is liquid history, with some taking so long to mature we almost forget exactly what was happening during the decades or so that the juice was living in the barrel. And if any sort of major disaster happened during that time, it simply makes it easier for the whiskey companies to tell us tall tales to help sell product.
Jameson is an entire whiskey brand seemingly built on disaster—or, at least, the relentless surviving of it. In fact, the Jameson family motto, Sine Metu (“Without Fear”), is written on every bottle. The company’s 2012 ad campaign was all about John Jameson’s fearlessness in surviving certain disasters. He battled fires, hurricanes, rocky sea voyages and killer octopi encounters, and even dipso-maniacal hawks, just to get his whiskey made and delivered to his consumers.
Marketing department machinations? Sure. John Jameson most likely had a cushy office job and hit the links every afternoon. Still, you can’t deny those stellar commercials get you fired up and make you too want to be intrepid in the face of disaster. Or maybe that’s the side effects of all those shots of Jameson you just downed.
In America, where we do everything a little more on-the-nose than the Europeans, disaster whiskey has become big business. Forget simply insinuating your whiskey comes on the heels of danger: downright note it on the bottle, and give it a crazy name to boot. With so many products entering the market during this current whiskey boom, companies are needing to find unique and unusual ways to seduce the whiskey geeks. If a stash of barrels is still standing after a tornado blows by, destroying almost everything else around it, well, why not build upon its 'mystical aura'?
Below, we look at the strange ways the whiskey industry has commemorated disasters over the years.