Whiskey and Storytelling: Part 2

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Whiskey and the Importance of Storytelling: Part 2

In Whiskey and Storytelling: Part 1, we looked at why whiskey brands gravitate toward telling stories. Now, let’s do a case study and see how the pros do it. But first, a story…

The Story of That One New Year’s Eve When My Significantly Inebriated Friend Proved He Could Walk

It’s New Year’s Eve, and my friends Nate, Andy, his wife Courtney, and I are gathered around the kitchen table playing euchre and drinking the (at the time) hard-to-find Iowa classic, Templeton Rye—‘The Good Stuff.’ (That’s what cool people do on New Year’s Eve, right?)

I glance over at the almost-empty bottle, then over at Nate, and make a quick nod toward the bottle. Nate notices the dearth of sweet nectar left, looks at me, then to his glass, then gestures to me accusingly. I lift my hands and shake my head vigorously—then we see Andy, wobbling slightly in his chair, clearly attempting to literally keep it together. He looks my way and smiles.

Courtney interjects in our silent conversation. “You’re drunk,” she says to Andy.

“I’m fiiiine.”

“It’s okay, Court,” I say. “Nate and I can help you carry him to bed.”

With that, Andy slams his hands on the table, shoots up, and marches with bureaucratic zeal around the table to his wife and proclaims, “Behold! My ability…to walk.”

Rebellious Tall Tale

I’m sure at least a few readers have similar stories of whiskey-fueled mini-rebellions. Tall tales of the wild American West frequently feature the water of life (where whisk(e)y got its name), and any number of whiskey brands lean into this very type of untamed history.

Take, for example, the Templeton Rye that plays into my introduction. As the story goes, residents of Templeton, Iowa, banded together during the Prohibition era to produce carefully crafted bootleg whiskey.

Hitching a ride on some cattle cars to the stockyards of Chicago, Templeton Rye whiskey quickly earned favor with mafia kingpin Al Capone becoming his drink of choice. The tiny and humble town of Templeton soon supplied Capone and his gang with hundreds of kegs each month.

But, in 1933, Prohibition ends, and the following year, Capone is locked up in Alcatraz. Over the next 70 years, production of Templeton Rye winds down, and its recipe is almost lost to obscurity. That is until Meryl Kerkhoff, son of Alphons Kerkhoff (one of the more productive bootleggers) revealed he had the old family recipe. So, he teamed up with Scott Bush, and together, they released the first bottles of legal Templeton Rye whiskey in 2006.   

A Successful Story

The whiskey would go on to remarkable success, expanding its bottling line in 2008 to try and keep up with demand. In 2009, it’s awarded a gold medal at the San Francisco World Spirits Tasting, AND it’s named "Rye Whiskey of the Year" in the Whiskey Bible.

People simply couldn’t get enough of it. When my friends and I drank it that New Year’s Eve, it was almost impossible to find. Each store only got a few bottles, so when they were available, they were usually divvied up amongst the store employees.

Yes, the whiskey was good, but it was really the story people drank up. Who could resist? It’s a great story—a reminder that we’re capable of big things when we come together. We can even take on the government.

In the story of that one New Year’s Eve when my significantly inebriated friend proved he could walk, Templeton Rye wasn’t merely a catalyst for the shenanigans. It was a part of our small group that night, a fifth player in our game of euchre.

That is the power of a good story. As a brand, if you tell your story and tell it well, you’ll become a character in someone else’s. And then that someone might one day write a blog about it.

But Be Honest

I want to preface this by saying I still think Templeton Rye is some tasty whiskey. I almost always have a bottle of it on hand. Okay, now that that’s settled, it turns out Templeton Rye may have oversold their story a bit.

In 2015, Templeton Rye settled three class-action lawsuits accusing the whiskey maker of misrepresenting their product’s origin. While the bottle at the time claimed the whiskey was ‘small batch,’ ‘made in Iowa,’ and based on a ‘prohibition-era recipe,’ Templeton Rye was (and still is) sourcing their whiskey from Midwest Grain Products (MGP).

After it’s been distilled and aged by MGP, it makes its way to Templeton, Iowa, where it’s blended with an “alcohol flavoring formulation” made by Clarendon Flavor Engineers of Louisville and cut with Templeton water to give it a similar flavor profile to that of the bootlegged stuff of yore. In addition to Templeton Rye, MGP also produces the 95 percent rye to 5 percent barley whiskey for several other brands, including Bulleit Rye, Redemption Rye, and George Dickel Rye.

(Side note: Templeton Rye is actually building a distillery in Templeton, Iowa, so eventually it really will be ‘made in Iowa.’)

The Moral of the Story

A great story can really set you apart from others, but a great story doesn’t have to be full of intrigue—it just has to be honest. If it’s not, then you could find yourself taking a financial hit, not to mention a damaged brand image.

So, no matter how humble your beginnings, tell your story, but be authentic. If you want people to have a deep connection to your brand, you have to be human. And nothing is more human than storytelling.