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Saturday
Apr122014

The Beginning of the End

I usually mention "Mad Men" to a customer at least once a day while working on the sales floor.

"You guys don't have any older Bourbons, do you?" someone will inevitably ask after walking up and down the aisle a few times.

"Not since Bourbon took off, unfortunately," I'll eventually answer.

"Why is that? Why did American whiskey suddenly become so popular?" is the fated response.

"Well...it pretty much began with Mad Men."

And then we're off.

There were many factors that influenced the explosion of the American whiskey category, but in my personal opinion, no factor was as influencial as Don Draper. It's no coincidence that the beginning of the trend coincided with the beginning of the show. Drinking is one of the many ways we pretend as humans and in 2007 -- the year I left teaching and started working at K&L -- millions of people around the country began pretending they were a part of Sterling Price, pouring themselves a glass of rye while tuning into AMC on Sunday evenings. By 2008, American whiskey was on a roll and we were running extremely low on Rittenhouse, Wild Turkey, and Sazerac. By 2009 -- the year I took over as spirits buyer -- we were completely out of Kentucky rye, which facilitated the transition to the LDI brands like Redemption, Bulleit, and Templeton. The category had exploded beyond any possible expectation as if Don had been writing the ads himself..

Mad Men didn't just inspire millions of people to drink historically, it inspired them to think historically. With the onslaught of 1960s fashion being displayed on the screen, American culture began to search for the authentic remnants of its past. It almost became a contest: who could out-retro the next person? You've pulled out classic recipes from the pre-Prohibition era? Big deal! I've gone back to the 19th century, found the description for an original Barbary Coast cocktail, and I'm sporting the twirly moustache associated with bartenders from that era. Beat that! Once again, alcohol became the framework in which we could pretend; it was a way to escape the mundane drivel of the day-to-day grind and imagine we were someone glamorous from another place and another time. Whiskey became the springboard for that mindset and an era of new Romanticism began.

Much like Americans were pretending to be hard-drinking figures from the past, ordering Manhattan cocktails at bars pretending to be Speakeasies, the characters on Mad Men were also pretending. Dick Whitman was pretending to be Don Draper. He was pretending to love his wife. He was pretending to be a hard-working family man, content with a house in the suburbs and all of the amenities of life he had acquired thus far. Who better to write copy, create desire, and convince other Americans that they should buy into his version of that dream? It takes a pretender to understand a pretender, and Don knew exactly how to pitch a product to the American idea of itself. Unfortunately, that dream wasn't based on reality and -- like most peoples' Facebook accounts -- the perception wasn't representative of the truth. Don was weak, needy, and starving for affirmation. He wasn't the dynamo he appeared to be and, over six incredible seasons, we began to learn more about his inner demons.

As the seventh and final season of Mad Men begins tomorrow, I have to ask myself: where is this all going to end? Not just the show, its plotline, and the future of its characters, but also the drinking culture the show has inspired. Mad Men has never been building towards any final payoff or foregone conclusion. It's not alluding towards an inevitable showdown between Walter White and Jesse Pinkman, nor a confrontation with the Yellow King. Mad Men has never been a televised page-turner, nor has it ever caused me to leap from my chair in anticipation of next week's show. Like the effects of a glass of whiskey itself, Mad Men is a slow burn -- a realization that gradually sinks in and envelopes you over the course of a few hours. It might cause you to laugh out loud, or it may make you feel terrible -- revealing aspects of your personality that you were hoping to ignore and forget.

Mad Men's course has no clear cut path; there has never been a linear storyline, so it's difficult to predict its final conclusion. I just have to wonder if the end of the show will predicate an end to the whiskey and cocktail culture established in its wake. Like the lives of Don, Roger, and Peggy themselves and the themes that have surrounded them, the whiskey industry's revival has also turned into a convoluted mess of lies, persuasion, and capitalistic desire fueled by marketing, merging, and masquerading. The parallels I've witnessed on both fronts over the past six years are striking in their similarity.

But what is ultimately going to happen when the show's over? Will Draper fall and will the whiskey industry collapse behind him? Or will we be stuck without a resolution, left on our own to decide what we think will eventually occur? My guess is the latter. Ultimately, we're the ones who have to decide when the pretending ends.

-David Driscoll