I have a theory about Mad Men. Actually, I have lots of theories, but my most recent theory is that the horrible mistake from two episodes ago–in which Joan says she has a reservation at Le Cirque, at a time (1968) when Le Cirque wouldn’t have been open yet (it debuted in 1974)–wasn’t a mistake at all. It was a gift to viewers who giddily analyze every frame, and every utterance, for historical accuracy. Something to make them feel good about themselves, a reward for their vigilance. Sure, Matthew Weiner himself said it was an oopsie, but that’s hard to believe. I used to be a fact checker, and there’s no question research went over the script. It’s unlikely they’d miss it, especially in this era of finding answers within 1.3 seconds of entering a query into Google. So, as far as I’m concerned, Mad Men is rock solid in its historical accuracy, which is why it’s so fun for me, a spirits writer, to see what liquor bottles show up on the show. This season (Season 6) has had some great cameos. Let’s review a few.
It’s been long established that Don Draper is a whiskey guy, while Roger Sterling prefers vodka. Different spirit, different glass.
We’ve seen plenty of Draper’s whisky of choice, Canadian Club, which is a light, easy-to-drink, satisfying whiskey from our friends up north who kept us sozzled during Prohibition. When I was a little kid in the ’70s, my parents had an ancient, untouched bottle of Canadian Club in the pantry, so it tugs at my nostalgic side a bit. It’s a fine whiskey, if a bit milder than many of the more aggressive bourbons and Scotches today–perfect to mix with ginger ale in a tall glass with ice.
Sterling’s vodka has oscillated between Smirnoff and Stolichnaya. Similarly, my folks had bottles of both, which they only opened if guests came by. Smirnoff has been around for eons, and despite its very affordable price, it tastes great. I love pointing out to people how it won the New York Times blind taste test back in 2005, and I’ll never forgive Smirnoff for not capitalizing on it until years later. I mean, how can you not take advantage of a gift like that? Insanity.
The Stolichnaya, or "Stoli," as the cool people call it, is a special case. It wasn’t widely available in the U.S. until 1972, when an agreement was brokered between the U.S. and Soviet Union to trade U.S. distribution rights for Stoli for Soviet distribution rights for Pepsi. But Roger Sterling is a man of influence and connections, and he’s found a way, in 1968, to keep the Stoli flowing in the office. (Initially he had it sent from a friend in Greece.) For those who were alive during this period (I was born in 1970) there was an intriguing "otherness" to Stoli. It came from our Cold War enemies, so it was forbidden fruit, much like Cuban cigars after the fall of Batista. The bottle looked like no other. Still does.
There are other spirit brands on the show, including Lancers wine from Portugal that Joan was serving her mom and sister at dinner, but it was two other bottles that caught my eye in a recent episode. Joan is pictured at her desk, and over her left shoulder, one can see a collection of bottles that include Jameson Irish Whiskey and Mount Gay Barbados Rum.
I found this fascinating, because I just learned about the import history of Irish whiskey at a Powers whiskey event at the Dead Rabbit. The reluctance on behalf of the Irish to enter into export contracts with the U.S. until Prohibition was officially repealed gave Scotch producers a big jump on them. It wasn’t until the 1960s that Ireland began a big push into the American market for its whiskey, and it began with Jameson because it had the most name recognition. So that bottle of Jameson on Joan’s cabinet would have been one of the first bottles in the U.S., and her position as a partner in a Madison Avenue advertising agency no doubt put it on her radar.
As for the Mount Gay, I don’t know quite as much about its history as a U.S. consumer product in the late 1960s, but I do know this: Mount Gay is the oldest "official" rum, with a surviving distillery deed from Barbados dating to 1703. So it was certainly around back in the 1960s, and any firm with a connection to Great Britain (RIP Layne Pryce), and thus, Barbados, would know about it. It’s also long been the rum of sailors, so men with sailing as a hobby might have a penchant for the stuff. In any case, I love Mount Gay and was thrilled to see it on one of my favorite shows.
Now I’ve got to know when Mount Gay first started appearing on U.S. liquor store shelves. If it wasn’t the most popular rum in New York in 1968, what was? Give me your informed opinions and reckless speculation in the comments.
[For New York’s best bars, visit the BlackBook City Guide. Related stories: Canadian Club’s Boardwalk Empire Package Celebrates Prohibition Era; A Humble Old Label Ices its Rivals; Jameson Tries to Reinvent the Beer and a Shot; 310-Year-Old Mount Gay Comes Out With a Spiffy New Rum; Sipping Powers John’s Lane Whiskey at the Dead Rabbit; A Few Observations on the Launch of Bunnahabhain 40-Year-Old Scotch; More by Victor Ozols; Follow me on Twitter]