Mad Men and Booze

As a fan of the TV show and wannabe writer, I’m a bit more interested in the story than what they are drinking. But, a good friend pointed out some of the inaccuracies of the drinking habits portrayed.

For instance, people in the 1960s drank Canadian Whisky, Blended Scotch and Vodka began its ascent. In fact, Gin was already passé and in 1967, vodka sales surpassed it, no doubt with an assist from James Bond.

So far as vodka vs. whiskey was concerned, here is a memo from the late 1960s reportedly from J. Walter Thompson senior management. JWT was arguably the leading ad agency at the time…

“To all employees: If you must drink during lunch, please drink whiskey. It is much better for our clients to know that you are drunk rather than think you are stupid.”

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“Why are we more boozy?”

That’s the headline in a recent online posting on the Star Tribune (Twin Cities paper) website. Here’s an excerpt:

“Upper Midwesterners drink more. Could it be our northern European roots? The weather?”

The story goes on to report that Minnesota is one of the top 5 drinking states in the US. Experts point out that part of the explanation is that many residents in the upper Midwest are descendants from countries with high alcohol consumption. Another reason given, of course, is the long cold winters and indoor activity that goes nicely with alcohol consumption.

It reminded me of a story I heard from the late Jerry Mann about the adventures of booze salesperson in the upper Midwest. (See March 25, 2010 for another tale.)

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The Inventor

Maurice Kanbar is among a select group of entrepreneurs who have changed the spirits industry. And, he’s still at it.

Like my earlier posting about David van de Velde, Maurice is another visionary businessman who has spent a lifetime on finding a hole and filling it. Maurice has been inventing, designing and developing a host of products ranging from films and how we watch them, to surgical instruments, to things, that when we see them, we say “now why didn’t I think of that?” The man has thirty patents and products to his credit.

I first met him in the early days of Skyy Spirits when I was sent on a fool’s errand to see if he would be willing to chat about an acquisition. This was in the late 1990s and the brand was just starting its ascendency. We were feeling the effects of its growth and one of the geniuses in Sweden thought we might be able to “buy him out.” After just a few minutes of chatting, he asked the key question – why sell while the brand is still growing. Duh. Sure got my respect.

But what I really admire about him is his judgment and intuition balanced by the tenacity of an inventive mind.


He complains to a doctor friend that he gets headaches and a hangover from Cognac. His friend explains about congeners and tells him to drink vodka. The next thing that happens, he studies the world of spirits, makes advancements to the distillation and filtering systems and creates Skyy Vodka.

At the time, no one in the food or beverage business used blue for packaging – don’t ask me why…I once got my butt chewed for presenting a new product in blue packaging. Maurice didn’t let this narrow, stay in the box thinking confine him. I don’t know for sure, but I suppose he was thinking Skyy = blue. Another duh.

When his brand starts growing, he’s smart enough to surround himself with people who know the business like Foglio and Ruvo.

So he’s an interesting guy, to say the least.

His newest effort is Blue Angel Vodka, which he says is based on further advancements in distillation that produces an ultra smooth product. But the really cool part about it, in my opinion, is that the inventor has further increased his marketing skills. First, his signature drink is the Blue Angel Martini (BAM as he calls it) made with blue curacao. Also, I like his tongue-in-cheek slogan – “the world’s second best vodka; we’re still looking for the best.”

On second thought maybe he should stick to inventing.

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