Ten brands that changed the world
Nigel Huddleston picks 10 products that altered perceptions of how alcohol could be made, marketed and consumed.
In 1989, American Vietnam vet Harry Drnec bought an unremarkable London- based wine importer called Maison Caurette and decided to branch out into bottled lager, already a growing market led by the diabetic-friendly Holsten Pils. He started to import Sol, a popular brand in its native Mexico but unheard of in the UK.
The light taste, easy bar-call and screen- printed bottle struck a chord with a hipster crowd, but what really made it stand out was the gimmick of sticking a bit of lime in the bottle neck, adding perceived authenticity with the back story that it was a Mexican trick to keep flies out.
Within three years, Maison Caurette’s turnover had tripled and the supplier struggled to keep up with demand. Sol droughts were frequent on a London scene that was all about Soho rather than Shoreditch, and where hip Tex-Mex joints were the places to be seen.
Drnec moved on to other things and Sol shrank from phenomenon status, but it left the legacy of – horrible marketing phrase alert – “badge drinking”, that slugging from the bottle let the pack say more about the drinker than the liquid itself.
It’s a legacy that’s only now starting to unravel with the craft beer craze putting flavour back on the agenda – but every craft brewer knows the look is as important as the taste.
It’s hard to imagine, but cider was just about as unfashionable as a drink could be in the 1990s. A spate of frequently misguided new product development in the 1980s had left a stale legacy of has-been brands, poor-quality liquid, PET bottles, cheap prices and extra-free giveaways. Then along came Magners.
It launched in Majorca in early 1999, followed by Northern Ireland and Scotland. Nothing much happened for a bit, but gradually other cidermakers started to take notice. The Scots took Magners to their hearts and couldn’t get enough of the stuff.
It wasn’t so much the quantities they were drinking, but what they were doing with it that grabbed attention – namely, pouring it into pint glasses stuffed with ice. Over-ice cider was born.
When brand owner C&C International – as it then was – finally got around to a London launch it was a major industry event. Soon, pretty much every rival producer had come up with their own easy-drinking, ice-friendly cider – but it didn’t stop there. Recognising the long-term limitations of the over-ice fad, cidermakers experimented to produce rosé, fruit, boutique, faux traditional, food-friendly, seasonal and ice (not to be confused with over-ice) brands, and the Cider Revolution TM took hold.
Legend dictates that Brother Pierre Pérignon “invented” Champagne at Hautvillers Abbey near Epernay in the 17th century.
This is generally regarded to be hogwash, the evolution of the sparkling wine we recognise today emerging long after his passing, but the story has been seized upon by many rival producers to give it an internationally-saleable eureka-moment back story.
The Benedictine monk is more accurately remembered for his pioneering work in viticulture, fermentation and blending.
The first vintage of the prestige cuvée that carries his name didn’t appear until 1921 and it wasn’t released for sale until 1936. Its arrival helped to reconnect the region’s product with the myth.
It also helped Champagne to secure its status as the drink of celebration, breaking auction records on the way and finding its way on to the party lists of royalty – both real and showbiz.
In the late 1830s, the brewing industry in the Czech town of Pilsen was in a bit of a state. It had a reputation for poor quality and was being overrun by dark lagers from Germany that used new cold fermentation techniques to produce more consistent and cleaner-tasting beers. Sensing that something must be done, the town elders brought in a Bavarian trouble-shooter in the form of cold fermentation expert Josef Groll. Some versions of the story suggest his creation of the world’s first golden beer in 1842 was a happy accident, though the favoured view is that he knew full well what he was doing in combining pale malts, local hops, low temperatures and long maturation to produce a light beer with a clean taste and fragrant hop character.
Over subsequent decades the popular new style of beer became available further afield, spawning imitators as pilsner gradually became the default beer choice across Europe. It wasn’t until 1898 that the name Pilsner Urquell (German for original source) was registered by the brewery that had created it.
To modern eyes, there’s very little that’s revolutionary about William Grant’s flagship single malt, but when the family-owned distiller gave its first marketing push in 1971 it was a grenuine game-changer.
Before that, several distilleries bottled their single malts and independent bottlers championed the spirit of others, but as a product category it was the smallest niche of all niches and largely unloved.
The 1960s had been tough for independent producers but Grant’s was the first to see the potential in marketing single malt as a premium product in its own right as a way out of the malaise.
It launched an ad campaign, started to promote Glenfiddich as a brand and pioneered the visitor centre to seduce overseas tourists into whisky’s charms.
The iconic triangular bottle – which has been around since the 1950s – a push in duty free and the introduction of the now ubiquitous gift tube all helped to give birth to single malt whisky as the internationally aspirational product it is today.
Love it or hate it, there’s no getting away from the fact that this decade’s craft beer boom wouldn’t look, taste or feel anything like it does without the Aberdeenshire brewery founded by James Watt and Martin Dickie in 2006.
Taking their cue from the US microbrewing scene, the pair mixed sharp entrepreneurial flair with a DIY ethic – it was no surprise that Punk IPA was one of their biggest sellers – inspiring dozens of beer enthusiasts to believe that if Brewdog could do it, so could they.
Certainly, Brewdog – which has also branched out into the on-trade with a portfolio of Brewdog bars across the UK and abroad – has got up a lot of noses. It has its detractors for its attention-grabbing – some would say attention-seeking – stunts and wackier, stronger brews.
But without Brewdog the next wave of hip craft brewers – including Beavertown, Siren, Weird Beard, Wild Beer Co, Bristol Beer Factory, Kernel and Brew By Numbers – might not have the fanbase they do today.
The seeming overnight success of premium gin is in reality a slow burn that’s taken more than a quarter of a century. Michel Roux – not that one – of US distributor Carillon Importers was already making waves with Absolut vodka and decided the time was right to spruce up the downtrodden, image of gin.
He took the 18th-century recipe of Bombay Original, added extra exotic ingredients, boasted about them on the label and gave it a name and a blue bottle inspired by the Star of Bombay, a precious stone that had been given to the movie star Mary Pickford by her husband Douglas Fairbanks.
The combination of Hollywood glamour and a new distillation process designed to extract maximum aroma and flavour from the botanicals captured the imagination of cocktail legend Dick Bradsell. He gave it a leg-up by using it in a range of new drinks that helped transform perceptions of what gin could be.
Without the trailblazing of Sapphire, William Grant may well have not had the confidence to unleash Hendrick’s 12 years later, a brand which took gin botanicals, packaging and marketing into whole new territory – and which has become a roadmap for dozens of subsequent modern gin launches.
Australian David Hohnen of Cape Mentelle wasn’t the first to recognise the potential for New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc, but he did help catapult the now- ubiquitous country-grape combination into the international spotlight with the launch of Cloudy Bay in 1986.
It’s not for services to New Zealand that Cloudy Bay appears here but for the way it planted the idea that wine brands could come off the supermarket shelf and into stuffy old wine merchants, tied to the notion that incomprehensible French labels were an asset rather than a hindrance. It created cult followings that outstripped the inherent value of the wine in the bottle. At its height, managing to secure an allocation of Cloudy Bay singled out independents as serious players in the market. Today, many of those same wine merchants view the LVMH-owned incarnation as old hat and something that they wouldn’t touch with a bargepole.
But the spirit of early Cloudy Bay lives on in modern cult wines such as Screaming Eagle, Sine Qua Non and Pingus – and more accessible indie benchmarks such as Dandelion Vineyards, Chocolate Block and, of course, Greywacke, the baby of former Cloudy Bay winemaker Kevin Judd.
Pyotr Smirnov supplied vodka to the Russian court in Tsarist Russia, but the seeds of today’s anglicised global brand were sown in the 1930s when his son, Vladimir, sold the rights to Rudolph Kunett, a Russian émigré in New York. Vodka was still the shot-driven preserve of eastern Europeans rather than the glamorous, drink-with-anything spirit it is today, and with sales stalling Kunett sold to the Heublein corporation.
Fellow board members thought its president, John Martin, had a screw loose, but his decision to market it as odourless and flavourless “white whiskey” paid off in spades. With excess vodka in the warehouse he hooked up with a bartender customer with excess supplies of ginger beer to create the Moscow Mule – vodka, Smirnoff and the drinks industry would never be the same again. By the 1980s, Smirnoff was one of the biggest selling drinks brands on the planet.
Tom Jago never had too much truck with market research. When the team he was part of at one of the many forerunners of today’s Diageo cracked the technical spec for making a liqueur from whisky and cream in the 1970s, the result was put to a series of focus groups. “The reaction was unanimously negative – everyone hated it,” Jago told an audience at Heriot Watt University in 2006.
Unperturbed, Jago – who also had a finger in the launches of Croft Original and Le Piat d’Or – simply hid the results from his colleagues and set up a test market for the new product. His boldness worked and Baileys quickly took off, creating a whole new branch of the liqueurs market and spawning a host of lame imitations.
It became the world’s biggest selling liqueur and arguably led liqueurs away from the after-dinner strait-jacket and into mainstream credibility, helping pave the way for the 21st-century cocktail revolution and the success of brands such as Disaronno and Southern Comfort.
More than anything, what Baileys told us was that, in alcohol, an innovator’s instinct often trumps the research data. “In my experience a lot of research is done for two reasons,” said Jago, “to avoid having to make up one’s own mind, and to avoid blame if the project goes wrong.”