Over the years, we’ve reviewed a lot of spirits here on the site. And a trend that we’ve seen with increasing frequency over that time are celebrity names backing spirits brands. George Clooney’s Casamigos, Conor McGregor’s Proper No. Twelve… celebrities are getting into the spirits game to very mixed results. Some of them have done this well and succeeded, but I find that the majority seem to be falling flat on their face. And, in my opinion, there are three solid interconnected reasons why that happens.
No. 1: It’s Just a Money Grab. There’s No Story.
In all of our reviews, the very first thing we cover is the history of the brand. Many spirits are good in their own right but (more often than not) what sells me on a specific bottle is the story that goes along with it. From rags to riches tales of success to quirky experiments gone horribly right — having a good story behind that bottle makes the experience of enjoying it all that much better.
Just like with wine, there’s often no real way to know whether something is good or not without popping the cork and giving it a sip. You can get some idea of the flavors based on the label, but anyone who has tasted bourbon will tell you that there’s still a rather large variety in that very specific category. Not everyone has an encyclopedic knowledge of distilled spirits, so the story behind the brand gives the average consumer a bit more insight into the bottle before they actually open it. If it’s from a company founded by a hermit who spent their entire life crafting this one perfect recipe, well… then you can have some level of confidence that it’s probably going to be good. Or, at least, interesting.
Some celebrity backed brands do this right. The aforementioned Casamigos is a great example: the story of George Clooney wanting a bespoke “house bottle” of spirits to stock in his Mexican vacation home not only taps into that aspirational wealth factor, but it also makes you feel like you are tasting something special. You really feel like you are tasting something curated by a celebrity, getting a small peek into their personal lives. Even Dan Ackroyd’s Crystal Head Vodka has an interesting story (one of out-there conspiracy theories and magical crystals, but hey… at least you know it’s really his vision).
But unfortunately, these are the exceptions to the rule.
Take, for example, Villa One, the tequila that Nick Jonas’ launched with John Varvatos. According to their own marketing materials, the best story they could come up with about why they wanted to launch this brand basically boils down to “we thought it would be cool”.
I get that, in the end, every commercial spirits brand exists to make money. That’s the whole point of the game. But when there isn’t even the cursory attempt to hide the naked capitalism at work, it can be an active deterrent to consumers. Villa One is a clear situation where someone famous leased out their name to promote a brand of spirits manufactured by an established and well-known company (the Stoli Group) and there doesn’t appear to be any input from that celebrity about the end product.
When you have a celebrity that doesn’t know anything about the product, and doesn’t have any input into the process, you run headlong into problem #2:
No. 2: The Product Is Awful. Or — Worse — Bland.
The reason why people look for a good story as an indicator of quality is because it usually just is. Now, there are exceptions to every rule of course — but, in general, a deeper story about the spirit or the distillery means that you are likely to try something with thought and care put into it.
If there’s no story behind the product, that’s a big red flag that there might not be as much attention paid to the contents — and, instead, only to the bottom line. Especially when it’s a celebrity who doesn’t have any connection to the spirit they are producing (and as a result doesn’t know what to look for in a good bottle) it’s easy for a distillery or distributor to seize the opportunity to re-package their lower grade distillate and turn a tidy profit. And as a result, we the consumers are the ones who suffer — paying exorbitant prices for mediocre bottles of booze.
Over in the whiskey world, Proper No. Twelve is a great example of the kind of mediocre or downright unpleasant flavor profile that you get from some of these spirits. In that case, you’re getting the bare minimum of Irish whiskey flavors with a good hit of added bitterness. And all those flavors wash out immediately upon the slightest touch of ice. It’s not the worst thing I’ve ever had, but I’ve had far better whiskey at a lower price.
It doesn’t have to be that way, though. We already talked about Casamigos, in which the flavor profile was specifically tweaked to George Clooney’s preference. But there are other great celebrity-backed spirits out there too — the Nick Offerman edition of Lagavulin Scotch is a prime example. Offerman himself collaborated on selecting the barrels used in the blend. It’s a true expression of his taste and preference, and while I prefer prefer the older version of Lagavulin, I’d never refuse a glass of this in the future.
Putting your famous name on a mediocre bottle of spirits is a great way to make a sale. Once. But if the contents aren’t good, then consumers aren’t likely to come back for seconds. Which is why problem #3 exists.
No 3: All the Money Goes to Flashy Marketing
Oh boy, do I hate a flashy bottle. And not because it looks bad — some bottles are amazing. For me, the hatred comes from the knowledge that a decent amount of the budget went into a pretty bottle instead of making the contents better. And celebrity spirits are some of the worst offenders of this.
Let’s look at this from the perspective of the celebrity endorsee: generally, they know very little about the distilled spirits industry, and aren’t a trained master taster. So they have to rely on other people for the contents of the bottle. They have no control over that aspect. But the one thing they generally do understand is the visual style and brand appeal of a product — so marketing teams spend a lot of time and money here in order to gain the approval of the celebrity. The result that what we see on the store shelves looks visually great, but might not really be all that enjoyable to sip.
JAJA Tequila is probably the number one offender that comes to mind from the celebrity world. Their label looks amazing, with some great artwork and a catchy name. But it’s all in service of nothing: the story behind it is almost literally “we drove around Mexico until we found a distillery that would make tequila for us” and the actual flavors in their bottle are bitter and forgettable.
That said, there are people who will continue to buy it. The unfortunate truth is that flashy packaging works — without anything else to rely on, often the label and the first impression is what sells the bottle.
Let’s compare and contrast that with something like King’s County Distillery in New York City. They make a legitimately delicious bottle of bourbon, and package it in a relatively plain glass bottle with a typewritten label at the bottom. Their style is smartly understated and it compliments their whole image as a trendy distillery churning out quirky bottles. It might not necessarily stand out on the shelf, but it is well worth the effort to find and drink.
I’d love to be able to judge a book by its cover. Or a whiskey by its label. But unfortunately, the appearance of the bottle tends to be inversely proportional to the quality of the contents.
So… We’re Doomed?
The bad news here is that there’s zero likelihood that this is going to stop anytime soon. We’re stuck with celebrity endorsed spirits, just like we’re stuck with celebrity endorsed everything else.
But the silver lining here is that we sometimes get delicious stuff like Casamigos and Lagavulin’s Offerman Edition. Or at least interesting things to discuss, like Crystal Head Vodka. Personally, I can live with that bargain. And for those interested in finding the rare high-quality celebrity-backed spirit (or just avoiding the bad ones), you can keep an eye on our ever growing list of celebrity endorsed spirits we’ve reviewed in this category here.