Bob Dylan, George Clooney, Diddy and a porn star walk into a bar …
Not a joke. They might be checking inventory.
While celebrity and alcohol are a pairing with a long history — witness the love affair between Jack Daniel’s and Frank Sinatra, which partners with the late singer/actor’s estate to this day — the last decade has seen an ever-increasing number of A-level actors, directors and musicians taking on financial and creative stakes in the booze business.
Just last week, Heaven’s Door Spirits, a series of American whiskeys co-created Bob Dylan, announced the opening of Heaven’s Door Distillery and Center for the Arts in downtown Nashville, which will open in the fall of 2020. That’s pretty impressive for a brand that only started in 2015.
Impressive, but maybe not so surprising considering that Dylan is a full partner in the company and features prominently in marketing campaigns. The bottle’s artwork is derived from his ironwork sculptures and the singer provided the brand with some inscrutable tasting notes during the whiskey’s creation.
It’s not like Dylan hasn’t lent his name or music to brands before, but for Heaven’s Door, the singer is showing an unusually strong commitment to building his own liquor brand.
So why are celebrities flocking toward alcohol?
“I personally believe [this recent trend] all started with Diddy,” says Kate Laufer, the founder and President of KLG Public Relations, a NYC-based agency that specializes in wine and spirits — including celebrity-owned brands Hampton Water Wine (Bon Jovi), Casamigos Tequila (George Clooney) and Proper No. Twelve Irish Whiskey (Conor McGregor). “Everyone realized just how lucrative it could be, [and that’s] supported by the unprecedented sale amount of Casamigos.”
Diddy can credit his partnerships with Ciroc vodka and (more recently) DeLeon tequila to growing his reported $825 million in wealth. According to Zack O’Malley Greenburg (author of 3 Kings: Diddy, Dr. Dre, Jay-, and Hip-Hop’s Multibillion-Dollar Rise), Diddy’s “marketing panache” with Ciroc in the late aughts helped raise the brand from the world’s 50th-ranked premium vodka to the number-two seller in the category.
Casamigos, meanwhile, sold for a billion dollars to drinks leader Diageo just two years back. A collaboration between Clooney, nightclub owner Rande Gerber and real-estate tycoon Mike Meldman, the story behind the spirit is, like most liquor brand tales, slightly embellished. Officially, the label was a passion project between three friends who were trying to find a tequila that wouldn’t leave them with a hangover, an experiment they all conducted while vacationing in neighboring vacation houses in Mexico. (Tough life.)
“Two years and 700 samples later it was perfect,” Gerber said just before the billion-dollar sale, while also claiming the commercial aspects of Casamigos only started because the partners had to get a commercial license to import the bottles they curated into the U.K. From there, a U.S. distributor took notice, and the rest is history. While it requires a bit of imagination to believe the three partners simply started the brand out of a shared love of agave, there’s no denying that they put in the work (in terms of marketing and investing, at least) and hit on the tequila craze at just the right moment.
For others, like director Steven Soderbergh and his brandy-like Singani 63, starting a liquor brand is (seemingly) rooted in a sincere interest in the spirit — a very non-lucrative interest.
“I discovered Singani during a movie shoot back in 2007,” Soderbergh told InsideHook during a brand-awareness bar crawl a few years back. “The Americans on the crew asked me, ‘Why not try bringing it to the U.S.?’ I thought, naively, people bring spirits to the market all the time! It must be simple.” Instead, the process of even getting the spirit imported to the U.S. took five years.
At one point, the director considered just eating (well, drinking) his losses, but he was talked out of it because he felt like “he had a good story to tell.” He did, however, consult his celebrity friends with interests in alcohol, including his Ocean’s 11 leading man Clooney and Dan Aykroyd. “When we were filming Behind the Candelabra, I picked Dan’s brain about [his vodka] Crystal Head. He said, ‘If you’re not going to show up, don’t do it.’ You gotta go to general sales meetings, you have to go to bars, you have to go out with [drinks] writers.”
There are also craft brands that operate under the belief that partnering with a celebrity after launch can increase visibility and offer consumers a bit of insider status, as brand licensing head Michael Stone explained to the New York Times. “People are looking for some of the fairy dust to be sprinkled on them from that celebrity’s lifestyle,” he said.
Recent examples of celebs coming on board after a spirit’s launch include Stillhouse whiskey (G-Eazy) and Aviation Gin (Ryan Reynolds). Depending on what day it is, the Deadpool star either has passionate interest in Aviation or his involvement is a pure business venture mixed with a side of snark (as Reynolds noted on The Tonight Show: “I know nothing about gin. If I ran the company for real, it’d be on fire.”).
For other public figures — and especially those less who have never reached Reynolds or Clooney levels of celebrity — the reasons for starting a liquor brand are as much about genuine interest as they are finances. “I [ran into] Ron Jeremy pouring his rum at some spirits festival several years ago,” drinks writer Jason Horn tells InsideHook. “Nice dude, and started a rum because he likes rum.”
This much is clear: no matter why or how the partnership begins, success ultimately depends on the celebrity being an active participant. “In order to be successful and truly cut through the saturated space, the celebrity not only needs to be heavily involved, but needs to incorporate the brand into their everyday lifestyle,” says Laufer. “This is not about endorsements, this is about ownership.”
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