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Liquor Industry Ad Campaign Is Boosting Spirits as Mealtime Beverage

December 04, 1986|DANIEL P. PUZO | Times Staff Writer

Manufacturers of distilled spirits are in the midst of an extensive media campaign intended to slow the continuing sales slide of their category--battered over the last several years by growing consumer preferences for lighter-alcohol beverages such as sparkling wines, coolers and imported beers.

"Liquor--Good Spirits, Good Sense" is the banner under which the industry hopes to help reacquaint consumers with the likes of gin, bourbon and Scotch.

At the heart of the program is one particularly innovative suggestion: the use of spirits as a mealtime beverage. By making the connection between liquor and food, the distillers are admittedly taking a page from similarly successful promotions by the California wine industry. Except there is likely to be at least some initial resistance to serving highballs with haute cuisine.

In any event, the campaign's sponsor, the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States, hopes to convince Americans that quaffing a gin and tonic with broiled snapper is as natural as drinking beer with chili or sipping Cabernet Sauvignon with top sirloin.

At the heart of the council's plan is a flavor chart that pairs the five major spirits (vodka, gin, Scotch, rum and bourbon) with main courses, side dishes, seasonings and desserts. Some of the more unusual matchups include bourbon with Polish kielbasa, rum alongside turkey, Scotch as a pate companion and gin with fresh berries.

Another portion of the promotion involves the familiar use of spirits in recipes. However, even in this area the council breaks new ground by suggesting things such as the addition of Scotch to vegetable soup.

Less Equivalency--A beverage industry trade journal reports that Joseph E. Seagram & Sons Inc. is ending its highly controversial campaign of alcohol equivalency.

For more than a year, the nation's leading distiller had spent heavily on promotional literature and advertising to convey its message that typical, single servings of beer, wine and spirits contained the same amount of alcohol. For example, the frequent comparison was that the alcohol present in a 12-ounce bottle of beer, a five-ounce serving of wine and 1.25-ounce shot of spirits was identical.

The multimillion-dollar campaign was criticized sharply by both the beer and wine industries as misleading. There were also claims that Seagram was using the equivalency theme to lobby for an increase in beer and wine excise taxes to match the higher levies on distilled spirits.

According to the Wine Investor, a Seagram executive, Edgar Bronfman Jr., stated in both a recent speech and memo that "the public campaign of equivalence has become an unbearably divisive influence on (the industry's) common enterprise."

Bronfman went on to state, according to the Los Angeles-based newsletter, that: "More significantly, it now appears that the controversy is confusing our customers and eroding confidence i1847615776and wine segments who have reacted so vigorously and negatively to the public campaign of equivalence will recognize this step for the sincere effort toward industrial harmony that it is."

Another consideration in Seagram's decision to apparently shelve the equivalency campaign is that the company is the second leading producer of wines in the United States, in addition to being a major wine importer. Some of the Seagram's California properties include Monterey Vineyards, Paul Masson, Taylor California Cellars and Sterling Vineyards.

Lack of Proof--On a related front is the rather confusing listing for alcohol content on spirits labels. Since the end of Prohibition, the word proof has been used to indicate strength. But the figure is expressed as a percentage that is double the actual alcohol content. For example, a gin, bourbon or Scotch listed as 100 proof contains 50% alcohol.

The term originated with British distillers in the 17th Century, according to Harold McGee in his book, "On Food and Cooking" (Charles Scribner's Sons: $29.95).

At that time, one way of determining whether spirits were at proper alcohol-water ratios was quite inflammatory. McGee writes: "The proof test itself involved moistening gunpowder with the spirits, and then lighting it. If it burned slowly, it was at proof; if it sputtered or burst into flame, it was under or over proof respectively."

Explosive lore aside, the proof measurement is soon to be a phase of the past. In an effort to avoid unnecessary division or multiplication, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms has announced that by October, 1988, all domestic and foreign distillers must list the percentage of alcohol on each bottle of spirit sold in this country.

The move was made, according to an agency statement, because "percent-alcohol-by-volume is a more readily understood and recognized term for conveying alcohol content to the purchaser."

Historically, the proof calculation has applied to spirits and not to beers or wine.

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