The relationship between famous people and alcohol used to be simple enough. They drank it in copious quantities, got into fights, broke things (TV sets, hotel windows) and ended up in the gossip columns. But we’ve moved on from the hell-raising days of Richard Burton and Oliver Reed, and celebrity booze today is big business – very big business indeed.
In 2017, while filming in Vancouver, actor Ryan Reynolds ordered a Negroni in a restaurant. It was, he later recalled, ‘the best Negroni I’d ever had in my life’ and, after a few repeat visits, he asked the bartender what was in it. Answer: Aviation, a then little-known craft gin produced in Portland, Oregon.
Within a year, Reynolds had bought his way in as a co-owner. Two years or so after that, and drinks multinational Diageo, the owner of Gordon’s and Tanqueray, had agreed to pay up to US$610 million to acquire Aviation.
The deal, and the price-tag, owed much to Reynolds’ profile and his ambassadorial efforts on Aviation’s behalf – not least his self-effacing humour and endlessly shareable social media content. ‘I really know nothing about gin,’ he told Jimmy Fallon on The Tonight Show. ‘If I ran the company for real, it would be on fire.’
The Aviation deal was repeat business for Diageo. In 2018, George Clooney performed the remarkable feat of being the best-paid actor in Hollywood, despite not making a film, simply because Diageo had agreed to pay up to US$1 billion for the Tequila brand he co-founded: Casamigos.
Apart from eye-watering sums, both Aviation and Casamigos share a celebrity association that is – or at least appears to be – rooted in authenticity. Reynolds bought into Aviation because he loved the product; Clooney and his Casamigos co-founders, nightlife tycoon Rande Gerber and real estate guru Mike Meldman, started Casamigos ‘by accident’.
The trio spent a lot of time together in Mexico, and spent a lot of that time drinking Tequila – ‘some good, some not so good and some expensive’, as Gerber later recalled. He added: ‘There came a point where George turned to me and said: “Why don’t we create one that’s perfect for us?”’
The result, after two years and 700 trial samples, was Casamigos. What began as a private venture for friends and family soon escalated to national distribution in bars and restaurants across the US and – a few years down the line – piqued the interest of Diageo.
There’s a similar sheen of serendipity and sincerity about Singani 63, a Bolivian eau-de-vie (or unaged brandy) launched internationally by film director Steven Soderbergh. He was shooting Che in Bolivia in 2008 when the film’s casting director gave him a bottle of singani, Bolivia’s national spirit.
A vodka fan, Soderbergh was bowled over by singani’s smoothness and floral bouquet (derived from Muscat of Alexandria grapes grown at altitudes of 1,500m), and vowed to tell the world about it, using his own idiosyncratic marketing approach (check out his lockdown bartender video series, Stir Crazy, on YouTube). He added the ‘63’ as a nod to his birth year.
If drinks companies aren’t exactly beating a path to Soderbergh’s door just yet, that’s probably because most people have no idea what singani is in the first place, compared to the much more familiar gin or Tequila. Anyway, the director insists this is a passion project, rather than a money-making opportunity. Which is probably what Clooney and Reynolds said before Diageo came calling.
But celebrity endorsement can only take you so far. The involvement of a Reynolds, a Clooney or a Soderbergh is a great door-opener – persuading bars to stock the product, or the punters to give it a try. But they’ll only keep coming back for more if they like the taste, and for every Aviation and Casamigos, there’s a legion of famous failures out there. Just try Googling ‘Qream’ and ‘Pharrell Williams’.
That said, the sheen that a committed A-lister can give to a spirits brand is invaluable, so securing their continued involvement is vital to future success. Diageo’s Aviation agreement – like that for Casamigos – was carefully structured: US$610m, but US$335m upfront, with the remaining US$275m dependent on Aviation’s sales over the next decade. As Reynolds said in a humorous email when the deal was announced: ‘I am currently out of the office, but will still be very hard at work selling Aviation Gin.
‘For quite a long time, it seems.’
Drink like a celebrity…
At first, the gin that Ryan Reynolds fell in love with seems very American – art deco bottle, juniper-light palate – but the rye spirit base gives it an earthy, spicy backbone more redolent of Amsterdam than Oregon. Anise and lavender lighten the load, but this is a weighty gin that makes an excellent, takes-no-prisoners Martini. Alc 42%
Casamigos Reposado Tequila
Far too many reposado Tequilas let oak overshadow agave, but George Clooney’s Casamigos is aromatic and delicate. The cask is a sweet accompaniment to some textbook agave notes of hedgerow florals, white pepper and light spice, bringing balance rather than dominance. Great for sipping or mixing. Alc 40%
Distilled from Muscat of Alexandria grapes grown high in the Bolivian mountains, Steven Soderbergh’s spirit has an understated, crisp and fresh character. Gentle pepper evokes a light Rhum Agricole, while a splash of water teases out fragrant grape flower notes. Characterful, but elusive. Alc 40%
Wild Turkey Longbranch Kentucky Straight Bourbon
Magic Mike star Matthew McConaughey is also the creative director of Wild Turkey. He helped make this, a textbook Bourbon with a difference, thanks to part-filtration through Texan mesquite charcoal. That brings an intriguingly smoky, spicy undercurrent to plenty of toffee apple sweetness and creamy vanilla. Alc 43%
Crystal Head Vodka
Crystal Head was launched in 2008 by Blues Brothers and Ghostbusters star Dan Aykroyd, with a skull-shaped bottle designed by artist friend John Alexander. That bottle is remarkable; what it contains is, risking damnation by faint praise, an OK vodka: a touch of vanilla, edge of spice and white pepper, very clean. Alc 40%
Heaven’s Door Straight Rye
As if being a Nobel Prize-winning genius wasn’t enough, Bob Dylan had to go and help create Heaven’s Door, an insanely good range of American whiskeys. This is the standout: a tangily fruity rye of great depth, ‘finished’ in cigar-shaped Vosges oak casks. Alc 43%