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Steven Grasse had an ambitious plan to splash out a new American whiskey for William Grant & Sons, but the Scottish alcohol company decided making a feature-length movie playing off Fistful of Bourbon’s just-hatched brand was a tumbler too ambitious.
“We always say it’s like if Quentin Tarantino created a whiskey, it would be this, because it’s got that spaghetti Western vibe,” said Grasse, who is founder and CEO of Philadelphia-based Quaker City Mercantile. “And we’re like, ‘It sounds like a movie. Let’s actually make a movie.’ But Grant said, ‘We don’t have the budget for that yet.’ So I said, ‘Let’s just shoot the trailers first.’ And that’s what we’ve done.”
The result is a tongue-in-cheek take on the spaghetti Western, directed by Paul Briganti, who made his name directing the short films and fake ads on Saturday Night Live broadcasts the past five years. With Briganti’s comedic chops involved, the fake trailers moved well beyond Tarantino Territory into Mel Brooks Land.
“When we talked to Paul, (we said) if Blazing Saddles was made now, what would it be?” Grasse said. ‘We were joking about the silk pajamas, the sensitive male, and all that sort of stuff.’
The two-minute full-length trailer that resulted features one gunslinger in those silk pajamas, comparing them to both the whiskey’s smoothness and “sleeping on creme brûlée.” The other cowpoke wonders why gun fighters thought High Noon was a good time for a shootout, given the sun’s terrible effects on the skin. And they wax eloquent on Gwyneth Paltrow’s Goop and its skin-care goods.
Briganti wrote dialogue based on scenarios fed to him by Grasse’s team, then recruited some of his comedian pals for the actual, um, shoots.
“So we got far better talent than we had to budget for, because they wanted to work with Paul,” Grasse said. Writer/director/actor Frank Garcia-Hejl of the Los Angeles-based improv group Upright Citizens Brigade, and George Basil, a regular on HBO’s Crashing, star in the trailers.
It didn’t hurt, either, that “part of our payment was, ‘We’ll give you X number of dollars and 10 cases of whiskey,’” Grasse said. “I’ve learned this: if you’re working on a, I don’t know, a battery commercial, nobody wants free batteries. But everybody wants free whiskey.”
Quaker City Mercantile is something of an odd duck, owning its own Open Gate brewery in Baltimore (they also were part of an investor group that bought and spruced up long-time regional beer brand Narragansett in 2005) and a New Hampshire distillery. But they also work with bigger alcohol companies such as Grant, Guinness and Gallo to develop and market new liquor brands (Sailor Jerry spiced rum was one such creation), and specialize in creating the “brand world’ behind those new lines of business.
Grant, which has worked with Quaker City to develop and market Hendrick’s Gin the past 22 years, reached out with an idea for a new brown liquor this time: “We want to get in the American whisky business, but we don’t want to build a distillery,” Grasse said of their request.
“We looked at it as a conundrum of how do you enter the U.S. market, with an oversaturated whisky market?” Grasse said. “How do you enter with a point of difference without building an expensive distillery? Those are the pieces of the puzzle we were given.”
Grant wanted to take advantage of the big uptick in craft approaches to hard liquor, much as had happened with beer, especially for new brands with entertaining back stories.
“There’s been a lot more connoisseurship, I would say,” in the past decade or so, Grasse said. “So we ingeniously came up with the idea of a Fistful of Bourbon,” featuring five different whiskeys blended together.
Grant is 123 years old, and made its name over many decades making and sometimes blending Scottish whiskeys such as Glenfiddich, Grant’s and The Balvenie. Over that century-plus, they’d gotten the job down pretty well. But U.S. whiskeys, and U.S. whiskey drinkers, aren’t known for blending.
‘We thought, ‘Blended whiskies in America have a different history, but they’re starting to become a thing,’ with High West,” and other craft distillers, Grasse said. “So, we’re like, ‘We could really create an amazing whiskey. And we’d be able to sell it at a very competitive price.”
A standard 750-ml bottle retails for about $25. The whiskey features vanilla and spice notes, and at 90 proof, a kick like the mule you had to ride after that varmint stole your horse.
It’s been available in Texas markets for two years, and won a couple of awards along the way. But the pandemic scotched, so to speak, a planned national launch this spring in concert with marketing-savvy arthouse theater chain Alamo Drafthouse. That would have featured not only the trailers, but positioning with Alamo’s weekly screenings of classic Westerns, and live tastings.
Now, with the trailers’ launch across social media in late September, the brand finally got its long-delayed national launch. Grasse also promised more trailers, outtakes and other iterations of the spaghetti Western content that Briganti created.
And though Tarantino hasn’t signed on to do his own version of trailers yet, Grasse is keeping his fingers crossed.
After all, Hollywood has gone all in on celebrity booze. Ryan Reynolds and his investing partners just sold Aviator Gin to Diageo for $600 million, and George Clooney and Randy Gerber previously sold Casamigos tequila for $1 billion. Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt basically kicked off the whole rosé-swilling trend in the U.S. with their Miraval chateau, and more recently Kate Hudson launched her own wine brand, in counterpoint to her Fabletics athleisure clothing.
“If this trend takes off the way we think it will, we absolutely will” ask Tarantino for his take(s) on Fistful, Grasse said. “I would hope that my marketing team is so smart, and that they’re sending him cases of this stuff.”