It took the British to get bourbon off the rocks

Guinness is teaching the Americans how to toast their heritage, writes Ian Griffiths
Bourbon is a quintessentially American drink. More American than apple pie, older than the constitution and the embodiment of the pioneering spirit. So it's surprising that it has taken a British company to teach the Americans how to appreciate it.

The company in question is Guinness. Through its United Distillers subsidiary it has been steadily promoting bourbon over the past few years, elevating it to a stature which could not have been imagined a decade ago.

As with all things Guinness, an extremely shrewd commercial logic underpins this broadening of the American mind. Indeed, the bourbon marketing programme represents Guinness at its best.

In markets that are distinctly unfriendly, the company has had to devise new ways to deliver growth. The bourbon initiative is just one of many under way across the group that are designed to find growth where none is supposed to exist. Their success will not be the most visible element of this week's results from Guinness, but their contribution is essential.

The bourbon market, for instance, has been in decline for a while - reflecting the general malaise of the US market. Against this grim backdrop, United Distillers has seen quite dramatic growth in its bourbon sales. That increase has been unearthed by a now-familiar focus on quality not quantity.

It is familiar because the bourbon strategy replicates United Distillers' highly successful development of its classic malts range. The move into super-premium brands, which was lovingly nurtured by the firm's marketing supremos, now provides a blueprint for bourbon.

The man heading the latest drive in the US is Chris Morris. He has bourbon in his blood literally and metaphorically.

His family has been distilling the spirit since 1788. His great great grandfather was Basil Hayden, whose eponymous bourbon is in the portfolio of a rival drinks company. He has been in the business for 20 years and works out of Cascade Hollow, Tullahoma, Tennessee for George A Dickel (established 1870, founder proprietors Geo & Augusta Dickel).

He is an authority on the drink, its production and its heritage. He also enjoys a tipple. Indeed, a large part of his job has been drinking bourbon and encouraging others to do likewise. "Last year I handed out 4,000 glasses at 55 different appearances," he says.

Those appearances are at bourbon tastings or "smokers", where diners will pay around $150 (pounds 97) for a gourmet dinner followed by a lengthy session with some very expensive cigars. The perfect accompaniment for these cigars is bourbon and Mr Morris is on hand to serve the drinks and explain their history. The events have become prime marketing tools for United Distillers.

The firm is not involved in the mass bourbon market and has instead focused on the up-market brands it has accumulated, almost unintentionally, over the past decade. Those brands have been pooled together in the Bourbon Heritage Collection and aimed at an altogether more discerning market.

The Heritage Collection has been a roaring success. When it was launched in November, 1994 the entire stock sold out in a matter of weeks. "We did a year's sales in three months," Mr Morris says. "When we came out with a fresh batch in March, 1995, we sold out again."

The premium bourbon plays on a new fascination among the US drinking public for exclusive brands. These are drinkers who would much prefer to pay $50 for a brand of distinction than $5 for a bottle of hooch.

The Heritage Collection oozes with a sense of history and character. IW Harper was created by two German-Swiss immigrants in 1872. Old Charter was raised on the shores of Long Lick Creek in 1867. George Dickel was brought up in the Tennessee mountains around 1870. WL Weller was born in 1800 and once had a spell fighting in the Mexican war.

The brands are marketed subtly. There is no mass advertising. Campaigns are directed towards a clearly defined audience - hence the regular ads in a publication called Cigar Aficionado. Drinkers are encouraged to organise their own whisky tasting, which pitches George Dickel against other brands. They are invited to join the Bourbon Heritage Preservation Society, which now boasts tens of thousands of members.

Mr Morris is unashamed of the similarities with the classic malt strategy: "We took all our learning from them and have been able to move much quicker by using their experiences. Just as they moved into rare malts so at the end of the month we will be launching our first rare bourbon on the US market."

Imitation is indeed a sincere form of flattery and in United Distillers' case an extremely successful one. Premium bourbons are booming. The Americans are rediscovering their heritage. And after a few glasses of George Dickel Special Barrel Reserve, who cares if it is the Brits who are behind the revival?