Honoring the Golden Age of TV Whiskey

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WIZ: Would you guys like a Negroni?
BOYD: I don’t know what that is.
WYNN: Italian, tastes like grapefruit.
BOYD: (Cutting him off) I don’t want one.
Justified, Season 6 Episode 4: “The Trash and the Snake”

On April 5, AMC started airing the final seven episodes of its beloved flagship, Mad Men. And as sure as Don Draper having one last extra-marital affair, you can expect another round of “The Golden Age of TV is dead!” stories too. In fact, that idea as it relates to Mad Men’s end started circulating as far back as 2008 thanks to EW. It’s been brought up seemingly annually since in places like The New York Times (2011), Grantland (2012), The AV Club (2013), Wired (spring 2014), Vanity Fair (fall 2014) and CNN (2015).

Beginning with turn-of-the-century HBO dramas like The Sopranos and The Wire, TV’s most acclaimed series started shifting to longer narrative arcs instead of relying on episodic stylings (like what you see on every Law & Order or NCIS franchise). Essentially, it was more complex than what came before. And as such, many of these modern classics introduced similar lead characters, protagonists that operated in varying shades of gray rather than being wholeheartedly good or bad.

Their drink of choice was a different subject, more of a black and white matter. In fact, it was brown—we’ve been living in the Golden Age of TV Whiskey this whole time. Draper’s Canadian Club may be the most obvious example, but there’s Walter White’s Dimple Pinch, Bunk and McNulty’s Jameson plus all that Bulleit time-traveling back to Deadwood. So while the finale of Mad Men should be rightfully honored for its role in modern storytelling, the show—along with the ending of the underrated but similarly boozy Justified (a finale which aired last night)—may also mark the end of whiskey’s peak time in the pop culture spotlight.

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Why whiskey? To start, it’s timeless. Trying to decipher between characters because one drinks Budweiser and the other prefers Lagunitas would severely limit both the time and place a show can happen. Whiskey, on the other hand, is as at home in the US Gold Rush as it is in a ‘60s era NYC ad agency or modern Appalachian dive bar. Its brands have been around awhile and often aren’t regionally limited.

But assuming the quality of these Golden Age shows is inherently “better,” maybe whiskey rose to screen prominence because these writers listened to their high school English teachers, avoiding exposition and relying heavily on an age-old adage: “show don’t tell.” Short of hats (we see you Heisenberg or Raylan Givens), whiskey may be TV’s most versatile visual indicator. The mere appearance of it acts as a shorthand, quickly and effectively conveying a limitless range of messages.

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Whiskey can be sexy (nearly anything Draper sips…) or sad (…except during that season he’s a clear alcoholic), scary (Mags Bennett’s moonshine) or triumphant (Peggy Olsen’s increasing successes are followed by the office stash). It indicates supreme masculinity (Al Swearengen out-drinking his enemies) and supreme emotional frailty (Raylan needs a handle of Ancient Age to drink while burning his father’s Army gear). It’s so effective as a context clue that even those Golden Age characters who normally dabbled in other drinks would pour three fingers from time to time. Tony Soprano was a throwback mob boss who could take Glenlivet on the rocks instead of red wine. And even Sex In The City’s Carrie Bradshaw, arguably the forefather of the brooding anti-hero, used it to reveal her true self. Sure, the writer drank Cosmopolitans and other cocktails, but one of her most famous lines was “I’d rather be someone’s shot of whiskey than everyone’s cup of tea.” [Translation: Carrie Bradshaw does it her way and may not be for everyone.]

Of course, there’s a separate TV adage that “life imitates art.” And TV’s Golden Age ran in parallel to another reoccurring headline: Whiskey’s Renaissance. We may never definitively know if Mad Men’s style spiked spirit and cocktail sales, but whiskey’s increasing popularity certainly made it easier for both sides. Present-day fans were more familiar with bottles beyond Jim, Jack and Johnnie. They understood what it meant when Justified’s Northern mobster Robert Quarles drank only Pappy Van Winkle while hometown baddies Ava and Boyd Crowder preferred Jim Beam thankyouverymuch. Seeing this opportunity, brands increasingly wanted new ways to reach audiences and were more comfortable with their product appearing in popular shows despite their questionable morals (though there are still some boundaries—Sons of Anarchy used a fake whiskey brand as anesthetic when doing some DIY-gunshot wound repair). In retrospect, both factors gave creators more options when it came to having characters imbibing on screen.

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Even if each Golden Age (TV’s and TV Whiskey’s) is ending, the tropes they helped establish are likely to continue on to a lesser degree. The spirit showcase has seeped into non-dramas (Parks And Rec uber-man Ron Swanson likes bacon and Lagavulin; Community’s Jeff Winger is an elitist prick so sure he calls for Macallan) and it’s already showing up in the hands of new, less anti-heroey leads. Jimmy-I’ll-Eventually-Be-Saul makes peace with his fate via Dewar’s in the opening sequence of Better Call Saul, and clear bad dude Frank Underwood is a politician with Southern roots. So though he keeps Bushmills in his office, he’s quick to offer Peter Russo some Blanton’s bourbon later in season one.

So as TV shows and their leading roles continue to evolve, on-screen spirits choices will too. But in some odd way, all that vodka sitting in decanters on The Americans or Poussey’s homemade mix of Kool-Aid, old fruit, ketchup and moldy bread on Orange Is The New Black doesn’t exist without all these brooders drinking whiskey beforehand. That means when Draper and company finally shut down the office, the only way to truly honor the moment is what they’ve been doing all along—one pour. As Mad Men has demonstrated time and time again, two ounces and no ice can mean both appreciating the end and being excited for a new beginning.

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