In late 2015, an unexpected name popped up in the liquor industry press: Bob Dylan. A trademark application for the term "bootleg whiskey" had been filed under Dylan's name. Among those who noticed the news was Marc Bushala (52), a lifelong fan and a liquor entrepreneur whose bourbon brand, Angel's Envy, had just been sold for $150 million (€123.5 million). Bushala said he immediately spent weeks "obsessing over this concept of what a Dylan whiskey could be."
So he reached out, and after being vetted by Dylan’s representatives, talked to Dylan by phone, and proposed working together on a portfolio of small-batch whiskeys. As he saw it, there was just one problem: The name “bootleg,” while an apt Dylanological pun, wasn’t quite right for a top-shelf liquor. Might Dylan, Nobel laureate, be open to some name exploration?
“It was a little bit daunting,” Bushala said of his pitch. But it worked. Next month, he and Dylan will introduce Heaven’s Door, a collection of three whiskeys, a straight rye, a straight bourbon and a “double-barrelled” whiskey. They are Dylan’s entry into the booming celebrity-branded spirits market, the latest career twist for an artist who has spent five decades confounding expectations.
Dylan is not simply licensing his name. He is a full partner in the business, Heaven’s Door Spirits, which Bushala said had raised $35 million from investors. “We both wanted to create a collection of American whiskeys that, in their own way, tell a story,” Dylan said in a statement. “I’ve been travelling for decades, and I’ve been able to try some of the best spirits that the world of whiskey has to offer. This is great whiskey.”
The marketing of celebrity alcohol tends to lean on the perceived lifestyle of its mascots. Drink George Clooney's Casamigos tequila, for example, sold last year to the beverage giant Diageo for up to $1 billion, and acquire some of his movie-star glamour. Want to party like Jay-Z? Buy an $850 Armand de Brignac.
“It’s about fairy dust,” said Michael Stone, chairman of the brand licensing agency Beanstalk, who is not involved with Heaven’s Door. “People are looking for some of the fairy dust to be sprinkled on them from that celebrity’s lifestyle.”
Heaven’s Door is meant to conjure a broader idea of Dylan that is part Renaissance man, part nighthawk. The label design is derived from his ironwork sculptures, with rural iconography – crows, wagon wheels – in silhouette. And in promotional photos lighted like classic movie stills, a tuxedo-clad Dylan (76), gazes off in a dark cocktail lounge or lonely diner, glass in hand.
Like his recent albums of standards, they portray Dylan as an urbane but still gritty crooner, one who might well wind down his day with a glass of bourbon. “Dylan has these qualities that actually work well for a whiskey,” Bushala said. “He has great authenticity. He is a quintessential American. He does things the way he wants to do them. I think these are good attributes for a super-premium whiskey as well.”
Dylan is entering the craft whiskey market as the business is exploding. Helped by a craze for classic cocktails, sales of American whiskey grew 52 percent over the last five years, to $3.4 billion in 2017, according to data from the Distilled Spirits Council.
Dylan’s songs are not short of whiskey references, among them Copper Kettle - The Pale Moonlight (“Daddy he made whiskey, my grandaddy he did too / We ain’t paid no whiskey tax since 1792”); Blind Willie McTell (“He’s dressed up like a squire / Bootlegged whiskey in his hand”); Gotta Serve Somebody (“Might like to drink whiskey / Might like to drink milk”); and Moonshiner (“I’ve spent all my money / On whiskey and beer”).
Bushala said: “There have been spirits and whiskey in his music for as long as he’s been making it, going on 60 years, and in the kind of rural Americana that plays into it. So for sure in his mind, there were elements he was after. But it wasn’t directly articulated.
“He was after a mood or a feeling. He wasn’t after saying, ‘This should taste more smokey or have more corn or rye, or adjust the proof.’”
Presented with one distillation, Bushala said, Dylan said simply the drink should feel “more like a wood structure”. “We were nodding like we understood,” Bushala said. “But we didn’t really.”
The first batches of Heaven's Door were developed with Jordan Via, formerly of the Breckenridge Distillery in Colorado. Together, the team tried various novel finishes. The rye, for example, was aged in cigar-shaped oak barrels made from wood harvested in the Vosges region of France.
To preserve Dylan’s original name for the whiskey, the company will issue an annual Bootleg Series in limited editions, in ceramic bottles decorated with his oil and watercolour paintings. The first, a 25-year-old whiskey, will be released next year and cost about $300. (Heaven’s Door’s standard line goes for $50 to $80 a bottle.)
The idea of Dylan's being connected to a commercial venture always activates some level of outrage, as it did in 2014 when fans cried "sellout" for his involvement in two Super Bowl TV ads: one for Chobani yogurt, which used his song "I Want You," and another for Chrysler, in which Dylan recited a patriotic script about the car industry.
But Dylan has never shied from commercial deals, and in the long run they have barely grazed his reputation. In 1994, he allowed Richie Havens to sing his anthem "The Times They Are A-Changin'" in an ad for the button-down accounting firm Coopers & Lybrand. Ten years later, Dylan was mocked for appearing in a Victoria's Secret commercial (in which he tossed his black cowboy hat to a supermodel wearing angel wings). Since then, he has done spots for Apple, Cadillac, Pepsi, IBM and Google.
Whether Heaven's Door can compete is another question. Bushala was one of the founders of Angel's Envy, which was introduced in 2011 and sold to Bacardi four years later after developing a reputation for quality and innovation. Yet the whiskey aisle keeps getting more crowded. According to Nielsen, more than 20,000 kinds of spirits are sold in the US, and last year there were 27 percent more whiskeys on sale than in 2013. – New York Times and Guardian services