By Kathleen DiBenedetto, Sr. Director, Premium Seed Brand Marketing
They say when you have a job you love, you’ll never work a day in your life. Well, I’m fortunate to be able to say that I have a job I love and a career that many admire. Getting to this point, however, wasn’t without its challenges. To achieve anything meaningful in life, you must force yourself to seek experiences. It’s these experiences that provide the growth and knowledge required to understand any body of work with meaning. Experiences allow you to see the intangible aspects of the business you represent and they allow you to learn more about yourself.
In my own quest to push beyond mediocrity, I forced myself to ask for experiences: the opportunity to make whiskey, to cut peat in a bog on a remote island off the coast of Scotland, to see, first hand, the tunnels that ran from Canada to Detroit used to smuggle whisky during prohibition. Each of the many experiences I’ve been privileged with have colored my understanding of what it means to market a brand.
Learning to Make Whiskey
Early in my career, I was the brand manager for Booker Noe’s whiskies (the grandson of Jim Beam). Booker required anyone who worked on his brand to learn how to make whiskey at the distillery in Kentucky. In his mind, unless you truly “experienced” the time it takes to craft a whiskey — from the grains, to mashing, fermentation, to distillation, and aging — you can’t truly understand the contributions of the distiller. This experience taught me that whiskey was much more than a mash bill. It’s an art of precision in timing. The inspection of the grain can’t be replicated by a computer, and there is a genuine grit and brawn required to move a 500-pound-plus barrel from the filling porch to the rackhouse, rolling it “just right” to get the barrel situated on a three-tiered rack. I wouldn’t have traded that time for any whiskey-making lecture because the things that aren’t said are often the most important.
Cutting Peat on the Bog
I learned the concept of making Scotch whisky from a third generation peat cutter. Peat is an accumulation of partially decayed vegetation or organic matter. It is formed over a period of many years (up to 5,000!) and can be up to several feet thick. To make Scotch, someone (a peat cutter) needs to cut into the peat to help germinate the grain, and when peat is burned, the smoke germinates and flavors the grain, creating the iconic “Islay Malt” flavor, and bringing thousands of years of history into each sip. To think of all of the people who stepped on that ground and the seas that covered the land…when you sip a whisky, you are literally sipping history. This experience, this knowledge, changed the way I talked about Laphroaig from that moment forward.
Canadian Whisky and the Royal Warrant
[In the 90s], I had the good fortune to work on a brand that defined Canadian Whisky — Canadian Club. By immersing myself in the brand, I learned the colorful history that could only be experienced by visiting the Heritage Center in Windsor, Canada, right over the border from Detroit. Here is some of that history…
Hiram Walker founded Canadian Club in 1858. He originally looked at starting his distillery in Detroit, but on-again/off-again Temperance Laws of the day prevented him from doing so. Since land costs were so much more attractive across the river, this is where he started his distillery.
In visiting the Canadian Club Heritage Center, I saw firsthand the history that took place during Prohibition — from the walled off tunnel that ran under the Detroit River (we don’t know that it was ever used), to the coded telegrams that still sit in the filing room. U.S Prohibition was the force that propelled Canadian Club Whisky to the forefront. From 1920 to1933 in the United States, it was illegal to produce, sell, or consume beverage alcohol, but that law did not exist in Canada. Only one mile away, on the banks of the Detroit River, Canadian Club’s production increased as a result of the high demand from customers. At the end of the prohibition era, Canadian Club was very well known throughout the United States.
Prohibition is the sexy kind of history. The history that folks see on shows like “Boardwalk Empire.” But if you look deeper, the legacy of CC is broader and more meaningful. For instance, did you know that on September 17, 1898, the company was granted a warrant by Queen Victoria? Queen Victoria’s coat of arms appeared on the labels soon thereafter. Upon the queen’s death, Hiram Walker received Royal Warrants from subsequent monarchs including Edward VII, George V, George VI, and Queen Elizabeth II. Amazing!
What is even less known is the progressiveness by which Mr. Walker treated his workers. On April 7, 1890, the industrial town Walkerville was incorporated near what is now Windsor, Canada. Under Walker’s exacting direction, sturdy well-built homes were constructed for the distillery workers. Streetlights, paved and drained roads, running water, and a water-pumping station were the modern new conveniences added for workers’ comfort. Churches and schools were built. He also established and paid for a fire department and police force. Six hundred workers and their families lived in Walkerville by the late 1880s. For the time, this was unheard of!
Experiences Color Your Career
What makes a job worth it? Experiences. These are but a few of the incredible experiences and knowledge I acquired over my time with Jim Beam brands and Beam Suntory that just cannot be found in a book or on the internet. Only by physically going to the location, understanding the process, and understanding the values of the owner, can you fully understand the true values and motivation behind the brands you work on.