MODERN LIVING: 86-Proof American

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In colonial days, Kentuckians (then Virginians) with a whisky taste had trouble chasing away the demon rum. The rum-makers once put through a law boosting the legal price to $15 a half pint. The Bourbon County grand jury even indicted James Garrard, a Baptist minister who later became Governor of the state, for illegal whisky selling. But by 1789, tenacious Bourbon County distillers had finally given corn likker an old Kentucky home. Though ten years ago bourbon was only 13% of total domestic whisky sold, last year it was 47%. Last week bourbon reached another pinnacle: in nationwide newspaper ads adorned with a sober American eagle, the newly formed Bourbon Institute kicked off a $1,000,000 promotional campaign "dedicated to bringing worldwide recognition to a great American tradition."

Behind the institute was its founder and sole member so far, Schenley Industries, whose President Lewis S. Rosenstiel has even more urgent feelings about bourbon than did the Rev. Garrard. Schenley reportedly holds 60% to 70% of all the old whisky in the U.S. (most of it bourbon), mainly because it over-stockpiled during the Korean war on the mistaken theory that a shortage was in store.

Hammerhead. Trouble is that bourbon faces sharp competition in the battle of straight whiskies against blends, which took over the wartime market. Drinkers acquired a preference for the milder blends against the headhammering effect of 100-proof straight bourbon. To recoup, ; distillers have been lightening bourbon toward the minimum allowable 80 proof, which also cuts the excise tax and lowers retail prices. Such leading brands as Schenley's I.W. Harper, National Distillers' Old Crow and Old Grand-Dad, now come in 86 proof, one reason for the rise of straight whiskies from 9% of the total market in 1949 to 24% now.

Nonwhisky liquors have also bounced up, nearly doubling their market share since 1949 to 23%. The reason again is mildness: odorless, light-bodied vodka has jumped from virtually nothing to 6% of liquor sales. Scotch and Canadian whiskies have sliced into U.S. distillers' markets until imports are 13% of total liquor sales.

Whiskey Americain. Rosenstiel is not only betting on lighter, milder bourbon to take 50% of the U.S. market for domestic whisky this year, but hopes to sell it heavily abroad where bourbon is more foreign than vodka is to Americans. Musing over possible results, the trade magazine Advertising Age printed an imaginary dialogue in a Paris bistro:

"Avez-vous du bourbon? . . . C'est un whiskey americain."

"Americain? Come Coca-Cola?"

"Non, non . . . N'avez-vous jamais en-tendu parler du Bourbon Institute?"

"Bourbon Institute? Qu'est-ce que c'est? Est-ce un hopital? Non? Un musee? Non? Alors, monsieur, je regrette . . ."

"O.K. Ça ne fait rien. Donnez-moi un Cinzano."

"Bien, monsieur."