Drinking in History

The stories and history surrounding what we sip.

What Are They Drinking on Mad Men?

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[Photograph: Jordin Althaus/AMC]

What are the characters on Mad Men drinking? The short answer: everything, all the time. They also drink so much it's a surprise the alcohol vapors don't explode every time they light up their Lucky Strikes, because they're also smoking all the time.

While the quantities of alcohol alone speak volumes—take your pick between three-martini lunches or three fingers of something brown—the choices say even more about a period in American history when the drinkscape uniquely reflected the cultural forces that created it.

Season 6 premieres on April 7 and is set in the late 1960s, but the series begins in the 1950s. In the popular imagination, it's often a bland decade: the men wore gray flannel suits and fedoras and the women looked like Donna Reed. After two decades of economic depression and war, Don Draper and the people around him seek normalcy and calm, and the drinks follow suit. The characters revel in America's postwar affluence and newfound international stature as Betty Draper offers easy drinking and imported Heineken at her around-the-world dinner party.

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Comfort me with Canadian Club. [Photo: Ron Jaffe/AMC]

Draper, for his part, ignores the Netherlands and is often seen drinking a variation of the old-fashioned featuring a veritable fruit salad of cherries and citrus slices. He also downs Canadian Club, a blended whisky containing nearly flavorless grain neutral spirits, giving it a lighter, less robust taste than the straight bourbons some viewers assume he's drinking. It pairs perfectly with the TV dinners advertising executives also helped launch into success during the 1950s.

Draper's lighter whiskey also shows the power of advertising. Shortly after Prohibition, many Americans were skeptical of blends because of their association with bootlegged liquor. Distillers at the time had limited stocks of the good stuff, and needed to stretch it as far as possible, a trend that would continue through the lean war years. Plus, market research showed that many people had acquired a greater taste for blended products during Prohibition, so that's what they promoted. By 1950, Draper's blended whisky outsold heavier straight whiskies by a factor of eight. In 1951, Business Week noted the prevalence of advertising promoting similar products that were "light," "mild," and perfectly in step with the flavor of the times. Distilleries consolidated into behemoths that pushed national brands, and regional tastes faded as products powered by national ad campaigns catered to the widest audience possible.

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"The whiskey that's bold enough to be lighter than them all." [Image: The Gallery of Graphic Design]

But the 1950s were never really as dull as they seem on Nick at Nite. Draper takes his excursions into the bohemia of Greenwich Village to visit the social, sexual, and cultural undercurrents that bubbled into the 1960s and the series' later seasons. Draper's secretary, Peggy Olson, begins breaking into the old boys' club by drinking whiskey alongside her colleagues.

Betty Draper, on the other hand, stays chained to outdated social norms and drowns her pain with "acceptable" drinks like Tom Collinses and vodka gimlets, where the sting of the alcohol is hidden by sugar or fruit juice. Of course, there's nothing wrong with sugar or fruit juice, and as Megan, the new Mrs. Draper, settles into her relationship with Don, she's rumored to enjoy tropical drinks such as mai tais and zombies when the upcoming season kicks off in Hawaii. It all seems like paradise, but one of the big questions about Season 6 is if Don will upset his new life by slipping into his old ways. Our wager? This downfall could be sparked by shots of tequila, which became increasingly popular in the 1960s. As we all know, tequila makes you crazy...

But the most telling drink pairing on the show is Roger Sterling and his vodka. Sterling prowls around an office filled with light and sterile-looking modern art that perfectly matches vodka's clean, antiseptic taste. The drink also mixes with anything, a perfect fuel for a character whose charm and wit masks his confused search for his right place in the world.

Sterling's vodka hails from a Soviet Union embroiled in a Cold War that hatched the Vietnam War and cracked open the generational fault line between baby boomers and their parents. Boomers chose vodka, which gradually outsold their parents' brown spirits as the 1960s reached its fever pitch. It's a subversive choice for Sterling, who divorces his wife for a much younger woman and then experiments with LSD, but doesn't quite know what to think of it.

Sterling's brand of vodka says it all. We often see him drink Smirnoff, but in Season 3, set in 1963, he ships a contraband bottle of Russian brand Stolichnaya to the U.S. while honeymooning in Greece. He later shares the bottle with Draper in his office when Pete Campbell walks in, forming a triumvirate of entitlement and white male privilege that is beginning to crumble in the world right outside their window. Draper and Sterling are relaxed and in charge as they helm the rudder to the universe, oblivious as they drink what other Americans aren't allowed to have. Campbell, as always, is an ambitious striver worried about being cheated from what he's due. He's there to say thanks for a promotion he secretly feels didn't come soon enough.

Sterling offers him a drink, but adds, "Not the Stoli."

About the Author: Reid Mitenbuler is a Washington, DC-based writer. He is currently writing a book about bourbon for Viking/Penguin. Find him online at The Bourbon Empire and on Twitter @ReidMitenbuler.

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