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The Thrill of The Illicit

Posted by: Fred Burt on Tuesday, October 15 2013 10:08 AM
Classic Cutty Sark Ad

We have a passion for etymology. A search for the history of the phrase “the real McCoy” led me to stumble on a lovely brand story. More of that brand in a moment, but first what of McCoy?

William McCoy was a sea captain who spent his time sneaking past the coast guards and smuggling booze into the US to keep speakeasies in contraband goods. Bootleggers had a bad reputation for watering down their product, but Bill was a fair-dealing gentleman who never adulterated his liquor, so it became known as the “the real McCoy.” His honesty paid off: based on his good name, in 1924 he handled more than 6 million bottles of booze!

McCoy admitted that he smuggled as much for the sport as for the money — in the same way that millions of previously law-abiding Americans suddenly took illicit delight in breaking the new Prohibition rules. In Bill’s words, “Americans, since the beginnings of this nation, have always kicked holes in the laws they resented.”

One of McCoy’s regular cargoes was Cutty Sark Scotch whisky. Cutty Sark was created by British wine merchants Berry Bros & Rudd specifically for export to the US. This was in 1923, right in the middle of Prohibition — so it was a brand specifically designed to be bootlegged illegally into the country! This was the golden age of cocktails and this new lighter whisky blend was designed to be mixed.

It's a captivating story: the heady mix of the romance and sophistication of cocktail culture, the thrill of a drink that was at the heart of illicit boozing, a brand that has an authentic tale to tell, a product with a proper "reason for being" (lighter whiskey, better for mixing). As importantly, it genuinely makes us want to try the product again.

Too many spirit brands come across as confections designed to dupe us, but Cutty Sark feels, dare we say it, like the real McCoy. Barman, make ours a Cutty!

Fred Burt is Managing Director, Global Accounts for Interbrand.

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