Can Everclear Shake Its Frat-Boy Image?

The infamous 190-proof grain spirit, Everclear, has long been synonymous with blackouts and bad decisions. But for the first time in the brand's history, it's trying to reverse that image by making a play for both the craft bartending crowd and intrepid home bartenders.

everclear grain alcohol

I lit the front porch on fire. I lit my friend’s face on fire. I got duct-taped to the fridge. I talked to a tombstone. I tried to build a wizard staff. I created a new genre of music marrying pop country and dubstep. I puked on the boy of my dreams. I puked on the girl of my dreams. I puked on a waterslide. I swallowed a goldfish. Wait…I swallowed two goldfish.

Like a prize buried deep inside a box of Blackout Breakfast Cereal, every bottle of Everclear comes with a free story. And they’re usually good stories, too, as you can see from the above loglines, culled from an informal “tell me your Everclear tale” survey I recently conducted on Facebook. (Names withheld to protect the afflicted.)

Synonymous with high-proof grain alcohol the same way Kleenex is synonymous with facial tissue, Everclear enjoys a market-dominant rep, one that’s as tough to shake as it was to earn. Until last year, the brand, trademarked by The American Distilling Company in 1950 but now owned by St. Louis-based Luxco, never released any best-practices info detailing how to work with its disturbingly potent 190-proof corn distillate. Common sense suggests it should be used as a neutral canvas for homemade spirits or liqueurs, or at the very least diluted. But left to our own unwise impulses, we’ve gone ahead and made it the poster spirit for bad-decision drinking.

Nearly pure ethanol at bottom-shelf prices (it’s also available at 151 proof), Everclear is a thrifty choice for value-driven boozers—those looking for volumetric return on a modest alcoholic investment. That’s how the stuff ends up being shot straight, or set ablaze, or stirred into cocktails ladled out of waste bins in off-campus basements or name-checked in a Bushwick Bill song about a manic, suicidal rage that results in him losing one of his eyeballs.

Luxco acquired Everclear in 1981 and continued with the laissez-faire approach to marketing the most recognizable label in its stable, reminding drinkers to mythologize responsibly before ducking behind the blast shield. But all that changed, in the most unanticipated manner possible, with the launch of the Make It Your Own initiative—an attempt to right the many wrongs that have come to define Everclear, and earn it a little DIY caché in the process.

Cocktail bartenders have been using grain alcohol to create custom ingredients for years. But no one really talks about it, and bartender Ted Kilgore thinks communicating how the pros get creative to consumers is key to helping Everclear grow up. “Friends have asked me about repping Everclear: ‘You think that’s going to hurt your reputation?’ No, absolutely not. It’s how you talk about something,” he says. “Are we dumping it into a trashcan? No. We’re creating something with it, something that is not available in stores. That appeals to me.”

Coinciding, perhaps not coincidentally, with a spate of negative press—citing collegiate binge-drinking concerns, Maryland officially prohibited the sale of 190-proof alcohol last year, joining a dozen-plus states that already ban it—Luxco made the decision to pivot Everclear in a new direction in the fall of 2014. “We had never done any marketing around Everclear—no promotions, no anything,” says Ashley Ulkus, the spirit’s brand manager. “So how could you responsibly talk about it, knowing the reputation that it has?”

After performing an extensive period of “social listening”—mining sites like Twitter, Facebook and Pinterest for honest, up-front data provided by Everclear consumers—Luxco hit on an unexpected niche. ”A lot of the conversation wasn’t just around frat party-type environs,” says Ulkus (though that clearly still accounts for a large portion of the web discussion). “It was actually around homemade limoncello and moonshine. We thought that was interesting.”

Luxco was aware that a certain contingent was fond of using Everclear, with its dilution-friendly proofs and blank-slate flavor profile, for various projects — it’s what we were supposed to be doing with it this entire time, after all. But in the pie chart of perceived public Everclear usage, “intrepid home bartender” made up but a baby slice, comparable to the thin sliver occupied by people who rely on the firewater to varnish damaged violins. Still, with general interest in craft cocktail culture on the rise, the data was on-trend enough to inspire some serious exploration.

Instead of trying to refute the absolute truths of grain alcohol—it’s super-cheap, it’s super-plentiful, it gets you bombed—Luxco is hoping to change the conversation completely. The Make It Your Own site (makeityourown.com)—stylized in that steampunk-y manner familiar to anyone who’s ever had a drink in Brooklyn—is a starter kit for the artisanal enthusiast, offering a glossary, advice on bar tools and glassware and a portal to a whimsical Pinterest page. Promotional materials, far from subtle about the company’s desire to change its stripes, address “mature consumers who enjoy dabbling in mixology,” imploring them to “look at Everclear in a new way.” (Interestingly, the actual word “Everclear” is a little hard to spot on the website, unless you’re looking for it.)

The meat of any DIY-driven campaign, of course, is recipes, and for these Luxco brought on bartender Ted Kilgore, the owner of the St. Louis cocktail bar Planter’s House. “If you go in to buy it, there’s no shelf sticker saying, ‘This is how you should use it,’” says Kilgore, who has contributed a number of recipes—Meyer lemon bitters and blueberry-Earl Grey and cucumber-chamomile liqueurs, to name a few—to the site.

Cocktail bartenders have been using grain alcohol to create custom ingredients for years. But no one really talks about it, and Kilgore thinks communicating how the pros get creative to consumers is key to helping Everclear grow up. “Friends have asked me about repping Everclear: ‘You think that’s going to hurt your reputation?’ No, absolutely not. It’s how you talk about something,” he says. “Are we dumping it into a trashcan? No. We’re creating something with it, something that is not available in stores. That appeals to me.”

There are certainly bartenders out there on Kilgore’s side. This past July, he traveled with the brand to Tales of the Cocktail in New Orleans, hosting a seminar on Everclear’s applications. Kilgore’s St. Louis counterparts, like Seth Wahlman of Eclipse and Tony Saputo of Layla, are Everclear evangelists of comparable constitution, and use it to build custom cordials for their respective bars. But not all bartenders are as confident as Kilgore in Everclear’s DIY identity and upside. “[It’s] become entrenched in the college style of drinking—drink to get fucked up,” says Preston Eckman, a Boise-based beverage consultant. “That category is incredibly difficult to distance a brand from.”

Key to getting over the Jungle Juice hump, at least in Luxco’s eyes, is actually pinpointing its ideal Everclear customer, which is harder than it sounds. It’s something the company has struggled with since the launch of Make It Your Own. Yes, they are not college freshmen. And yes, they enjoy nice drinks. But how old are they? How much money do they make? And would they really be willing to take the time to create their own small-batch hibiscus liqueur? “We started this without truly defining who that consumer was,” says Ulkus. “We’re still figuring it out. That’s really the honest answer.”

While they work on that, there’s one area the team knows it can mine for tremendous engagement. “People want to share their Everclear memories a lot,” says Ulkus. “And they all have a very common thread in them. There’s a lot of laughter.”

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