Back in the mid-’90s, teenage dirtbags like my friends and me sought out sixers of Miller Genuine Draft at Long Island 7-Elevens and toted coolers of Woodchuck Cider to backyard parties in attempts to feign sophistication. Later, as a dorm dweller who’d aligned himself with a motley crew of marauding hippies, frat pledges and punk-rock outcasts, I discovered Bud Ice, which, with its frostbitten typeface and glass molded to appear like chipped crystal, doubled as a conversation piece and signaled what I thought was distinction. Prior to the craft-beer boom of the aughts, there didn’t exist the cooler cases of IPAs and saisons with which suburban adolescents could individuate from their standard domestic-consuming peers. Hell, Brooklyn Brewery wasn’t even a thing yet.
Bud Ice was launched under the name Ice Draft by Anheuser-Busch in 1993 as a tactical response to an industry-wide ice beer trend. According to Barry Burdiak, former group creative director for ad agency DDB Chicago, which created Ice Draft’s first TV ads, August Busch IV, then vice president of marketing for Budweiser brands, was all in. “I like it, that’s cool, we gotta do that,” Burdiak recalls Busch IV saying.
The “that” in question was brewing “ice beer.” The style is created by cooling beer to below freezing temperatures until it literally crystallizes, at which point some crystals (i.e., a portion of the water volume) are extracted, and the remaining liquid is thus slightly higher in ABV while purporting to boast a crisper, more refreshing taste than standard drafts. For Anheuser-Busch, this reach for innovation was, in part, an answer to soft-drink giants setting off in exotic new directions (Crystal Pepsi, Coke II, et al.) and Coors entering the wine-cooler market with the late, lamented Zima. Though in a more enduring sense, ice beer offered a quaint preview of countless micro brewing experiments to come.
To kick off Ice Draft, Anheuser-Busch shelled out over $2 million on a theatrical 30-second spot featuring British actor Bruce Payne (he of Passenger 57 villainy) that was shelved after a brief Midwest test run, the corporate consensus being that it was a little too out there. A more straightforward approach was applied; the name morphed into the less abstract Bud Ice (same recipe), its generic packaging swapped for a more literal and playful design that included the signature textured glass and wintry font.
Soon after, Busch IV approached San Francisco–based advertising firm Goodby Silverstein & Partners of “Got Milk?” fame to create something similar for beer. Following a successful PSA on behalf of a national brewers’ association, Busch IV gave the firm the Bud Ice account. The final ads, unveiled during the 1996 Super Bowl, starred a stalking, sinister penguin who’d taunt his prey by whispering the refrain, “Doo bee doo bee doo” to the tune of Frank Sinatra’s “Strangers in the Night,” with the closing tagline, “Drink Bud Ice, but beware of the penguins.”
Founding partner Jeff Goodby chuckles in hindsight at the strange suggestiveness of it all, acknowledging that “the furtive, whispering penguin played the role of the extra alcohol in the beer.” No disrespect to Goodby and his pre-viral-era mischief, but the penguin connection hardly registered with me at the time. The simple pleasure derived from chugging ostensibly superior suds while compulsively tracing the bottle’s craggy exterior—a distinctly grown-up sensation combined with a childlike salve—was, on its merits, precisely what I’d been searching for since my first stolen sip of beer.
However, from the second the cap came off, it was a race to savor Bud Ice’s trademark chill before it gave way to a flat, warm aftertaste no laboratory intervention could mitigate. Not that I knew it at the time. I pounded those things like they were mountain spring water on a hot day.
By Y2K, I was an upperclassman, living in my very own off-campus shanty. Smaller, regional brewers like Saranac and Ommegang, and their seasonally and internationally inspired selections, had made their way into my full-sized refrigerator. Dorm ragers and off-campus keggers, with their attendant soundtracks of 311, Dave Matthews and No Way Out– era Puff Daddy, gave way to comparatively refined potlucks complemented by roasty stouts, super yeasty Belgians with double-digit ABVs and mixtapes featuring Black Star and Built to Spill. Suddenly, we could slow down and let the buzz build without diminishing returns. It was the end game of my romance with Bud Ice.
But as I sit here on the precipice of the big 4-0 and take stock of my fridge packed with pricey, large-format imperials, it occurs to me that maybe what I’ve been searching for since turning 21 is something economical and uncomplicated, something that was sessionable before beers were “sessionable.” Something like Bud Ice.