“Where the liquor tasted good… Cold and drunk as I might be,” crooned Elvis Presley in 1972, nearly cracking the top 40 with a gorgeous cover of Gordon Lightfoot’s “Early Mornin’ Rain.”
While Elvis famously wasn’t a heavy drinker, his father once told the story of an overindulgent moment for “The King” involving peach brandy in his youth. Elvis is also said to have enjoyed whiskey in his early days. Coinciding with what would have been Presley’s 87th birthday earlier this month, Grain & Barrel Spirits have launched a new Elvis Whiskey line, now available in stores and online.
The new Elvis-branded line is the result of collaboration between Grain & Barrel Spirits and Authentic Brands Group, who bought into Elvis Presley Enterprises in 2013 before partnering with Universal Music Group last November.
“Authentic Brands Group, in consultation with the Elvis estate and Priscilla in particular, they kind of work collaboratively to identify categories that they want to go into and then partners,” said Grain & Barrel Spirits founder Matti Anttila. “They actually reached out to us. They weren’t looking to do something with one of the big, big spirits companies. And, primarily, I think the reason why is that, historically, for licensing, what has happened is someone might look at Elvis and say, ‘OK. Let’s make it the Elvis version of X, Y or Z.’ And what their goal really was with this was to have Elvis be a standalone brand,” he said. “An interesting story is that Elvis’s maternal grandfather [Bob Smith] made moonshine and was a bootlegger. So that was a little known aspect of his background that a lot of people don’t know. So there were some reasons why spirits made sense.”
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While he was born in Tupelo, Mississippi, Tennessee became home for Presley. He moved to Memphis, in 1948 at the age of 13, first walking through the doors of famed Memphis-based label Sun Records in 1953, the earliest days in a career that would eventually land him as the best selling solo artist of all time, thanks to global physical record sales in excess of 500 million. In June of 1957, he spent his first night at Graceland, where he’d live for the next two decades.
The new whiskey line drills down on his time in The Volunteer State.
“They had this idea around Elvis as a whiskey particularly with the connection to Tennessee. So for our first two SKUs, what I would call our everyday Tennessee whiskey and rye, those were really about bringing Tennessee to the bottle – your more traditional process behind the Tennessee whiskeys and how that differs from other types of whiskeys. The Tennessee connection is really critical,” explained Anttila of the new spirit, which is distilled and bottled about 45 minutes south of Nashville in Columbia, TN. “Also, Graceland itself was really interested in a whiskey project. So they’ve been a great partner throughout this process and really enthusiastic about featuring the product.”
Recently named #7 on the Forbes list of highest-paid dead celebrities, “The King” raked in nearly $30 million in 2021 and remains a branding juggernaut, an enduring presence both in America and abroad which could help Grain & Barrel expand its reach within the spirits realm.
“We’re focused on the U.S. but we’re also focused on international markets with this brand. When we post on social, probably half the comments we get are from people overseas who are asking about international distribution. So that’s another area that we’re looking at. And I think that makes the most sense from a whiskey standpoint as well,” said Anttila. “He’s got 12 million fans on Facebook. #1 is the U.S. and #2 is Brazil. Every day with this brand we find out more and more about Elvis historically but also in terms of the broader fan base.”
In terms of applying an artist’s image to a product, few offer as many branding opportunities as Elvis Aaron Presley.
Famed for his success both in music and film, every era of Presley’s storied career is unique, each chapter of his story from Memphis to Vegas conjuring up an immediately identifiable mental image, which offers a vast array of opportunities for a beverage line.
“The fun part of this project, as we come out with new SKUs or new labels, is figuring out how do we bring those different periods to life more from a thematic standpoint?,” said Anttila. “And that’s one of the things that’s really neat about this project is that we have access to so many creative elements that we can bring to life in the packaging and marketing. And we really did a lot of work with Authentic Brands Group going through the archives. We wanted to take some of those photo assets and give them sort of that vintage music poster kind of feel,” he continued. “Our designer for the Elvis Whiskey labels is actually in Austin, Texas. Her name is Alyson Curtis. She made super cool, vintage music posters in the Austin music scene. So she totally gets it. When I started talking to her about this project, there wasn’t a lot of explaining that I needed to do. It fit her aesthetic. She totally got Elvis.”
Breweries have already been in contact with Grain & Barrel regarding possible collaboration on Elvis Whiskey barrel-aged craft beer programs. And with new Elvis products already in discussion, the future seems bright for a line of themed spirits that cater to both Elvis fans and whiskey aficionados alike.
“I think there’s a lot we can do with whiskey,” said Anttila. “And because of our experience in the whiskey space, we’ve got let’s call it institutional knowledge in that category that’s really, really strong – particularly around barrel finishes or single barrel programs and different things that we’ve been able to utilize really successfully. But to do so from a Tennessee standpoint. And that’s gonna be a fun process. We’ve started that and we’re hoping to have a couple of things out between now and the end of the year that are more limited in nature but are more personalized [toward Elvis],” he said.
“It’s amazing to me how Elvis remains this icon that has transcended generations,” Anttila said. “So it’s a really unique thing versus some of our other experiences of building brands just from scratch. Because we’re building a brand from scratch – but we’re also leveraging something so iconic and so well-known. And with that, I think there’s a responsibility. We have a responsibility to his legacy and to the family and we take that seriously. And that’s helped guide the process.”