Bob Dylan’s Latest Gig: Making Whiskey

[Read a Times taster’s review of Bob Dylan’s whiskeys.]

The marketing of celebrity alcohol tends to lean on the perceived lifestyle of its mascots. Drink George Clooney’s Casamigos tequila, for example — sold last year to the beverage giant Diageo for up to $1 billion — and acquire some of his movie-star glamour. Want to party like Jay-Z? Buy an $850 Armand de Brignac.

“It’s about fairy dust,” said Michael Stone, the chairman of the brand licensing agency Beanstalk, who is not involved with Heaven’s Door. “People are looking for some of the fairy dust to be sprinkled on them from that celebrity’s lifestyle.”


Two Heaven’s Door executives, Marc Bushala, left, and Ryan Perry, sometimes puzzled over Mr. Dylan’s comments about the whiskey samples he tasted. “It should feel like being in a wood structure” was one.

Lyndon French for The New York Times

Heaven’s Door is meant to conjure a broader idea of Mr. Dylan that is part Renaissance man, part nighthawk. The label design is derived from his ironwork sculptures, with rural iconography — crows, wagon wheels — in silhouette. And in promotional photos lighted like classic movie stills, a tuxedo-clad Mr. Dylan, 76, gazes off in a dark cocktail lounge or lonely diner, glass in hand.

Like his recent albums of standards, they portray Mr. Dylan as an urbane but still gritty crooner — one who might well wind down his day with a glass of bourbon.

“Dylan has these qualities that actually work well for a whiskey,” Mr. Bushala said. “He has great authenticity. He is a quintessential American. He does things the way he wants to do them. I think these are good attributes for a super-premium whiskey as well.”

Mr. Dylan is entering the craft whiskey market as the business is exploding. Helped by a craze for classic cocktails, sales of American whiskey grew 52 percent over the last five years, to $3.4 billion in 2017, according to data from the Distilled Spirits Council.

But for those who have been listening closely, whiskey has been a decades-long thread throughout Mr. Dylan’s music, going back to the early outtake “Moonshiner” in 1963 and to Mr. Dylan’s version of the song “Copper Kettle (The Pale Moonlight),” on the 1970 album “Self Portrait,” which describes the distilling process in detail. (“Get you a copper kettle, get you a copper coil/Fill it with new made corn mash and never more you’ll toil.”)

Mr. Bushala said that over four or five meetings — always at Mr. Dylan’s metalworking studio in Los Angeles — and a number of phone calls, he had learned that his partner has a sophisticated whiskey palate.

Yet communication was still a challenge. Mr. Bushala and Ryan Perry, the chief operating officer, struggled to interpret Mr. Dylan’s wishes. Often they came in the form of enigmatic comments or simply glances.

“Sometimes you just get a long look,” Mr. Bushala said with a laugh, “and you’re not sure if that’s disgust or approval.”


Mr. Dylan performing in Britain in 1962, the year before he recorded the outtake “Moonshiner.” Whiskey has been a musical thread throughout his career.

Brian Shuel/Redferns

He and Mr. Perry recalled Mr. Dylan’s tasting a sample of the double-barreled whiskey and saying that something was missing. “It should feel like being in a wood structure,” he said.

They struggled to decode the remark. What kind of wooden structure? A church? A railroad car? A barn? That led Mr. Bushala and Mr. Perry first to probing discussions about the nose — the liquor’s aroma in the glass — and then to experiments in how they toasted the barrels in which the whiskey is aged.

Months later, the men returned with a sample that they felt embodied “that sweet, musty smell of a barn,” Mr. Bushala said, and presented it to Mr. Dylan, who commented approvingly.

His oblique feedback, Mr. Perry said, “really helped us think about barrel finishing in a different way.”

The first batches of Heaven’s Door were developed with Jordan Via, formerly of the Breckenridge Distillery in Colorado. Together, the team tried various novel finishes. The rye, for example, was aged in cigar-shaped oak barrels made from wood harvested in the Vosges region of France.

To preserve Mr. Dylan’s original name for the whiskey, the company will issue an annual Bootleg Series in limited editions, in ceramic bottles decorated with his oil and watercolor paintings. The first, a 25-year-old whiskey, will be released next year and cost about $300. (Heaven’s Door’s standard line goes for $50 to $80 a bottle.)

The idea of Mr. Dylan’s being connected to a commercial venture always activates some level of outrage, as it did in 2014 when fans cried “sellout” for his involvement in two Super Bowl TV ads: one for Chobani yogurt, which used his song “I Want You,” and another for Chrysler, in which Mr. Dylan recited a patriotic script about the car industry.

▶ A 2014 Super Bowl commercial for Chrysler featuring Mr. Dylan. Video by Brenner Chrysler Jeep

But Mr. Dylan has never shied from commercial deals, and in the long run they have barely grazed his reputation. In 1994, he allowed Richie Havens to sing his anthem “The Times They Are A-Changin’” in an ad for the button-down accounting firm Coopers & Lybrand. Ten years later, Mr. Dylan was mocked for appearing in a Victoria’s Secret commercial (in which he tossed his black cowboy hat to a supermodel wearing angel wings). Since then, he has done spots for Apple, Cadillac, Pepsi, IBM and Google.


Heaven’s Door labels were inspired by Mr. Dylan’s ironwork sculptures.

Lyndon French for The New York Times

Mr. Dylan has also made a novel licensing deal for his full song catalog to be available for use in a television drama now under development.

Bill Flanagan, a veteran music journalist who has interviewed Mr. Dylan, likens him to Hank Williams and Johnny Cash — self-made entertainers who saw no conflict in joining the marketplace.

And then there is simply Mr. Dylan’s talent for provocation.

“Dylan has always resisted any attempt to fence him in,” Mr. Flanagan said. “As soon as people start calling him king of the folkies, or patron saint of the counterculture, or beloved anticommercial leftist icon — he almost always does something to thwart that.”

Whether Heaven’s Door can compete is another question. Mr. Bushala was one of the founders of Angel’s Envy, which was introduced in 2011 and sold to Bacardi four years later after developing a reputation for quality and innovation. Yet the whiskey aisle keeps getting more crowded. According to Nielsen, more than 20,000 kinds of spirits are sold in the United States, and last year there were 27 percent more whiskeys on sale than in 2013.

Mr. Bushala said that in their first conversation, he had told Mr. Dylan that “whiskey drinkers are a very cynical crowd” and that the success of their enterprise would depend on the quality of the product, not Mr. Dylan’s image.

Yet a few months after their first meeting, Mr. Bushala said, he had a scare when Mr. Dylan was announced as the winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature — and then waited weeks to acknowledge the honor, leading to speculation that he might not accept. “Oh, no, a P.R. nightmare!” Mr. Bushala remembered thinking.

But then he realized that defying expectations was “very much on brand” for Mr. Dylan, and likened the Nobel episode — ultimately, a success — to their whiskey deal.

“For people who are surprised that he did a whiskey,” Mr. Bushala said, “I guess they don’t really know Dylan. People who know him expect him to do things they would never expect.”

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Craft Distillers, Facing Lower Taxes, Invest in Themselves

But the tax cut is having its biggest impact with small craft distillers, most of which turn out less than 100,000 gallons a year and struggle to compete with larger companies. And it is evidence of their growing political clout as distilling becomes a significant source of jobs and tax revenue in every state.


Since the federal tax bill passed, New York Distilling Company has lowered the wholesale price for Perry’s Tot, its “Navy strength” gin.

Cole Wilson for The New York Times

The backing for the move attested to that geographical and political reach. By the time the amendment — introduced by a bipartisan group of lawmakers from Minnesota, Missouri, Oregon and Wisconsin — was adopted in a final version by Senator Rob Portman, Republican of Ohio, it had collected 304 co-sponsors in the House and 56 in the Senate.

“This is a tremendous change from where we were in the past, fighting tax increases,” said Frank Coleman, a senior vice president of the Distilled Spirits Council, a trade association representing American producers and marketers. “Up until recently, the efforts on taxes at the federal level were entirely defensive.”

The victory was not achieved without a great deal of legwork. Dozens of distillers joined in a multiyear effort to win over Congress members to the idea. The Distilled Spirits Council estimated it organized thousands of visits to the Hill.

“We encouraged our members small and large to invite their local officials at all levels of government to take a tour,” Mr. Coleman said. “Many have done so, in the process learning about how spirits are made, how they fit into the agricultural economy.”

In two visits to Washington, Christian Krogstad, the founder of House Spirits, spoke with several lawmakers during appointments and what he called “drop-ins.”

“I was surprised by how accessible senators and congressmen are,” he said.

The bill brings federal taxes on spirits into line with those for the wine and beer businesses, which won similar reductions. To achieve that, the three industries — normally rivals — combined their lobbying forces.

“This was an unprecedented collaboration by spirits, wine and beer producers,” said Mark Gorman, a senior vice president of the Distilled Spirits Council.


Barrels in which New York Distilling ages rye and other spirits. The company has hired its first full-time salesman.

Cole Wilson for The New York Times

In response, New York Distilling Company, in Brooklyn, has done something just as unusual: lowering prices.

Allen Katz, a founder, wanted to get Perry’s Tot, its “Navy strength” gin, into more bars and consumers’ homes. The tax cut allowed him to reduce the wholesale price, per bottle, to $18 from $29. With by-the-case discounts, the wholesale price drops further, to $14, and some merchants have cut retail prices to as low as $23.

“I would say the reaction from our industry peers has been jaw-dropping,” Mr. Katz said. “ ‘You’re offering it at what price?’ ” In March, sales of Perry’s Tot doubled. (The company has also hired its first full-time salesman.)

The excise-tax break for spirits is set to expire after two years. Because it may not be renewed, few distillers have gone so far as to lower prices. “I think that’s reckless,” Mr. Winters said. “If the tax break goes away, than the price break goes away.”

Mr. Katz doesn’t see it that way. “The driving force will be increased sales,” he said, “and from that revenue, we will further invest in equipment and other aspects in our business.”

There is a chance, however, that the break will be made permanent. In May, the lobbying campaign will begin anew, with distillers flooding Capitol Hill once more.

“We’re going to go to D.C. to show them all the good stuff we’re doing,” said Paul Hletko, the founder of Few Spirits.

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