Note to The Emoji Movie: if you’re going to inundate your film with product placement, at least have it be a well-made alcoholic beverage. Perhaps Sony’s app-plugging cinematic disaster would have more than a 6% on Rotten Tomatoes (and a 10 on Metacritic!) if it had a boozy sponsor and got the critics rip-roaring drunk at screenings.
Not that Old Forester and Kingsman: The Golden Circle serve me to excess at San Diego Comic-Con. They end up pouring me a very reasonable amount of the new Statesman Bourbon the distillery crafted for the film, more than a week before the whiskey’s global release.
The sequel to Matthew Vaughn’s surprise-hit 2014 action comedy brought a big presence to Comic-Con, but their best stunt happens away from the hubbub of the convention center, at the 207 Bar on the ground floor of the Hard Rock Hotel. I find it hard to believe that anything classy could happen at a Hard Rock Hotel—the company’s the poster child for soulless globalization—but when I stroll up to the front door and notice the dim lights and general paucity of people, I feel more of a privileged vibe than I would feel from the weekend’s other press events and secret screenings. There is, after all, something about a speakeasy that still resonates with the American spirit, even all these years after Prohibition. Whether that something is “the thrill of rule-breaking and independence” or “national shame over substance use” is hard to tell.
I step inside the bar and seat myself at a high-top table; I’ve arrived too late to politely insert myself into the discussion Old Forester’s master taster was leading over by some couches. I catch the eye of Michael Braun, another member of the distillery’s crew, and he strides over to get me situated. “Can we get this guy a coin?” he asks the bartender as he shakes my hand.
Anton Chigurh once asked, “What’s the most you ever lost on a coin toss?” I generally don’t bet on such frivolous things I can’t control—I save that money for Shane Ryan’s totally serious, not-ridiculous-at-all sports pools—but here the outcome would determine what cocktail would start my Friday afternoon. The black side of the coin Braun presents me reads “Kingsman” in gold lettering, and the gold side featured an elegant, embossed “S” for “Statesman.” I give it a gentle flip, not wanting the heavy metal to damage anything with a big fall, and it lands Kingsman side up. The British-inspired Kingsman Tea Sling it’ll be.
In case you haven’t seen the trailer, Kingsman: The Golden Circle takes place largely in America after the destruction of the titular British spy organization’s countryside manor headquarters. Their doomsday protocol features a safe that contains a single bottle of bourbon, a secret code that leads Eggsy (Taron Egerton) and Merlin (Mark Strong) to the Statesmen, their counterparts across the Atlantic. The Kingsmen use a tailor shop as their front; the Statesmen use a whiskey distillery. It was, according to a clip I’m shown at the event, the most American business Matthew Vaughn could contemplate.
But Vaughn, being a filmmaker, knows little about bourbon. So for authenticity’s sake (and, I assume, with the encouragement of 20th Century Fox’s business affairs and marketing teams), he sought out a partner to create a bourbon for the movie. Enter Old Forester, with whom Vaughn fittingly became acquainted at a cocktail party.
“The reason why this made the most sense for Old Forester is that the doomsday protocol was, in the scene, was a bottle of whiskey from 1919,” Braun tells me. “In 1919, there was only one brand of bourbon that this could’ve been, which is Old Forester. ‘Cause Old Forester is the only bourbon that was produced before, during, and after the Prohibition.”
Old Forester got away with this because they received a license to distill bourbon as a medicine at the time. I imagine people were constantly coming down with “headaches” and “chills” and “the plague” so they could run to their doctor and snag that coveted prescription.
Meanwhile, I’m sipping on my Kingsman Tea Sling, gifted to me by fate. It’s a refreshing drink, perfect to recharge my battery on a warm San Diego afternoon. I can just barely taste the bourbon over the Earl Grey iced tea and the strong notes of elderflower.
“The entire cocktail strategy is inspired by characters in the actual film,” says master taster Jackie Zykan, who created the bourbon and the cocktails after reading the film’s script. “The one you are drinking is Mark Strong’s cocktail.” Had the coin landed the other way, I’d be having the Statesman tea sling, which incorporates Southern sweet tea and hints of ginger ale—the literal name of Halle Berry’s character.
Zykan’s particularly buoyant when I join her and the other guests at the couches. Part of that’s an artifact of her buzz—she’s been enjoying the fruits of her labors all morning—but part of that’s also due to the exclusive clips of the film we’re about to see. Braun rolls the footage and we’re treated not only to some snippets of the Kingsmen and Statesmen kicking ass, but also to Jeff Bridges, Channing Tatum, Taron Egerton and Vaughn himself extolling Old Forester for its role in bringing Kingsman: The Golden Circle to life. The distillery, Braun says, served as a consultant on the entire film. “This whiskey is a character, Matthew calls it the seventh character of the movie.”
And so, finally, the star of the show arrives. Zykan pours me a glass of the Statesman bourbon and describes her process. “It’s specifically pulled from the hottest parts of the warehouse,” she tells me. “So those barrels get a lot more barrel influence, a lot more maturity for their age.” Also included are hints of tobacco, heavy spice and dark fruit, the sorts of flavors that represent the age and class of the Statesman enterprise. I take a sip, and I can feel the heat. I’m no drink expert—Paste’s resident guru Jim Vorel will be judging the bourbon on its merits in the near future—but for a relative novice, the liquor goes down surprisingly smoothly. (Here’s that full review of the whiskey itself.)
That’s by design. “We’re used to peddling whiskey,” says Zykan. “We don’t do movies. This is reaching audiences that may or may not be bourbon drinkers. So we have to find a product that pleases the bourbon connoisseur but isn’t gonna turn people off of the category and be a super high punch in the face.”
And Old Forester is distributing the Statesman bourbon in accord with that spirit. The spirit is now available around the world and will join the distillery’s lineup as a permanent fixture.
By the end, I’m rocking a slight buzz (the perfect condition in which to interview the cast and creators of Rick and Morty) and an appreciation for product placement done right. It’s still unclear whether Kingsman: The Golden Circle will be an improvement upon its predecessor—or if it’ll even hold the line—but at the very least, it will have left us with a sleek new bourbon to drink. Here’s hoping we don’t need the beverage to make the movie palatable.
Zach Blumenfeld thinks Paste’s drink reviewers have the best job ever. Follow him on Twitter.