Dewar's: Because old farts need a real drink.

The Dewar's Man has grown up. Ick.

By James Poniewozik

Published July 2, 1997 7:00PM (EDT)

life is getting harder for the Dewar's Man. Maybe he's taking Ross and Rachel's breakup a little hard. Maybe the long hours at work leave him little quality time with the Rollerblades. Whatever it is, he's a step slower than he used to be, a shade poorer than he wants to be, and he'll thank you kids to get your goddamn kickball off his lawn.

You may recall Dewar's as the Mountain Dew of blended Scotch whiskey, which first set out to bring the ambrosia of the 19th hole to the bungee-cord set in the mid-'90s. The label launched a youth-oriented advertising campaign that positioned its beverage as both a reward and a challenge to a generation on the verge of accepting adult responsibilities -- chief among which was to put down that damned Long Island iced tea and drink a civilized drink.

Set in a West Village of the mind shot slightly off plumb in a grainy black and white, the Dewar's campaign was perhaps most notable for what it did not include: no pointless curricula vitae of second-string jazz musicians; no fox hounds; no Highland vales or hand-tied lures. Its characters are urbanites a few years out of college, still shedding the traces of an embarrassing youth that the captions both lampoon and promise alcoholic deliverance from: "If you don't think your tastes have changed, look at your high school yearbook picture."

The men look natty in their first sets of $75 suspenders from Barneys; the women have traded in their Phish jerseys and scrunchies for power bobs and little black cocktail dresses. These may not be Ross and Rachel exactly, but they might work the next cubicle over. They're Dewar's Youth, savvy enough to know that, after a night at the Met, one doesn't offer one's date a brewski; big enough to respect their elders (in one ad, a cinquegenarian squats, jacket slung over shoulder, at a son or daughter's loft party, where he appears to be explaining amortization to the Ford agency's A-list); and wise enough to crave their elders' respect (in a second, a forbidding-looking older barkeep polishes a highball glass while the caption asks whether you really want to ask this guy to give you a Screaming Orgasm).

I might as well admit that I hated the campaign from the beginning. But mine was a fairly harmless, there-goes-the-neighborhood-bar kind of hatred: I've been partial to a Scotch, bourbon or Irish whiskey ever since I ordered an amaretto sour in the presence of a female fellow newspaper intern and was laughed off my bar stool for preferring a "girlie drink," and I didn't want to share that pleasure with an army of brokerage trainees who just yesterday were chasing down jello shots with Jdgermeister to the tune of "Space Cowboy."

Yet the ads worked, and they worked among friends of mine who are plenty media-aware, who have sell-me-I-dare-you chips on their shoulders as big as anyone's in their demographic. The campaign tapped into a simple but telling anxiety among people my age, which a good friend of mine confided to me as I ordered a Jim Beam -- rocks -- at my wedding: "Man, I need to find myself a real drink."

Translated: I will never become an adult, will never figure out how, am not particularly encouraged to (since the white-collar job market has all the real adults it needs, and they need somebody to ring up their truffle oil). And here was Dewar's wrapping its arm around our shoulders, like Uncle Phil pouring a splash into our Coke at a boring Thanksgiving, winking and asking if we were getting laid yet.

All this was fun for a while. But within the past few months the campaign has taken a turn toward the sour, in a disturbing, post-Oscars-David Letterman kind of way. In a recent magazine ad, for example, a young man stands at the altar with a beaming bride on his arm and mortal dread on his face. "Never say never. Dewar's," the caption reads. Another declares, "Becoming a man doesn't have to involve beating drums or hugging a tree. Dewar's."

The kicker is a simple, text-only ad in the April 18 New York Times: "When you realize you're still a liberal, in a conservative-lower-my-taxes kind of way. Dewar's."

Ouch. 1997, apparently, has not been kind to the Dewar's Man. Oh, he got the job, the wife, the truffle oil, even, but in the process he's become someone else. And here -- like Uncle Phil with a few more drinks in him, pulling us in closer and breathing hotly in our ears about the fucking Vietnamese moving in up the street -- the Dewar's campaign has evidently modulated itself to match.

It is the rare advertising campaign that can make you nostalgic for itself. Heady days of the early Clinton administration! Back then, you had a Dewar's because you were young but independent; your life was ahead of you; you were ready to sip the bracing amber liquor of adult responsibility and reap the gentle buzz of respect, sex and riches that would accrue. Today you have a Dewar's because you need a goddamn drink.

This is no criticism. In fact, I can't wait to see the ads run their natural course:

Close-up on a pair of male hands struggling to button a flannel shirt over a bulging gut: "Face it. You're too fat to stage dive. Dewar's."

Angle shot of a young woman in a little black cocktail dress scurrying into a kitchen: "Her do-me feminism is no match for your shut-your-trap-and-get-my-goddamn-dinner-already masculinity. Dewar's."

Man cradles his balding head over a sheaf of papers at a dimly lit dining table: "$250,000 at 8 1/2 percent and three points. Payment due monthly for the next 30 years. Still feel like a wine cooler? Dewar's."

The genius of the Dewar's campaign is that, in an age of air-quoting, it dares to take off its own mask, asserting that whatever creeping sense of reaction it once showed is no longer compelled to creep. It acknowledges the shift from self-satisfied young ironist to punch-drunk old fart, from Sinatra on the jukebox in an Avenue A cigar bar to Sinatra on the hi-fi in your finished-basement wet bar, shoves it in your face -- and tells you to buy the friggin' Scotch anyway.

And I suspect we will. Dewar's hooked us by pitching a real drink for the real lives we could feel coalescing about us. It's kept us, the new ads comfortably admit, with the realization that life is plenty real now, and only getting more so.

The Dewar's Man paid for that refrigerator himself: top of the line, right down to the in-door ice maker. He clinks three perfect cubes into his 10-ounce highball glass, courtesy of the Crate and Barrel bridal registry, pours himself two fingers' worth, and pauses a second to savor the notes of peat and Celtic mist. When he sips, the welcome, familiar shiver begins somewhere in his esophagus and radiates out toward his shoulder blades and the small of his back. The missus asks if he would fix her a Cosmopolitan. Sunday fucking night already. He takes another sip. He feels, curiously, not even a touch ironic.

James Poniewozik

James Poniewozik is a Time magazine columnist on TV and media.

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