How David Fincher, Sharon Stone and a Bunch of Scheming Canadians Conspired to Create Ice Beer
For far too long, beer brewers were boring. It took until 1975, for Chrissakes, for Miller to release its light beer, and the industry was so shocked by this innovation that Miller owned the category for the next decade. But even Miller’s competitors, slow as they were to adapt, learned from their mistakes, and by the early ‘90s things got freaky. Every big brewer tried anything it could to be new: there was “dry” beer (strip out the aftertaste!); “genuine draft” beer (put it back in! And flavor it like it’s pulled from a tavern’s keg!); even “clear” beer (because... ?). None of them moved product, however. Because that was the other thing about the early ‘90s: sales remained flat, despite all the innovations meant to cure them. Consumers saw through the advertising slicksterisms.
But one style of beer broke through in that “silly season,” as the author Paul Brent put it. One style hit it huge with consumers and started “wars” among advertisers and drew lawsuits between brewers stung by patented processes: ice beer. Ice beer was the beer, the epoch-definer of the flannel-and-Docs era, the one that went from nowhere to everywhere in no small part because it carried way more alcohol per serving than other beer at that time. Ice beer was so successful, we can actually drop the sarcastic air quotes around it. It seemed legit. It seemed like the next light beer, especially for Labatt, the plucky Canadian macrobrewery that launched the category, and that managed to involve, in one way or another, Rutger Hauer, a terrorist from Die Hard, America’s Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals, Sharon Stone, David Fincher, MADD, and the August Busch family to help bring it to prominence and/or infamy.
And then, as quickly as it had arrived, it was gone. So what happened? How come we don’t see ice beer anymore? Well, that’s the story of ice beer, too.
Part 1: The Genesis
Author Paul Brent, from his book, Lager Heads: Labatt and Molson Face Off for Canada’s Beer Money: “In consumer research, Labatt tried to understand the growth of the microbrewer segment that had sprung up in Canada in the mid-1980s and found beer drinkers commonly complained that micro beers had more taste but that they could drink only one or two of them. The challenge was thrown back to the research and development group at the London brewery to figure out how to make a more flavorful beer that retained the ‘drinkability’ of the mainstream beers produced by the big boys.”
Glen Cavanagh, who ran Labatt’s new product division, as quoted by Brent: “Ironically, one of the solutions that our R&D people brought to us in trying to accomplish this high-taste intensity combined with smoothness and drinkability was this low-temp brewing process that would cause, in technical terms, all the unwanted proteins and tannins to precipitate out of the beer at a much faster rate, and a much more complete rate.”
Brent: “By the fall [of 1992], Labatt had adapted technology bought from a Dutch company to brew what they wanted to call ice beer.”
Jim Koch, founder of the Boston Beer Company, maker of Samuel Adams: “I thought the process was -- I don’t know what the right word is, convoluted or something, because iced beer was a beer that’d been made in Europe for centuries. It’s called an Eisbock. And it is made by making a bock beer a strong beer, and then freezing it, and then pouring off the unfrozen part of it, which is a way to concentrate the alcohol. Because the water freezes before the alcohol.”
Cavanagh: “The concept of iced beer actually came out of a series of brainstorming sessions that we were doing -- and contrary to what some people believed, did not actually come from the concept that had previously existed, I guess in Germany: the Eisbock. That’s not at all where it came from.
“In any case, when we went to focus groups, it was very clear to us that the concept of iced beer was very attractive. The idea that you would make a beer essentially in a slushy form that would cause it to have precipitous drop out -- people didn’t really understand the science -- but that it would lead to a very well-balanced, very smooth-drinking beer, just sounded very plausible and believable. People were very, very anxious to try it.”
Brent: “Given how crucial first-mover advantage had proved to be in the skirmishes over dry and genuine draft, [Labatt] was obsessed with ever greater levels of secrecy than usual.”
David Martin, then a copywriter at Scali, McCabe, Sloves, the advertising agency that partnered with Labatt to roll out its ice beer: “There wasn’t a name for it. It had a code name, and the name was Project Mary.”
Brent: “[Scali] created an Ice beer vault in the agency, a locked room containing all the research and concepts being developed for the brand. Unless agency staffers were in on the secret and had signed the confidentiality agreement, they were not part of the slowly growing group allowed to enter the vault.”
Cavanagh: “It would normally take a year or more to move from idea to market, but in this case we accelerated the process a lot. We realized what a huge idea we were sitting on, and wanted to get it to market as quickly as possible. Plus, we had a legitimate process that required an actual capital expenditure and new equipment that we didn’t have in-plant -- that nobody had in-plant.”
Part 2: The Rollout (AKA the part with Rutger Hauer and the bad guy from Die Hard)
Labatt would later estimate it invested around $26 million in upgrading its machinery for its ice brew. It wanted to make sure the money was well spent. It wanted to own this new category the way Miller had owned light beer, and destroy its chief competitor, Molson, in the process. By the new year, 1993, Labatt was poised for a spring release and the ad people at Scali had come up with a campaign for a product called Labatt Ice, with a tagline of “Welcome to the Ice Age.”
Brent: “Then disaster struck. Late on a Friday afternoon in March [Scali creative director Gary] Prouk received a call from an ad industry source that told him that Molson was currently shooting its own ice beer commercial and that it was using the ‘Welcome to the Ice Age’ line.
David Martin, the Scali copywriter: “In the world of beer, to not only have the same product coming out, but the same campaign line? I mean, it was ridiculous.”
And everyone started searching for a rat.
Brent: “One former Molson executive said it was trash-picking bottle-and-can collectors, and a quick-thinking Molson sales rep at an Ontario beer store, who gave Molson an idea of what Labatt was up to. According to the Molson exec, Labatt had designed mock-ups of the can, then simply thrown them in the garbage.”
Tom Cardella, then the vice president of sales for Molson USA: “At the end of the day it’s a competitive industry, but brewers themselves look at the trade in the realm of science and art. There are a lot of ideas, a lot of collaboration among brewers. They share their ideas at global conferences. So the industry was tuned in to what might happen next.”
Martin: “We knew, from all the intelligence we had, that Molson was going forward; they weren’t backing off because of us... This is where you get into beer marketing game-of-chicken stuff because it was like, ‘We’ve got a campaign and we’re using this tagline.’ ‘Well, we’ve got a campaign and we’re using this tagline.’ And each was the same one. So we at Scali had to make a really, really tough decision in terms of what we were going to do with this. And we know that because we were probably going to be two to three weeks at best [behind Molson], we decided at the last minute to shelve the entire campaign.”
Brent: “Four months’ work had gone up in smoke, or melted away.”
Scali and Labatt had signed the actor Rutger Hauer, of Blade Runner fame, to be the spokesman for Labatt Ice. Hauer would remain on in the new campaign -- it’s just that Scali had to conceive and execute a new series of ads in days instead of months.
Martin: “I don’t know if you remember this in Blade Runner but Hauer -- he always had these very philosophical lines, like ‘I’ve seen attack ships on fire off the rim of Orion’ and all this stuff. And he can pontificate and get away with it because he’s Rutger Hauer. So Gary Prouk and I went into the agency on a Saturday morning and we just basically started throwing lines back and forth. You know [drops into a slightly sarcastic voice], ‘The world was born of fire but purified by ice.’ We were just trying to write into the character of what Rutger Hauer was.
“By the end of the day we had four scripts. They were going to be really, really simple: dark, moody, black on black on silver. Minor key, ominous kind of music that tried to set up the intrigue of this. But really it was a competitive campaign that the other guys were the fakes. Sold it to Labatt’s almost immediately. Loved the idea. And from that point on we went into absolute overdrive to get this campaign done.
“We had about a 25-person crew that flew from Toronto to Vancouver literally that very same week to shoot what would be the opening pool of three ads. Blindingly fast stuff.
“Rutger happened to be in Vancouver shooting a movie. That was the whole magic of why we could make this work. We would have shot this in Los Angeles but as luck would have it he was doing a picture up here. They were still in principal photography but he was available to shoot between days and so on.”
Brent: [Scali and Labatt would] pay him the princely sum of $400,000, for what amounted to two days’ work.”
Martin: “In those days you had budgets for this kind of stuff. You had, you know, an entourage. You’d pull into one of these places with all your gear and stuff and you’d look like rock bands. So we took over -- we had our production suite, a big tier of rooms at the top of the hotel... I don’t know what the running cost was for this thing, but that shoot was probably about 900,000 bucks.
“We had our first meeting with Rutger Hauer. This is at the hotel. He’d just come off set; I think he was still in character. But in real life there’s a lot of miles on that jockey. All grizzled and cowboy boots, torn-up jeans, kind of bow-legged. Really old busted-up motorcycle jacket. And he’d seen the scripts obviously in advance, but when we came for our first script meeting, he had some ideas on the script, shall we say.”
Cavanagh: “He literally walked on set the day before we were to start shooting and said, ‘When do I get to write the scripts?’”
Martin: “He’d taken the script and rewritten it, and he’d had this idea for the interior monologue and external lines.”
Cavanagh: "So the early selling line in the tag was, ‘It’s here. It’s real. It’s the only one. Believe it.’ 'Believe it' was something that he was supposed to deliver to camera.”
Martin: “We were kind of trying to create a premise that showed Molson were pretenders to the throne. And so we had two campaign lines, the 'Believe it' one, and, ‘If it’s not ice-brewed, it’s not ice beer.’ And Rutger’s was, I’d say, 50% at best of the original script. You know, instead of, ‘If it’s not ice-brewed, it’s not iced beer.’ His end line was, ‘Big deal. Ice brewing.’
“I mean it was so odd to have him walk into this thing. ‘And then you’ll see a picture of me close up. And I’ll be talking and you’ll hear my voice echoing in the distance. And then I’ll turn and I’ll deliver another line to camera.’ Very odd.
“So we’re all, ‘Oh, Rutger. That’s very interesting. That’s a good thought. Big deal. A nice touch.’ We’re sitting there like, ‘What are we going to say to him?’ Because amongst other things, we had to have everything -- everything has to be approved by the CRTC. Up here in Canada we’ve got something that governs our liquor laws and any script that you have for beer or wine or whatever has to go through the CRTC, which is our equivalent of the FDA, in a sense. So there are a very strict set of regulations, plus individual liquor boards. So any province that this is going to run in -- they have their own set of rules. We’d been through all this approval on those scripts. We can’t change them! I mean maybe we can alter, you know, a little tickle here or there. But anyway the most fundamental thing was that this was a completely different concept.
“We called his agent up and we said, ‘We’ve got a real problem here. You’ve got to tell us: are these ideas from Rutger or is this only what he is planning on doing?’ Because, we reiterated, ‘We only have a little flexibility, virtually none on this. We have a crew, mobilized, that is going on location scouts based on our script. We just can’t have this thing thrown away a day before our shoot.’ So the agent said, ‘Well yeah. He kind of feels pretty strongly about this.’ So we said, ‘Well, we’ll do what we can to make some of these accommodations but you have to know: this is a really serious issue for us.
“So I rewrote the scripts overnight the best I could to try to incorporate those things into it.”
The ideas were... not great. Hauer was an actor and not the creative director of an advertising agency, and his demands were something the Scali people had never encountered with any other celebrity spokesperson.
Martin: “To be honest, I think I probably got maybe 20% tops of what he wanted in.”
Cavanagh: “To which Hauer, the next day, basically said, ‘I can’t do this.’”
Martin: “And our producer Anne Phillips, an amazing, amazing woman, tough as nails, she goes to Hauer’s agent, ‘Well you have to tell us right now: is it a go, or a no-go? If he doesn’t buy this script, is he out, because we need to know that right now.’ And we got a call back an hour later and the agent goes, ‘If you guys aren’t prepared to do it as Rutger wants to do it, he’s backing out.’”
Gary Prouk, Scali’s creative director, as quoted by Paul Brent: “He walked away from $400,000 for two days’ work because he wanted to rewrite my commercials.”
Martin: “So I’ll never forget this as long as I live. Anne Phillips -- we’re all sitting up in her production office. We’re all huddled around the phone, our team and production crew. And in as calm as voice as she can, Anne goes to Hauer’s agent, ‘Well, I’ll tell you what. We have a crew right here of 24 people. And we are shooting a commercial -- we’re shooting three commercials in fact, on Friday. If you can’t deliver us Rutger Hauer, then you have to deliver us someone else like him. Find a list of people. The budget’s the same. Give us options. Now.’
“And for the rest of that afternoon, we ourselves are like, ‘Well, okay, Rutger is out. So who else is in that kind of zone?’ So we’re literally making lists. ‘Okay, Christopher Walken, he’d be kind of good. Let’s go after Christopher Walken.’ And then, ‘He can’t? Oh! Willem Dafoe! Willem Dafoe! He’s perfect. Willem Dafoe!' Call Willem Dafoe. ‘Oh, he’s on a picture in Paris? Okay, sorry.’
“And one of the names that came back from him was Christopher Lambert -- you know, from The Highlander. He was certainly not an A-list celebrity. ‘But what about Christopher Lambert?’ ‘Ah, well, he’s a possibility.’ So we said to one of the production assistants: ‘Quick, go run to the nearest video store, get a copy of The Highlander. And bring it back to the suite. Pop it in!’ ‘Oh, he looks kind of cool.’ And then you hear him talking and he’s got a super-strong French accent, right? And it’s like, ‘Well, he’s maybe okay but I’m worried about his accent because these are all dialogue spots.’
"‘Well, I think he’d be okay.’
‘"Well, how could we tell?’
"‘Well, if we could put him on the phone -- would that help us?’ So we do that [laughing].
"‘Well, he’s at a party right now.’
“I mean, it was absolutely absurd. And over the course of the day we had people that came onto that list and then very quickly off it. And Hauer’s agent is still trying to make a commission on this, so he’s trying to find someone from his roster. So he was bringing out people -- it wasn’t the Fonz, but people, like, anybody that he had. It felt a lot like Broadway Danny Rose, right? The one-armed juggler or the roller-skating girl and the penguin. But into all that we came across this name: Alexander Godunov.”
Cavanagh: “We went to a video store and started going up and down the aisles to find actors that we thought could fill the role. And that’s when we came up with Alexander Godunov.”
Brent: “More tragic figure than tough guy, Godunov, the premier dancer of the Russian Bolshoi Ballet, defected to the United States when on a tour there during the height of the Cold War. At the age of 29, he was separated from his Bolshoi soloist wife as she was packed on a plane bound for Moscow when he defected. He tried to bring her to the States for a year before they divorced in 1982.”
Martin: “The reaction was, ‘Who’s that guy?’ And then always the same: ‘He was the bad terrorist in Die Hard?! He’d be great!’”
Cavanagh: “We contacted his agent and he said, ‘Sure, he can be there tomorrow.’”
Martin: “And as luck would have it, if you can believe this, Alexander was roughly the same size as Rutger. So all the wardrobe fitting that we’d done -- I can’t tell you how far along all this was with Rutger -- but this guy was able to literally step into his clothes.
“So we’re all now feeling pretty good because we’ve got this great actor on board. But we had forgotten about the fact that, much like Christopher Lambert, English is not Godunov's first language! He’s Russian! And these are 100% dialogue commercials.
“We’re shooting at night on the first day. This big pharmaceutical company had these really cool open-glass elevators and big atriums and stuff. And it was totally cool for our kind of sci-fi thing. And the first commercial was him in the glass-sided elevator, camera at his side, and you kind of go up from the ground floor to the third floor slowly, and he had all these cool spotlights outside and he’s scraping the building and it’s all dramatically lit and all dressed in black and he’s got his poker-straight face and blond hair and looking very Die Hard, right? And the opening line was, ‘The world was born of fire but purified by ice. This truth exists curiously enough in a beer, Labatt Ice beer.’
“So we’re set up and ready to go, we get the cameras in there, we’ve got video assistants playing down in the atrium so we can watch all this. ‘And okay, quiet on set, and action.’ Elevator starts to go up and Alexander is kind of looking to camera, exactly as he’s supposed to. And then: ‘The vurl vas bourne of fahr but purr-vide by ahse.’
"'Ah, take two. Alexander just a little bit more clarity on that line.’
"‘The vurl vas bourne of fahr but purr-vide by ahse.’ I mean, we got three, five, 10, 15 takes, nothing usable. And you can just see every performance, he’s just getting smaller and smaller.
“The clarity of the line: we solved that by getting a phone patch on him the next week. And we actually had some technical issues on set with the audio; we could hear the elevator motor hum and stuff. And to his credit Alexander made time for us after the shoot and we had a one-hour phone patch and he delivered.
“As it turns out, we probably got really lucky because the fact that he had this foreign and slightly sinister edge to his voice actually gave the brand this kind of worldly aura to it. It also linked him back into his previous characters. Had he actually been purely English or with a perfect accent, we actually would have lost a bit of the intrigue.”
As the Scali people were editing the commercial, they got word that Molson was about to release its ad.
Martin: “In the editing room as we were cutting the spots, Molson released its ad on Canadian or Molson Canadian Ice. So they weren’t bluffing. They did come out with, ‘Welcome to the Ice Age.’ But it was a very hasty campaign.”
Gary Prouk, as quoted in Lager Head: “Stock footage and some tabletop.”
Brent: “Called Molson Canadian Ice Draft, the brew was a line extension of its flagship brand and was labelled “Draft” to boot, lumping in with last year’s beers... Judging by its positioning, Molson clearly didn’t think much of ice, and its initial ad and follow-on spots confirmed its ambivalence.”
Cavanagh, to Marketing magazine in the days after Molson’s launch: “I was reassured, like I had just stepped into the ring and saw that my competitor was a 90-pound weakling.”
Brent: “The generic beer imagery [of the spot] included blue skies, mountain streams, ice, and sweaty bottles, accompanied by a Hendrix-like electric guitar.”
Martin: “We ourselves were bored with that style of stuff. I think [the sci-fi Godunov spot] was as much trying to stretch ourselves as giving the market an alternative to these kind of things. This was a chance to be almost literate in a campaign. It was fun to actually add a little bit of intelligence to a category that wasn’t really famous for it.
“By the time we hit air it was about two weeks after Molson had launched. And it was an immediate hit. It was fought on the airwaves, but in other ways. It was a news story. You’d see it in regular press. It was all over the trades.”
Cavanagh: “Everyone had seen them. People were imitating them. There was even a Canadian-based comedy show that did a whole sketch on those ads. It was called The Royal Canadian Air Farce. They had a guy dress up with a long blond wig and the dark clothes and just had him -- well, there was a camera technique we used where we really zeroed in on the guy’s face. He had these icy-blue eyes. And in the spoof, the guy goes, [Russian accent] ‘Come closer, come closer. Not that close. Back off.’”
Martin: “To cross over to popular culture like that? That’s spike[ing] the ball, man. That’s what you dream about."
A selling point for the entrants in the new category was its alcohol content.
Cavanagh: “Regular Canadian beer is 5% alcohol by volume. This one was, I believe, 5.7 or 5.8. At the end of the day, as crass as it sounds, consumers were looking for a bang for the buck. A person once said it was like getting a free bottle in every case, because of the marginal increase in alcohol content.”
Martin: “So we are now into April and May and the beer market tends to heat up in terms of sales. It took about eight weeks for everything to settle out and we get week-by-week shares so we know where everything is doing. And my recollection was the ice category was very quickly up about 3.2 points and we were about 2.1 of that. And then we went up even higher than that, about 2.2, 2.3. So we were the dominant brand.”
Part 3: The Push (AKA the part with David Fincher and a load of alcohol)
Labatt had big plans. The mighty US brewers had noticed the uptick in sales, and so Labatt wanted distribution routes throughout North America, and something else too.
Cavanagh: “We had actually gone through the process of patenting and trademarking the name.”
Brent: “Initial Labatt Ice packages included a diagram earnestly explaining Labatt’s patented process. Labatt didn’t want to educate beer drinkers; it just wanted to convince them it had something the other guys didn’t. Molson did acknowledge using a much simpler process to make ice beer. While Labatt partly froze the beer and ‘gently removed’ the resulting ice, Molson claimed its process started to freeze the beer then thawed it without doing anything else to it.
“Hugo [Powell, Labatt’s president] took the luxury of promoting Labatt’s new technology and brewing process around the world in hopes of licensing it."
Cavanagh: “We met with Anheuser-Busch and told them about our idea in the hopes that we could license the brewing process.”
Martin: “A-B was treated to a deluxe sales pitch and given a detailed description of the process.”
Meanwhile, the race was on to find US distribution channels. But the strength of Labatt’s position -- its capital expenditures and patented processes -- now weakened it, as the company waited for its new technology to be brought to all its plants for a big US rollout.
Brent: “Just one of four ice plants was in operation after engineers installed the pilot brewing system in the Montreal factory.”
Cavanagh: “We’d invested a lot of money in this. And because of that and waiting for those capacities to be brought to scale, that’s what allowed Molson at that time to launch their iced beer into the United States before us.”
The New York Times, August 3rd, 1993: “Banking on the strong performance in Canada of a new product called "ice beer," Molson Breweries U.S.A. plans to introduce Molson Ice in the United States next week with trial runs in Atlanta and Michigan.
“Brewed and filtered at subfreezing temperatures to produce ice crystals in the beer, Molson Ice's alcohol content is raised to 4.4 percent by weight from the average 3.6 percent.”
Cardella, the Molson US VP of sales: “In general, not many beer drinkers could sit with three iced beers and tell you which iced beer was from which brewery. So we moved on it quickly.”
Cavanagh: “That was a fairly crippling blow in terms of the business.”
The Miller Brewing Company had just acquired the United States marketing and distribution rights to Molson products, and soon the US market saw a lot of Molson Ice and the company’s line extension, Black Ice, but also Miller’s own foray into the market, Miller Lite Ice.
Cardella: “I mean, the business skyrocketed. In the core territories of the Great Lakes and in upstate New York and New England, Molson Ice became very rapidly the largest in the portfolio. Sales blew off the charts and it invigorated the business.”
With Molson doing brisk US business, with Miller and then Coors introducing their own ice beers, and with Anheuser-Busch -- Labatt’s brewing partner -- strangely silent, Labatt president Hugo Powell decided to double down on Labatt Ice, and take the category where no one else considered going.
Martin: “Labatt already is thinking line extension, and Labatt Ice came onto the market at 5.6% alcohol. The market was kind of 5%. Labatt was planning on doing a super-high version, 7.1%.”
Cavanagh: “I think [Powell] felt like we were dealing from strength-to-strength, no pun intended. Ice was doing so well that a line extension was the logical place to go.”
Martin: “Did you hear about David Fincher and Sharon Stone? No? I’ll give you précis to this. [Labatt] was planning on going out with a high-test version of this beer, but they did not want to have the same situation where Molson or any competitor gets wind of this. So in classic cloak-and-dagger style, we decided to create a diversion.
“We were going to go out with a highest version of beer regardless. And we had to have [competitors] thinking we weren’t doing that, so they would go down another road. So we decided to come up with a campaign, based on a light version of iced beer. So call it a 4% version. And if Labatt Ice was dark, black, silver, male, edgy, then Labatt -- and I think the working title was Crystal Ice -- was white-on-white and silver. And while we had a dark and cranky guy over here called Alexander Godunov, our Crystal Ice character for this was going to be Sharon Stone. It was not too far after Basic Instinct. White apartment, white this and that. Not philosophical lines but lines in her character. We actually wrote a series of campaigns. We actually designed a label. We built storyboards. Then we talked to Sharon Stone’s agents about this! We sent her the boards.”
All for a project that Labatt had no intention of launching.
Martin: “And we then decided we needed a director for this thing. The director we wanted was David Fincher. And Fincher had just come off doing Alien . He’d done a lot of commercial work, regardless. So we sent the boards down to his producer and his producer called us back and was like, ‘Yeah, David will take a phone call.’ And he was on set doing Seven most likely.
“And Fincher goes: ‘First of all I wanted to tell you: great boards. I really love the idea.’ He wanted to have her as kind of Grace Kelly, Rear Window, Alfred Hitchcock-y sort of thing. And I’m going back and forth and we’re bouncing ideas back and forth, super excited about it. Fincher: ‘Getting off the phone now. I’m totally psyched. Call my producer about it.’ And I’m sitting there thinking, ‘This is just a ruse. This whole thing is a smoke screen intended to get out there into the marketplace. We don’t have any intention of moving forward with this.’
“So, one night, we had a focus group and we ‘accidentally’ left the storyboards behind, so that they’d get found by people who would then leak them to Molson and stuff. Because everybody uses the same focus groups. We knew that Molson or another agency would find them. We knew that somebody would find out that we’d been talking to David Fincher about something. And that was exactly what happened. ‘Oh, were you talking to Sharon Stone?’ ‘Oh, no, no nothing, nothing at all.’ And so the rumor mill started, which was exactly what we wanted.
Martin: “We launched Maximum Ice about three months later.”
Cavanagh: “Maximum Ice didn't taste like your malt liquors or whatever, which technically it was. It did taste like beer. It tasted very good.”
The industry was caught unaware, and reacted quickly to the brew that had 40% more alcohol than the already potent Labatt Ice.
Brent: “Molson began to lobby government officials and alcohol-abuse lobby groups.”
John Bates, founder of Mothers Against Drunk Driving in Canada, as quoted in Strategy, an advertising trade publication, on October 3rd, 1993: “It’s absolutely appalling Labatt is doing this.”
Robert Solomon, who crafted MAAD memos that year in response to Labatt: “I was not concerned with the fact that it’s iced. I was concerned with the fact that it was 40% stronger beer. And the advertisement, the strong -- you’re talking about something that’s clearly being marketed to young males.
“We know that young men are binge drinkers. We know that the majority of alcohol consumed is in high-risk circumstances, where people are drinking five or more beers in a sitting. A very small percentage of people consume a very large percentage of all of the alcohol that is consumed. So if you look at the highest rates of daily, weekly, monthly binge drinking -- drinking five or more drinks in one occasion -- it’s all young males.”
Cavanagh: “I mean, Maximum Ice tasted very good. Which I felt was a very dangerous thing. You know, young people drink beer and they tend to drink in large quantity. And I thought that if they were consuming this like they consumed regular beer, that it was just not the right thing."
Martin: “The ad had Michael Ironside, a Canadian actor. He was the bad guy in RoboCop. I think all we did was just go down movie aisles, I swear to God. I actually didn’t work on that campaign -- and I’m going to be perfectly honest. I pulled myself off that project. Labatt was definitely targeting a much younger audience with a high-test beer. And I had a conscience issue on it. I went to my boss. I went in and I said, ‘I can’t actually in good conscience work on this project any more.’
The trade newspaper Strategy, November 29th, 1993: “Labatt Breweries of Canada has bowed to concerns of special interest groups and pulled its ads for 7.1% alcohol Maximum Ice.
“The commercial, which was created by Scali McCabe Sloves of Toronto, was taken off the air last week in Ontario and will be pulled in other provinces over the next few weeks."
Part 4: Decline and Fall
Brent: “Publicly, Molson took the stance that it was willing to ... curb the growth of high-alcohol beers... But five noisy weeks after the launch of Labatt’s 7.1% Maximum Ice, Molson unveiled its own version of high-powered hooch, Molson XXX, with 7.3% alcohol by volume.”
Cavanagh: “That was a crock. While you’re lobbying the government you’re also launching your own high-test brand? I just thought they were being ridiculous. I mean, talk about being hypocritical.”
Labatt suffered another blow early the following year, when Anheuser-Busch, its American partner and the brewer that had received a pitch to license Labatt’s technology, released its own version of iced beer, quickly known as Bud Ice.
Brent: “When Labatt complained to the world’s largest brewer about its decision to launch ice beers in the United States without making a deal with its Canadian partner, A-B did not shrug its collective shoulders or say it was sorry. Instead, the Anheuser-Busch lawyers were called to launch a lawsuit in the US District Court in St. Louis in what the brewery described as an effort to shield itself from legal action by Labatt.”
Cavanagh: “The case was heard in Saint Louis. And one of the jury members actually held shares in Anheuser-Busch but was not disqualified. There was no question from the get go who was going to win that case. It was a bit of a foregone conclusion before it started.
“When we were in discovery, there was an email from August Busch, who was the guy at the time. And he said something to the effect of, ‘This is such a good idea I can't believe it was thought of by a Canadian.’ Which is kind of the most backhanded compliment I've ever heard.”
What harmed Labatt’s legal case, and its standing in the ice beer category, was how many brewers had suddenly rushed an ice product to market.
Cavanagh: “Within a very short period of time, I think there was something like 50 iced beers launched around the world, virtually none of which had any realistic claim to the name or the term. But everybody had one at that point.”
Brent: “Anheuser-Busch claimed it sought legal relief after Labatt’s lawyer fired off a letter to the St. Louis-based brewer warning A-B will be accountable for any harm to Labatt’s ice brewing trademarks. A-B asked for $13.5 million in damages; Labatt asked for a jury award of $61 million, stating that was triple the amount of money it lost as a result of A-B’s introduction of its own ice beers. Anheuser’s lawyers argued that ice beer was a generic term that had existed for years and that Labatt had made ‘injurious falsehoods’ against A-B through Labatt advertising claims that it brewed the only real ice beer. Lawyers for the US brewer showed up one day with about 40 different alcoholic products from all over the world, beer and otherwise, that used the word ‘ice’ somewhere in their name.”
United States Court of Appeals, Eighth Circuit: “The jury found in favor of Labatt on A-B's false advertising claim (A-B Count II) and in A-B's favor on its injurious falsehood claim (A-B Count III), awarding compensatory damages in the amount of one dollar and punitive damages in the amount of five million dollars … Having reviewed the record, we conclude that the District Court's finding that A-B failed to give adequate notice of its claims for punitive damages for Labatt's publication of injurious falsehoods is not clearly erroneous.”
Labatt's Cavanagh: “We lost the case but the damages were a dollar.”
By this time, the marketplace was flooded with not only ice beers, but premium ice beers.
Molson’s Cardella: “Coors had a Steel Reserve, with a very high alcohol content ... I think the benefit of the product actually became part of its demise. At the end of the day, if you’re a 24-year-old guy and all of a sudden you’re chewing on your tongue -- that’s why you don’t see a lot of beer around 6%.
Doug Smith, who was then the district sales manager for Labatt USA: “We heard from a lot of restaurant owners and tavern owners. They said, ‘Everybody is drinking less beer and getting stupider as the night goes on.’ We saw them take the ice offering off the tap.”
Cavanagh: “I think what happened was that the whole credibility was called into question. With 50 ice beers on the market, people would try one and say, ‘Well, these don’t taste any different than regular beer. This is kind of a scam.’ And the credibility went down the toilet very quickly.”
Jim Koch, Sam Adams’ founder: “At one point in the mid-'90s, just for fun, I made a strong beer with an ice cream freezer. And I just put dry ice in an ice cream freezer. And you can turn Miller Lite into, like, 40% ABV. It’s something anybody can do. It wasn’t particularly good. It sort of threw the beer out of balance. It just became kind of weird tasting.
“The point is, ice beer’s main selling point was ‘more alcohol.’ And to me that’s always been a reason not to sell beer -- on its alcohol content. Because there’s always something -- you can always make something cheaper and stronger. If you’re selling flavor and taste and unique character, you actually can do interesting things. The iced beer really didn’t taste much different than regular beer.”
Brent: “Labatt’s experience with ice beer showed life is often unfair ... By the time Labatt lost its legal case against Anheuser-Busch in the United States [in 1996], American consumers [had] labelled ice a fad. Most galling for Labatt, ice beers that didn’t use expensive technology, as Labatt had, ended up leading the American market for a couple years.”
Martin: “At that point people were running out of iterations. And I think that was the last days of the empire, because I don’t think there was another ‘category-dominant’ brand launch. What you’ve seen, of course, in that time is the massive rise of microbreweries and that’s totally changed the game. I can’t think of another example of a product-based innovation like ice.”
Cavanagh, who effectively created the ice category: “I left the company shortly after the launch of the high-test brands. It was related, but not directly. I think Maximum Ice is still available in Canada. Triple X, I don't know; I haven't looked for it. As far as what's happening today, there's no promotion for ice in general. They kind of just sit on the shelves and people buy them, I guess, or they don't.”
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Paul Kix is a senior editor at ESPN the Magazine. Follow him @paulkix.