The Great Recessionary Retro Swindle

Nostalgia resembles a floating, safe haven currency. The darker the front covers in today’s press, the stronger the allure of concepts, designs and branding alluding to the rose-tinted memories of yesteryear. The alcoholic drinks industry’s inherently cyclical nature, its tradition-steeped narrative and unique aptitude in reflecting shifting societal undercurrents could not but bring such references to the fore.

The signs have undoubtedly been there for a while, true offspring of the Great Recession, if not necessarily relevant to specific brands per se. The ‘Mad Men effect’ proved to fittingly capture the zeitgeist while catapulting sales of bourbon and old-fashioned cocktails across the West. Localisation and the ‘micro’ movements can also be viewed as a nod to much sought-after values of innocence, craftsmanship and heritage – a fact vividly highlighted in many brands’ decidedly old-school logos.

.. and fixing a broken market

But there are also brand-specific success stories, one of the most interesting of which could not but come from the epicentre of contemporary financial doom and gloom, the market where black swans lay their eggs to hatch, so to speak. The country is Greece and the brand is Fix.

The Fix brewery was founded in 1864 in Greece and soon became synonymous with beer, enjoying a virtual monopoly in the country. It retained its dominance for about a century until losses in share to international competitors in the mid-1960s led to its gradual decline and eventual demise and shutdown in 1983.

And this is where the story gets truly interesting. Boasting an unparalleled legacy of iconic industrial sites and historical buildings across the country, the brewery had already been embedded in the Greek national psyche – much like the Truman Brewery is emblematic of all things East London. By 1995 an attempt to relaunch it spectacularly failed to capitalise on its unique backstory. The timing was wrong and the winds of change were blowing in the opposite direction. Greek consumers were beginning to passionately embrace aspirational drinking patterns and imported varietals, single-mindedly mimicking their European siblings.

Fast forward 15 years, a new owner, one ongoing financial collapse of epic proportions and a massive cross-generational U-turn back to tradition and the brand is going from strength to strength yet again. According to Euromonitor International’s latest figures, it now accounts for more than 1% of total lager volumes in the country, merely two years after its latest incarnation was introduced.

The Resurrection

But that’s not the only story. Over the course of one year heralding the return of Hooper’s Hooch legendary alcopop to the UK market and an ongoing  shift back to age old gin recipes (Bathtub Gin anyone?), the parallels are difficult to ignore.

Producers seem to wake up to the fact that whisking consumers back to an idyllic, bygone era can pay huge dividends amidst the relentless gloom and volatility gripping the vast majority of western markets.   While key brands are brought back from the alcoholic drinks purgatory or go through a decidedly nostalgic makeover, old , half forgotten categories might also be about to be resurrected.

Steven Grasse, one of the masterminds behind the launch of Hendrick’s Gin and Sailor Jerry Rum (both embracing eccentric nostalgia long before most) is reportedly now behind the launch of Spodee, a wine fortified with high proof moonshine, ideal for mixing into cocktails, like a spirit. The inspiration for Spodee is, apparently, ‘a Depression-era hooch, which was made from cheap country wine flavoured with whatever was close to hand- garden herbs, fruits, berries – and pepped up with moonshine’ . As neo-prohibitionary rhetoric gains momentum across the globe, pre-prohibition tipples make all the more sense.

Absinth is also making a comeback and seems to be getting a new lease of life at the same time that regional specialties like tsipouro in Greece are providing an affordable alternative to the stalling juggernaut of mass market brands.

Looking back is fast becoming the new looking forward.