Drinking with Mad Men: Cocktail Culture and the Myth of Don Draper

Don and Megan Draper (Jon Hamm and Jessica Paré) raise a glass (Photo: AMC)

Ah, 2007: the year in which we met the first-ever iPhone, a Presidential candidate called Barack Obama... and an inscrutable ad man named Don Draper.

With its final seven episodes kicking off on Sunday, April 5, AMC’s Mad Men is coming to a close after almost eight years, and it’s hard to overstate the phenomenal, uncommon level of cultural saturation it’s achieved. Ask someone who doesn’t watch it what Mad Men is about, and they’ll mention the clothes (divine), the decor (sleek), and of course — always — the drinks. The show introduced us not only to the impossibly suave, lantern-jawed Don, but also a new generation of TV viewers to old-fashioned cocktails like Manhattans and martinis, Gimlets and Sidecars. From cocktail guides and suggested drink pairings to reviews for historical booze accuracy and Mad Men drinking games (drink every time Harry Crane says something obnoxious!) the online industry that "the booze of Mad Men" has spawned suggest a viewership that’s as much in love with the look, feel and lifestyle of this show as it is with its story.

Don Draper (Jon Hamm) alone at the bar. (Photo: AMC)
Don Draper (Jon Hamm) at the bar. (Photo: AMC)

Yet for a piece of pop culture that's basically credited for reviving public interest in stylish drinking, Mad Men’s relationship with alcohol is characteristically complex. The culture of retro cocktails that the show reignited, or perhaps merely fueled, is intriguing considering how much of the show is actually about excessive, even abusive drinking — a fact that gets lost among all those Manhattans. It’s also something that's gained undeniable poignancy with the announcement that Jon Hamm, the actor who portrays the alcoholic Don Draper so indelibly,  recently emerged from a stint in rehab for alcohol addiction.

The “Mad Men Effect”

How much did this show influence our imbibing? Back in 2013, New York bartenders were apparently reporting a “Mad Men effect” on drinking habits: namely, “seeing more people ordering Manhattans, or any of your classic drinks, because they know what it is.” Over here in the Bay Area I put the question to Matt Grippo of San Francisco’s Blackbird bar, who agrees that “Mad Men definitely influenced people's drinking habits.” Manhattans, Old Fashioneds and Martinis, he says, “are being ordered very often, every day,” and often with a knowing nod to the show. “‘How Don Draper of you’ — that’s been said in front of me [at the bar] many times,” says Grippo. (“Now if only we can get everyone to order gin Martinis with a proper amount of Vermouth added and no olive juice, I will give the show some major props,” he adds.)

Roger Sterling (Roger Slattery) and Don Draper (Jon Hamm), at the bar again. Photo: AMC
Roger Sterling (Roger Slattery) and Don at the bar again. (Photo: AMC)

Morgan Schick, Creative Director for the Bon Vivants mixology team behind SF cocktail haven Trick Dog, has a slightly different take. While the show “became a shorthand for the classics for a while,” Schick says that rather than inspiring our yearning for all things retro, Mad Men just tapped into it; that his clientele’s craving for those classic cocktails just “happened at the same time — possibly for the same underlying reasons that Mad Men was successful.” He’s also keen to dispel the notion of bartenders rolling their eyes at the umpteenth order of Manhattans by twentysomething Draper wannabes. “If anything it was nice to have guests with a new-found interest in some of the drinks that we all like anyway,” he says.

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An Uneasy Relationship?

There’s no denying that Mad Men can make drinking look really good. A huge proportion of the show's gorgeously-styled scenes take place in or around the wood-paneled bars, lounges and restaurants of the era (Episode 1, Season 1 even opens in one.) It’s a world populated with suave, slick movers and shakers where confidence is non-negotiable, and those endless martinis are part of the ineffably cool image.

Don (Jon Hamm) drinking whiskeys with Joan Harris (Christina Hendricks.) Photo: AMC
Don drinking whiskeys with Joan Harris (Christina Hendricks.) Photo: AMC

Early on in Mad Men’s run, even over-consumption is frequently played as wry, jet-black comedy. Think of Don goading colleague Roger Sterling into consuming multiple daytime martinis then engineering a 23-floor stair climb that leads him to publicly lose his lunch. Or Don constructing his kids’ playhouse while pounding beers in the sunshine, unable to perform the most perfunctory of paternal duties without lubrication. Even the horrific, champagne-fuelled “lawnmower accident” of Season 3 in which an adman loses a foot under a runaway John Deere is one of the show’s most horribly comic moments.

Don (Jon Hamm) downs a drink in the office, spied on by Peggy Olson (Elisabeth Moss.) (Photo: AMC)
Don downs a drink in the office, spied on by Peggy Olson (Elisabeth Moss.) (Photo: AMC) (AMC)

But as Seasons 4 and 5 chronicle Don’s slide into outright alcoholism, showrunner Matthew Weiner’s treatment of this theme becomes much darker. Virtually all of the least flattering moments for Draper, this apparent paragon of retro masculinity, come courtesy of an excess of booze. One of his most cringe-worthy lows comes when, jellified by awards ceremony celebrations, he conducts a pitch for Life Cereal totally hammered. The episode doesn’t just represent the start of Don’s slide into full-blown alcoholism (it’s the first time we see him suffering a significant lapse in memory.) It also shows him committing the unforgivable sin of being bad at what he does in grossly plundering one of his finest hours — Season 1’s unforgettable “Carousel pitch” for Kodak — with a slurring, burping remake. An even greater blow to the myth of Don Draper comes in the instantly-iconic, award-winning episode “The Suitcase.” From loudly vomiting in the SDCP bathrooms to pathetically grappling with equally-drunk adman Duck Phillips, the slickly immaculate Don of the previous seasons is suddenly replaced by a tragic figure with sick stains down his shirt.

 Peggy helps Don to the bathroom in Season 4's iconic episode "The Suitcase" (Photo: AMC)
Peggy helps Don to the bathroom in Season 4's iconic episode "The Suitcase" (Photo: AMC)

As a televised advertisement for heavy drinking, this is like The Wire encouraging people to get into drug dealing, or Breaking Bad making meth production seem like a viable, risk-free sideline. (Before you write in, I’m aware this actually has happened.) But it's taken a long time in Mad Men years (six seasons, to be precise) for Don to be truly dislodged from his popular podium as America’s Manliest Man.

As the Seventies draw ever-closer and Draper gets more tragic, Matthew Weiner’s intent all along is becoming fantastically clear: to peel back the lie of sharp suits, constant conquests and liquid lunches to show us the unsightly reality (and terrifying future) of the Don type. In the same way that Reaganites mistook Springsteen’s ‘Born in the U.S.A.’ for a jingoistic sing-a-long, we all fell for Weiner’s expert ‘Don Draper trick.’ The fallacy of the Draper lifestyle — that someone could ever drink so much and screw around so much yet have his family life, career and health survive unscathed — should have been obvious. But then again, you can still find Don’s sloppy-drunk Life Cereal pitch posted online by Ask Men.com as one of “Don Draper’s Boss Moments,” so maybe not?

Peggy Olson (Elisabeth Moss) cares for a drunk Don (Jon Hamm.) Photo: AMC
Peggy cares for a drunk Don.  (Photo: AMC)

Whoever's Selling, We're Buying

An interesting coda to all this lies in the very first days of the show’s run back in June 2007, when — as you could be forgiven for forgetting — Mad Men’s first season was sponsored by Jack Daniel's. Before Season 1 had even premiered, the producers already had had an (unsuccessful) complaint against them lodged with the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States, claiming that Jack Daniel’s was violating industry codes that prohibited alcohol marketing, as well "depictions of irresponsible drinking, overt sexual activity or sexually lewd images." (This may all seem a little Prohibition-ish to us sitting here in bright, breezy 2015, but it had only been 11 years since the liquor industry dropped a 48-year-old voluntary ban on broadcast advertising that was brought into effect precisely because of those fears.)

Don drinks alone in his office. (Image: AMC)
Don drinks alone in his office. (Image: AMC)

Given the indelible association with cocktail culture that Mad Men would go on to acquire in the public imagination, it’s interesting to read the defense Matthew Weiner gave at the time. "I'm trying to tell a story about that time. It's not done for glamour. People drank more and all the time. They drank in their cars, at work, in the morning at work,” he said — surely a description more of an era with a worrying drinking problem than a lifestyle to "quote" when ordering Manhattans? Here was someone unequivocally telling his audience (and the liquor brand so keen to align itself with his story) that the story Mad Men was about to tell would not be what it seemed. But it looked so good!

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So almost eight years later, we know our show about a suave Old Fashioned drinker was a tragedy all along. But if there's one thing at which humans excel, it's overlooking the uglier elements of something for the parts that look, well, better. If we're still ordering those Old Fashioneds and thinking "How very Don Draper of us," I'd guess we're choosing to remember the Don we first met in Season 1. Or, perhaps, despite everything, us fans just aren't watching Mad Men as closely as we think.

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