In an early episode of AMC’s Mad Men Sal Romano asks Don Draper an important question that establishes a doctrine that rings true throughout the series. Before a morning meeting with a prospective client Sal asks, “Should drink before the meeting or after?” The correct answer obviously being both. The level of drinking that regularly occurs in the offices of Sterling Cooper is usually reserved for early 20th century dockworkers. This begs the question, what are they drinking? Robert Simonson, of The New York Times, wrote an article discussing this very topic on August 11th, 2009. He interviewed both creative staff from the show and bartenders and ad men of the 1960’s.
Obviously, like actual people, each character has different tastes and drinks varying spirits. For example, as Joan informs Peggy when she first comes to work at Sterling Cooper, “Mr. Draper likes rye.” Close observers can note that Don’s brand of choice is Canadian Club. In the article, David Wondrich, cocktail historian, describes both the drink and brand as a very accurate choice for a man like Draper. Wondrich explains the historical accuracy saying, “We’d had years of destruction of the American whiskey industry up until then. So the Canadian stuff was viewed as being pretty good.” While scotch was probably the most popular whiskey of the time, Don is drinking rye. Rye, like the character of Don Draper, is of the same general group as the average or common but is just a little different.
Image credit: http://www.movieline.com/2010/10/movieline-presents-the-mad-men-season-finale-drinking-game.php
Another top drinker on Mad Men is without question Roger Sterling, a man who lives every day like he is still in the Navy and on perpetual shore-leave. Sterling’s drink of choice is proven to be vodka, usually in the form of a martini. In Simonson’s article, he interviews Brian Rea, who was a bartender in the 1950’s at a popular Midtown restaurant. Mr. Rea comments on Roger Sterling’s martini habit saying, “Martinis were the big thing in those days. Vodka was just beginning to come on strong.” While in season’s 1 and 2 he is seen drinking Smirnoff, in season 3 he acquires some of the much coveted and exceedingly rare, Soviet vodka, Stolichnaya. Vodka is an appropriate selection for Roger because vodka in the 1960’s was new and trendy. Traditional martinis were made with gin, so to drink one made with vodka was hip. This is fitting for Roger’s character because he is an older man who spends the lion’s share of his time around younger men, trying to keep up. By drinking vodka he is showing younger men, like Don that he is not, in anyway, an old traditionalist.
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Finally, unlike the population of Sterling Cooper’s offices, Betty Draper is not usually seen drinking heavily throughout the day; however she is seen drinking a variety of interesting, bygone cocktails. Aside from wine and champagne, Betty will frequently order a Tom Collins or a vodka gimlet. Both Mr. Rea and Mr. Wondrich agree these beverage choices are “spot on.” Like many things in Betty’s life she likely chooses these drinks because they are the drinks she is supposed to like. They are, like her, decadent and trendy.
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Judging by the regularity with which character’s on Mad Men consume alcohol, it seems important, or at least relevant, to examine what they are drinking, whether it is historically accurate, and why their character might choose such a drink.