You can tell a lot about a bar from its inventory: what it’s trying to be, what it thinks it is, what it really is, and what its customers like. So when I’m sitting in a saloon waiting for the bartender to prepare my order, I often bide my time by scanning the bottles on the back bar.
I usually know something about every bottle on display, whether it’s the relative quality, flavor profile, backstory, production methods, or what company owns it — it’s a hazard of the job. That assurance evaporates, however, if I am at a humble neighborhood tap or dive bar and I lean forward to take a look at the bottom shelf. There I see brands I’ve known all my adult life. They’re the same names I find near the floor of any garden-variety liquor store: Mr. Boston, Llord’s, Arrow, Zemkoff, Popov, Aristocrat, Georgi, Barton.
These brands are paradoxical, for they are both ubiquitous and mysterious. The average booze writer or enthusiast — who can recite chapter and verse about any well-known bourbon or mezcal — is hard pressed to tell you anything about them, other than that they are very cheap and they may get tossed in your cocktail if you don’t call out a preferred brand.
In this era of increased transparency in the spirits world, a look at the label should answer some questions. But bottom shelf liquors don’t play the word game. Their labels are terse and opaque, revealing only what the government forces them to. As for the back labels — typically the home of glorious histories, origin myths, and recipes — bottom-shelf brands often don’t have them.
To put an end to this mystery-booze routine, I decided to do some digging.
No-Name Booze, Big-Name Owners
The first thing I learned is that most of these no-name products are owned and made by big-name companies. The Mr. Boston and Llord’s lines of spirits and liqueurs, as well as Georgi, are manufactured by the Sazerac Company, the folks who regularly make headlines for marquee brands such as Buffalo Trace, Eagle Rare, and Blanton’s. Zemkoff and Aristocrat, meanwhile, are produced by Kentucky’s Heaven Hill, home of Elijah Craig and Henry McKenna whiskeys, among dozens of other spirits. You would never know this by looking at the labels, which list only the distillery where the juice is produced, often with a name that bears no connection to the parent company. You won’t find the brands listed on the corporate websites, either.
Most of these ownership situations are new. Sazerac bought the Mr. Boston line — which used to be made in Boston — in 2009; it bought the Llord’s line in 2019. Then it trundled both off to the same Mr. Boston Brands distillery in Lewiston, Maine, of all places.
In many cases, these brands have been blown about by the winds of commerce for decades, bouncing from owner to owner until their histories are all but lost.
Take Arrow, which lends its name to a line of neon-colored liqueurs. The current owner, Luxco of St. Louis, will tell you nothing of the line except that it was “created in the early-twentieth century using secret family recipes from Europe,” and that it is the No. 3 best-selling cordial line in the United States. I don’t know about the European family connections, but the brand does go back a bit. It was once owned by Heublein, the same Connecticut company that owned the American rights to Smirnoff and helped popularize vodka in the U.S.
Arrow is unique among today’s bottom-shelf brands in that it once boasted a major national advertising presence. “Give Your Beau an Arrow for Valentine’s Day,” declared a 1974 ad campaign. My favorite, however, was the 1970s Arrow tagline, “Strange and wonderful things in bottles.” Vague enough for you? (Typically, the only mentions no-names earn in the press are regular notices that they are on sale at the local liquor store.)
Heublein was bought by R.J. Reynolds Tobacco in 1981. When that company merged to become RJR Nabisco, it started selling off the Heublein properties, with the booze brands going to British firm Grand Metropolitan in 1987. Grand Metropolitan then evolved into the present-day liquor monolith Diageo. In 1999, Arrow was acquired by David Sherman Corp., a St. Louis firm that later renamed itself Luxco, and production of Arrow was moved from Princeton, Minn., to St. Louis.
Is it any wonder we don’t know much about these brands? Who can keep track? (Calls to Luxco for comment on Arrow were not returned.)
Princes, Aristocrats, and Stars
Sometimes, the owners themselves have little grasp of the history of their own properties. Max Shapira of Heaven Hill admits he doesn’t know much about Zemkoff vodka. (If anyone out there knows who Zemkoff was, or if there ever was a person named Zemkoff, please contact me. This brand has left no paper trail.) But Shapira knows plenty about Aristocrat.
“Aristocrat began with Charlie ‘Chuck’ Grosscurth, an American entrepreneur from Kentucky who devoted his career to making American whiskey,” says Shapira. Grosscurth had a distillery at Floyds Fork, near Louisville, from 1933 until it burned to the ground in 1968. “In the late ‘50s and early ‘60s, Grosscurth saw what many in the whiskey business saw — whiskey was losing momentum and vodka was gaining inroads with American consumers across the country.”
Grosscurth responded by diversifying and launching a vodka. He didn’t want to give it a Russian name that would twist American tongues, so he called it Aristocrat.
“Chuck also thought the name would say something about the quality of the spirit,” Shapira says. “Chuck wanted to make Aristocrat available at a reasonable price — he wanted the reach to be to consumers across a broad spectrum.” When Grosscurth got older and wanted to sell the business in 1974, he turned to the Shapiras, whom he knew personally. “He knew Heaven Hill would take care of the brands,” Shapira adds. Aristocrat is now made in Indiana.
Llord’s has a history that is almost as interesting, if less heartwarming. It was produced in the 1930s by Black Prince Distillers, a New Jersey rectifier first located in Nutley and then Clinton. Black Prince claimed a connection to an old distillery founded in 1707 in Schiedam, Holland, which the owners said moved to New Jersey after the repeal of Prohibition. One news account attested that Llord’s was the first full line of liqueurs sold in America.
Llord’s was eventually acquired by Star Industries, a Long Island company, before Star tossed it to Sazerac in 2019, along with Georgi, Majorska, and several other anonymous spirits.
The creator of Georgi spirits, Star Industries, has its own weird story. It was founded in 1934 by Louis Silver and some others in Sunnyside, Queens, before moving to Syosset in 1967. It was then that they started making Georgi, a made-up name with a reverse “R” to suggest a Russian pedigree. (In general, when it comes to design, bottom-shelf labels go one of two ways. Some, like Georgi, Zemkoff, and Aristocrat, go full fraud, sporting labels meant to suggest some filigreed family crest or escutcheon. Others, like Arrow and Llord’s, read like children’s books, with bright colors and pictures of the flavors you’ll find inside.)
By 2004, Georgi was moving 365,000 cases a year. Silver was a savvy marketer with a distinct Long Island moxie about him. He knew how to get his product’s name in the press. In 2007, he publicly offered free rides home to party girls Paris Hilton and Lindsay Lohan. Two years later, he attacked fellow vodka-hawker Donald Trump.
Filling a Need
So, some bottom-shelf brands do have backstories, if you do the detective work. But the most remarkable thing about the category is not their origins, but their dogged persistence. These booze names refuse to die, even though they don’t ever get the glory or the reviews or even a lousy ad in the trades. Why do liquor corporations continue to extend a lifeline to the Arrows and Zemkoffs of the world? They fill a need in the portfolio. Not a glamorous need, but a need.
“We have multiple distribution networks, so the brand fits very well into the network that does not carry Mr. Boston,” says a spokesperson for Sazerac of what motivated the company to acquire Llord’s.
So, now you know. And so do I. The next time I scan that bottom shelf on the corner bar, I’ll be doing it with wiser eyes. But you can’t drink a good story. When I order my Martini, I’ll still take care to specify my gin. And it will be from the top shelf.