Having bounced from distributor to distributor, reliable information on the brand’s history is slim at best. It was in 1987 that the beet-based Black Death Vodka made its mark, winning a London International Wine and Spirit Competition gold medal and launching itself into a tumultuous half-decade of ups and downs.
Its bottles distinguished with a smiling, top-hatted skull, Black Death began to see problems in 1990 when the Scarborough Football Club was banned from wearing jerseys sponsored by Black Death. Then, in April 1992, reporting on the then Belgian-produced Black Death, Time magazine stated that “the [US] Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms [ATF], with exquisite literalness, is blocking the liquor on grounds of misleading advertising, since the brand seems to promise poison and plague but delivers only vodka.” Though the ATF lost its lawsuit against the brand’s US distributor, the agency ultimately seemed to have won the battle.
In October 1996, Guns N’ Roses guitarist Saul “Slash” Hudson, a brand spokesperson at the time who was often photographed in a Black Death Vodka T-shirt, told the unofficial Guns N’ Roses website Heretodaygonetohell.com, “Black Death paid me a bunch of money to endorse them and then disappeared.”
Today UK distiller G&J Greenall distributes Black Death in several varieties, including vodka, tequila, and gin. Not to be confused with Black Death Premium Deer Urine, a hunting decoy, the spirits brand can be found in 70 nations and claims annual sales of over 120 million bottles and cans. (Supposedly, it is the only vodka available in cans.) Greenall also asserts that Black Death has won 27 medals from the International Wine and Spirit Association since 1990.
Humble attempts to learn more concrete information about the Black Death brand proved fruitless. Though G&J Greenall provided brandchannel with Black Death’s US distributor, with which Greenall has no working partnership, all attempts at contact have gone unanswered. An extensive search through some of the most well-stocked liquor stores in New York City not only produced no Black Death, but also no knowledge of where it might be found. Ditto the Internet, where the most common response from online spirits shops was “Temp Out of Stock” (though there appears to be nothing temporary about it).
Recent news about the brand hasn’t been good. A massively destructive distillery fire in October 2005 followed a May 2005 fine of £2 million for illegal distribution of Black Death Vodka. One might say a pox is on its house.
Clearly the ATF did not understand, or did and ignored, the correlation between brand preference and personal identity. Choosing to drink Black Death Vodka does no more to make a man (or a woman, but probably a man) plague-friendly than using an Apple iMac makes one a health nut. However debauched it seems to the majority, it’s more likely that a Black Death fan has cultivated a personality befitting the brand identity than that Black Death Vodka’s branding has shaped said personality. Conversely reasoning, if you don’t eat Life cereal, does that mean you have a death wish?
In many ways Black Death was a branding trailblazer. Its early-nineties scuffle with the law coincided with the emergence of a disaffected culture that defied eighties excess by overtly insulting the status quo—shock for shock’s sake. Lead singer of the aforementioned band Guns N’ Roses was fond of wearing a T-shirt with murderer Charles Manson’s visage. The year before the ATF took on Black Death, rapper Ice-T’s song “Cop Killer” put even the most strident champions of free speech on shaky ground. Defending his song much the way one might imagine Black Death could have defended itself, Ice-T said that he was no more a cop killer than “David Bowie is an astronaut.” These stunts would hardly rate a mention ten years later.
So Black Death got wrongly bullied 14 years ago. The bigger question is, Why hasn’t it come back in the US? It certainly cannot be because of potential naming problems. One of the most popular microbrewed beers in the US is Delirium Tremens, named after the potentially fatal complications of symptoms of alcohol withdrawal. Non-alcoholic energy drink names include Bong Water, Pimp Juice, Bottle Rocket and Bomba, the latter two of which come in bottles resembling a missile and a grenade, respectively.
Black Death would seem to be the perfect fit in a US marketplace anesthetized to shock, where viral campaigns are the norm, ex-Presidential candidates hawk erectile dysfunction cures, and porn stars shill shoes while half-naked socialites sell hamburgers. In a marketplace so increasingly filled with identical, indistinguishable brands and messages, consumers are drawn to individuality. Its initial foothold even remains, with eBay doing a healthy trade in Black Death Vodka T-shirts, key chains, and the occasional Black Death coffin (a special packaging once available for the bottles).
Later this year US markets will see Kalashnikov Vodka, namesake of one of the most well-known man-made tools of death in history. Why not a vodka named after one of the most natural?