School Spirits

When New Mexico State University and its licensing agent, The Collegiate Licensing Company, signed a deal with Dry Point Distillers in 2020 to create Pistol Pete 1888 Six-Shooter rye whiskey (named after its mascot, Pistol Pete), it noted that it was the first college or university to introduce a whiskey collaboration. The school has been expanding its presence in food and beverage categories, including licensed beer and wine, in recent years.

Since then, a number of other institutions, especially in Kansas, have followed NMSU into the whiskey space:

  • In 2021, Kansas State University (K-State) licensed Boot Hill Distillery, which is led by an alum, for Wabash Reserve bourbon whiskey. It has “authentic Wildcat spirit in every bottle,” according to the label. The name of the product, described as a “high-wheat Kansas bourbon,” has ties to one of the institution’s fight songs, The Wabash Cannonball. The whiskey partnership expanded in 2022 to add licensed vodka. K-State is represented for licensing by Affinity Licensing.
  • Fort Hays State University in Hays, Kansas, is, like K-State, represented by Affinity Licensing and also partnered with Boot Hill, in 2022, for a product called Victor E. Bourbon Whiskey. The name and tagline—“Pour the Roar!”—are inspired by the school’s sports teams, the Tigers, and their mascot Victor E. Tiger. The grain mash of corn, rye, wheat, and malted barley used to produce the whiskey is Kansas-grown.
  • Also in 2022, Kansas University, represented by CLC, paired with J. Rieger & Co. of Kansas City for Rock Chalk National Championship bourbon whiskey, a limited-edition product named for “Rock Chalk, Jayhawk, KU,” a chant used at Kansas sporting events. The product was 88 proof in honor of KU’s 1988 NCAA men’s basketball championship team. Part of the proceeds from the product went toward funding responsible drinking programs on campus through a partnership with the Jayhawk Buddy System. The company released another limited edition during this year’s NCAA basketball tournament, this time a straight rye whiskey called Rock Chalk Rye. The parents of J. Reiger’s co-founder and president were Jayhawks.

Universities have also been launching whiskey-brewing educational ventures, sometimes in partnership with spirits companies. Kentucky State University, an HBCU (Historically Black College or University), partnered with Bulleit Frontier Whiskey Partners in 2021 to increase diversity in the spirits industry and in leadership roles in Kentucky. The alliance centers on an annual scholarship program, with plans also calling for students to be recruited for jobs in Bulleit distilleries, educational experiences such as in-depth distillery tours and speakers, and alumni and community activations.

Meanwhile, the University of Kentucky announced plans in 2023 to open The James B. Beam Institute, the largest teaching distillery in the world, to educate students on engineering, economics, food science, and journalism related to the bourbon industry, a key economic sector in the state. The new venture is funded with $5 million from the Jim Beam company and will emphasize responsible drinking, with students required to be 21 or older to take some classes. The university already offers a certificate program in distillation, wine, and brewing.

Programs like these can ultimately lead to collegiate-branded products for sale. Niagara College in Niagara-on-the-Lake in Ontario, Canada, also has a teaching distillery, launched in 2018, along with an Artisan Distilling program. In 2022, it released a Scotch-style Spirits 101 Single Malt Whisky—the spelling used for Canadian, Scottish, and Japanese grain spirits—for sale in limited distribution near campus. Canadian Whisky and Canadian Rye Whisky are also planned, following previous releases of Spirits 101 Spiced Rum and Christmas Gin in 2021.

In addition to these whiskeys, colleges and universities have been expanding into other alcoholic beverages, including wine and wine spritzers from the University of Miami, North Carolina State, and Alabama State University and beers and ales from Pittsburg State University, University of California-Davis, and University of North Dakota, among many other examples. As noted above, universities have also occasionally launched other spirits, aside from whiskey.

Of course, it can be controversial to attach the name of a college or university, where the bulk of students are under the drinking age and where binge drinking and other forms of alcohol abuse continue to be a problem, to an alcoholic beverage. Last fall, Virginia Commonwealth University introduced a licensed Ram Bam golden pale ale with Hardywood Park Craft Brewery but, after a backlash, decided to stop production the next day. VCU is particularly sensitive to the issues surrounding licensed alcoholic beverages; a student had died of alcohol poisoning during a fraternity hazing incident the previous year, and it houses the Institute for Drug and Alcohol Studies, which researches addiction and substance abuse.

Collegiate licensors, which often have to change their trademark licensing policies to allow for the licensing of alcohol, address these concerns in several ways. These include taking care in how and where they market the product, putting the focus on alumni and the greater collegiate community without mentioning students; ensuring distribution remains in bars, restaurants, and stores off (although still near) campus, as well as online; and often integrating an educational or financial component to support responsible drinking programs or messaging on campus as part of the licensing deal.

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