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What's In a Name? A Look at "American Harvest" and the Nasty Business of Nationalism

American harvest...of what?
American harvest...of what?

I get a lot of bizarre press releases. Men's speedos packaged with cans of tuna. A recipe for an Empty Nester cocktail that blends red wine with tequila. A flyer touting a penis-shaped muffin restaurant.

The press release I received yesterday doesn't fall within that bizarre realm. It's a perfectly straightforward, well-written, informative press release that accomplishes its task. Unfortunately, that task is telling me about something called "American Harvest," which -- when I finally read what it was -- I found completely obnoxious.

It's the third time this week I've been hit over the head with this burgeoning trend of giving restaurants, bars or products a faux-Americana name in hopes that patriotism or nostalgia or both will bolster sales. Even if that's not the reason that "American Harvest" was named "American Harvest," it's still an exceptionally stupid name for the product.

Why? Because what exactly do you think American Harvest is?

This is the question I posed to my Facebook buddies yesterday. Their responses included:

Bread CSA farmshare Soylent Green Something to do with wheat Baby food Organ thieves Beer Whiskey A tractor Pot Corn T-shirts Farm equipment Generic wheat bread that claims to be different Flour Cereal Fiber supplements Oatmeal Crackers Off-brand Kashi

You can see two things happening here: First, the answers are all over the board. "American Harvest" could be anything from clothing to heavy machinery to beer. Second, quite a few of the answers were of the "bread" variety (I left out the repeated guesses of "Bread?" "Bread." "BREAD." Because you get the idea.)

If your product name doesn't give people the slightest clue as to what is, you're headed in the wrong direction. This is basic marketing, folks.

What if I told you that American Harvest is a spirit? What would you think then? Since American liquors are traditionally spirits such as bourbon and whiskey, that's what I'd quickly guess American Harvest is. But I would be wrong.

American Harvest is vodka.

It's always great to see the Pledge of Allegiance used to pimp hooch. I feel super patriotic right now.
It's always great to see the Pledge of Allegiance used to pimp hooch. I feel super patriotic right now.

Says the press release:

American Harvest is handcrafted in small batches from organic winter wheat grown on a family owned and sustainably managed American farm. It is distilled and bottled in Rigby, Idaho using water from aquifers deep beneath the Snake River plain. The result is a distinctly smooth and silky spirit with a crisp, clean taste. American Harvest is the creation of Sidney Frank Importing Company, Inc., a third generation family business that is 100% US owned and operated.

Vodka is perhaps the least American of all spirits. You can make arguments for rum, for example, which was an important part of early colonial and international trade in America. You can make arguments for tequila based on sheer proximity to Mexico, and also due to the fact that large swaths of America used to belong to that country. You can make arguments for brandy, obviously, or even bathtub gin.

So why are we trying to make something American that has such firmly planted Eastern European roots? What's wrong with appreciating the fact that sake is Japanese, soju is Korean and vodka is Polish or Russian or Latvian?

Vodka wasn't brought to America until after World War II, which is why it's so rare to find classic cocktail recipes featuring the spirit. Forcing an Americana bent onto this strongly European product smacks of unsubtle and unnecessary jingoism, as if a product isn't good enough unless it's thoroughly white-washed and Amurrican.

Remember, kids: Dissent is one of the highest forms of patriotism. (Also remember that Thomas Jefferson didn't say that; historian Howard Zinn did.)
Remember, kids: Dissent is one of the highest forms of patriotism. (Also remember that Thomas Jefferson didn't say that; historian Howard Zinn did.)

Tying the whole "harvest" notion into the vodka is rich too, as vodka can -- and is -- traditionally be made with sorghum, rice, potatoes, corn, other grains or even just sugar...not just our own amber waves of grain. If the harvest aspect is that important, I'd rather see more emphasis on the place where the wheat was actually harvested: Snake River Vodka, for example, which makes a far better name anyway and speaks volumes more about the spirit than the banal, frustratingly unspecific "American Harvest."

I'm not as concerned with the whole Americana trend so much as I am with the ideology behind it. At a time when we're living in an increasingly global society -- where our actions and attitudes have far more wide-ranging impact than any other time in human history -- why are we retreating to such a nationalistic stance, even when it comes to the way we market and promote our food and beverages?

Some may argue that politics and food don't overlap, but I don't believe that: Food is one of Maslow's basic necessities on the hierarchy of needs that we all live by. Food is foundation. Drink is too. Government subsidies of corn, for example, drive American political decisions as much as our continuing search for oil. Futures contracts on commodities such as frozen orange juice don't just serve as a plot line for the best Dan Aykroyd movie of the 1980s, Trading Places.

American Harvest very well could be the best damn vodka I've ever put in my mouth. It could make me change the way I feel about the entire odorless, tasteless genre as a whole. It could usher in a new era of small-batch, American-made vodkas and I could very well be eating my hat in 10 years.

But for now, its name is lazy and clueless at best, insulting at worst. Don't try and use my patriotism to sell me booze. Don't sell me on this pablum about vodka made with wheat harvested in America. Sell me on vodka that mixes great with 7-Up or goes down smoothly after a hearty Na zdrowie! -- and leave the poor Pledge of Allegiance out of it.



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