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Celebrity faces bring a different kind of buzz to the world of spirits

Mila Kunis is my kind of gal. Not for the conspicuous reasons that earned her Esquire's Sexiest Woman Alive honours in 2012. Not because of That '70s Show or her voice behind Meg Griffin on Family Guy. Most certainly not because she's engaged to Ashton Kutcher. It's because of something she told me the other day. She is partial to a whisky sour in the morning.

Full disclosure: Kunis was paid to tell me that. She's the new face of Jim Beam bourbon. On her first trip to the distillery, she was handed the classic whisky-citrus cocktail at 10 a.m. "It was delicious," she told me over the phone. "That became one of my favourites."

Kentucky corn liquor and the svelte 30-year-old star of Black Swan might seem like an odd match. But Kunis says she was a convert to the spirit before agreeing to Beam's new global multimedia campaign, which includes three TV (and YouTube) commercials, outdoor print ads and content on Beam's Facebook and Twitter accounts. "When I stopped taking shots and drinking for the sake of getting drunk, out with my girlfriends and doing shots, I decided I wanted to have the experience of having a good glass of wine but at a bar," she said. "A bourbon gave me that. It was just a beautiful drink to sip."

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Besides the implied women-drink-bourbon message, another refreshing aspect of the partnership is something you won't see. Namely lots of skin. "It's not about being overtly sensual in a bathing suit, pouring a spirit all over yourself and calling it a day," stressed Kunis, who in one ad plays a cellar hand branding the name "Mila" into barrels with a hot iron.

The campaign also underscores something that's becoming more blatant across the spirits world these days. To stay in the game, it helps to leverage fame.

The list of celebrity brand ambassadors is huge: Kiefer Sutherland and Jose Cuervo; Clive Owen and Three Olives; Robin Thicke and Rémy Martin; Kevin Spacey and Jameson; Justin Timberlake and 901 Tequila; Bruce Willis and Sobieski Vodka; R&B singer Ne-Yo and Malibu Red; rapper Nas and Hennessy; Elijah Wood and Bushmills; Mary J. Blige and Belvedere; Christina Hendricks (of Mad Men fame) and Johnnie Walker. I could go on.

There was a time when liquor and luminaries carried on a less-intimate dalliance. Decades ago, one could peruse Life magazine, Esquire or Playboy to see Woody Allen or Harpo Marx shilling Smirnoff, or Robert Goulet or Jack Palance posing with Heublein ready-mixed cocktails. For the most part, though, such deals were one-offs, highly targeted to specific media. Stars were never contracted for global campaigns. In some cases North American celebrities flogged product only overseas, as in the fictionalized "Suntory time" spot of Bill Murray's character in Lost in Translation, said to be based on Japanese ads by Francis Ford Coppola.

A couple of things changed the landscape. Spirit sales swelled over the past 10 to 15 years, prompting big competition from new players. That's where celebrities, with their huge established audiences, come in, adding glow to the standard themes of history and brand heritage. "You put a confident, beautiful millennial woman out in front of a 219-year-old iconic bourbon brand and it makes people kind of stand up and notice," says Kevin George, global chief marketing officer for Beam Inc. (soon to become a subsidiary of Suntory Holdings).

In particular these days, celebrities can vastly increase online buzz, whether on YouTube, Facebook or Twitter, a critical universe that had presented challenges for alcohol producers bound by regulatory restrictions against marketing to minors.

Colin Gilbert, research director at L2, a New York-based think tank that tracks the digital performance of prestige brands, says liquor producers "got off to a slow start" on Twitter in particular, partly out of liability concerns. In the United States, distilled spirits makers follow a self-imposed rule prohibiting ads from running in media where it's likely that less than 71.6-per-cent of the audience is of legal drinking age. Only recently have alcohol makers begun installing age-gating systems that prevent minors from following tweets.

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Even so, Gilbert says, spirits brands "do not attract large followings on Twitter through their main brand handle." Partly that's because of other regulatory restrictions. They are forbidden to reward followers in the manner of other consumer-products companies, such as through discount coupons or freebies. Jim Beam, one of the more prominent spirits brands on Twitter, for example, had fewer than 45,000 followers on @jimbeamofficial as of this week. Maker's Mark, owned by Beam, leads the way, according to Gilbert, with about 52,000. Remarkably, mighty Smirnoff trails significantly with about 23,000. In contrast, Mountain Dew, the soft drink, boasts 309,000 followers. Even Pampers, the disposable-diaper brand, has 91,000 groupies, proving it takes all kinds to make the Internet go 'round.

Celebrity connections help boost those numbers, giving spirits brands something more grabby to tweet about than dull links to cocktail recipes.

And while Kunis says she does not have her own Twitter or Facebook account, letting Beam do the social networking for her, other spirits companies have been scoring huge online collateral thanks to celebrity activity on Twitter. The consummate example is rapper and music mogul Diddy. Since partnering with spirits giant Diageo to promote Ciroc vodka, the brand ballooned from 60,000 cases in 2007 to more than two million annually today.

Gilbert says it's not just Diddy's TV and print ads that lit up cash registers. The star also mentioned Ciroc in 178 tweets in 2013, on average once every two days. With more 9.5 million followers, his reach is about 225 times bigger than Ciroc's Twitter account of slightly more than 40,000. "Celebrities have hundreds if not thousands of times greater amplitude in terms of who they can touch," Gilbert said.

They need not even be living persons, apparently. Frank Sinatra, buried with a flask of his beloved Jack Daniel's in 1998, recently began plugging a brand extension from the grave. It's called Jack Daniel's Frank Sinatra Select, a $300 special edition authorized by the late singer's estate. Talk about the value, and price, of fame.

Follow me on Twitter: @Beppi_Crosariol

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The Flavour Principle, by Lucy Waverman and Beppi Crosariol, was named best Canadian Food & Drinks Book in the 2014 Gourmand World Cookbook Awards. Published by HarperCollins.

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