“Okay, what is that?” Ted Danson asks. In front of me sits a purple drink with a triumphant rosemary stalk chimney. I take a sip. “I’m not sure.” We’re in a swanky bar that was built in the corner of the offices in the Diageo facility located in Plainfield, Illinois. The vested bartender preparing the ingredients for the company’s National Vodka Day after-party explains that it’s Smirnoff No. 21 vodka, ruby port, fresh lemon juice, rosemary, simple syrup, and activated charcoal.
Danson turns, astonished, to the bartender. “You’re the real deal, aren’t you?”
The beloved actor — who, lest we forget, made his name playing a bartender — had just finished touring the massive distillery with a collection of food bloggers, and now we were sitting down for a relaxing drink. As the spokesman for Smirnoff, one of the many liquors that are produced in the unassuming plant, he was brought out to one of the sleepiest towns in the midwest to see how the booze is finished while meeting some of the workers. As a resident of the suburbs of Chicago, I was completely unaware that I neighbored the plant. It doesn’t really stand out or demand attention. It’s a grey, square box of a building that I’ve driven past dozens of times; never realizing that a never-ending supply of Bulleit whiskey, Captain Morgan’s rum, and Smirnoff is finished and bottled inside.
Danson couldn’t have been more smitten with his peek inside the never-ending aluminum guts of the company he pitches vodka for.
“Think about the engineering, the gizmos that allow so many bottles to have liquid put in, capped then shot out onto a truck, efficiently,” he tells me with a wide-eyed smile.
As we chat, I realize that the star of Cheers, Becker, Bored to Death, Curb Your Enthusiasm, and The Good Place appreciates few things more than a well-made product. He also understands the life of a factory worker — he once lived the life at a canning factory, well before he was an Emmy-winning comedy god.
“I worked at the Continental Can Company,” he says. “It was like hell, I lasted a month and a half. I was going to school at Carnegie-Mellon University and I worked from eleven at night until seven in the morning because I figured, ‘What the hell.‘” Danson exhales. “It was nightmarish and depressing. As you drive at 10:30 at night and you’re friends are going out then you come home and you’re a little energized but everyone’s asleep. And the cannery was surrounded by steel mills, so you go outside at 3 am for a little break and it was like you’re in Dante’s hell. Flaming, red glows everywhere.”
He makes mushroom cloud motions with his hands.
Danson’s enthusiasm for the facility was infectious to the point of bogarting the tour. Before any of the journalists could slip a question in, he spoke up, wondering about the charcoal that turns the corn-based, raw alcohol into something smooth and tasteless. The tour guide happily obliged Danson awestruck questions, before we moved into the bottling section of the plant. As we walked, I noticed that most of the food bloggers put away their notes.
This was Danson’s question and answer time now. We were just along for the ride.