A bloody good time: Drew Hanlon’s alter ego is a facilitator of euphoria
Step right up and be mesmerized by the waggling eyebrows, the devilish grin and the smooth-talking hyperbolic speech. Belly up to the bar and let Col. Clifton DeBeQue rattle off his cure for the common ailment — a bloody mary “guaranteed to relieve the pains of desperation and mediocrity.”
Shoppers frequenting local farmers’ markets and festivals have become accustomed to the sight — and sound — of this traveling salesman hawking his wares. In fact, some seek him out as an attraction to brighten their day, hypnotized by his spiel.
He rattles off the details: Vodka makes a classic bloody mary, tequila makes a bloody maria, whiskey makes a bloody molly and “if you add no alcohol, what is that called? A bloody shame.” His pitch about the drink varieties rolls off his tongue in a flurry, acknowledging the Hot & Wild might be a little spicy (“some like it hot and some ... do not”) compared to the Tart & Twangy (“dang that twang!”), which the colonel promises will make your cheeks go “boing!”
The colonel puts his photo on every bottle — “That’s not vanity, it’s a gift to the ladies,” he purrs, nodding as one of his eyebrows zings up in dastardly expression. His hands are too busy rimming sample cups with a smoked sea salt mixture to twiddle his fingers.
It’s not like last year, when he was selling concrete tires that would only work on rubber roads. Today, you can “buy both bottles for the price of two and get the second bottle free!”
The man behind this act is Drew Hanlon, a 45-year-old entrepreneur. He’s a Grand Valley native and a Grand Junction High School graduate, and he’s slowly building a bloody mary empire, one festival at a time.
It all started one Saturday back in September 2009. Hanlon was relaxing at home, making a bloody mary. As he drank his delicious homemade concoction, he wondered, “Why don’t people make a better bloody mary that others can enjoy?” He loved savoring a leisurely drink on the weekend, and he was known for his bloody marys in his circle of friends.
At the time, he had a job as a marketing manager for a fishing line company, Innovative Textiles. But all the inspiration for what became Hanlon’s business venture was born that day. The wheels in his brain started turning and in the time it took for him to drink that bloody mary, Hanlon’s alter ego was born. He spent the next few hours scheming and fantasizing about selling his own line of drink mix as a fictional character, Col. Clifton DeBeQue. He envisioned the bottle design and the characters on the labels, in a grand little world where he sold bloody mary mix.
Six months later, Hanlon found himself unemployed. Innovative Textiles was purchased by Shimano, an international corporation, and his job was eliminated due to redundancy. But he didn’t mind as much as some of the other displaced employees. He worked at a fishing line company and he didn’t even like fishing. All of a sudden, making bloody mary mix didn’t seem like such a bad idea.
“Fate kind of stepped in for me,” he said. “It forced my hand.”
Previously, Hanlon had worked as a news anchor at the local CBS affiliate. He had a stage presence, good diction and projection. He had a history degree but no desire to teach. His resume included varied jobs as an extra in Hollywood movies and a stint as a tour guide at Universal Studios. He’d even played a puffy-sleeved character in an educational film called “Galileo Smith Visits the Solar System.” At 42 years old, he decided to channel his performance talents and knack for marketing and start his own business.
The next year, Hanlon took a leap of faith and started his company, Delixirs LLC, and Col. Clifton DeBeQue came to life.
Hanlon quickly realized he didn’t possess the characteristics of a classic entrepreneur. He’s not a high-strung, detail-oriented, Type A personality. He’s not really into crunching numbers or deadlines. But he’s incredibly creative, gutsy and charismatic.
“One of the things this has given me is it’s shown me I have a capability for being very hardworking and resourceful,” he said. And boy, can he put on a show for a crowd as Col. Clifton DeBeQue, the front man for Hanlon’s enterprise.
So who is this mysterious character? He’s a purveyor of fine drink, a facilitator of euphoria. A “rambler, a gambler, an entrepreneur, a raconteur, a bon vivant and an iconoclastic impresario,” according to Hanlon, who describes him as a character from a different time, a remnant from some bit of Americana.
The colonel hails from Pickle Fork, Ark., and as a wee lad he wore a top hat and had the very same mustache he sports now. “He was born under the Big Top, on peanut sacks between two wagon tracks, to a high-wire circus performer and a confidence man,” Hanlon said. He’s a convincing salesman and he wows the crowd with his unique character.
Part of the colonel clearly comes from Hanlon’s childhood memories of watching “Gunsmoke.” The rest is part Professor Harold Hill from “The Music Man,” part con-man character Eustace McGargle from W.C. Fields’ performance in “Poppy,” and a little bit mega-car salesman Cal Worthington, known for his wacky “dog Spot” ads.
The colonel reveals Hanlon’s taste for nostalgia — Route 66, rockabilly and old-timey bluegrass, things that remind people of the good ol’ days when life was simpler and people took pleasure in the little things. Hanlon has always loved melodramas, dating back to the time he played a role in one called “The Drunkard” at Mesa State College when he was 19 years old. Some of the fake mustache twirling definitely comes from that.
Hanlon’s taste for storytelling also shines through his performance as the colonel. “The colonel loves the sound of his own voice,” said Hanlon, laughing. His accent is not from here, but it’s not from anywhere else, either. It seems the colonel’s dulcet tones derive from somewhere back in time, crossed among old-time radio shows, snake-oil salesmen and wealthy businessmen on a Trans-Atlantic ship voyage.
The colonel always wears his signature top hat, or a straw hat in the summer. His wardrobe is a mishmash of thrift-store treasure, gaudy vests and clashing patterns. He’s clearly a sucker for pearl-snap buttons (so is Hanlon) but “he has a fashion sense I wouldn’t be caught dead in,” Hanlon said. “The louder, the better.”
The colonel is the front of the house, and Hanlon runs the back. Col. Clifton calls in the crowd, pouring the drinks and schmoozing the customers, while Hanlon pays the bills and worries about logistics, taxes and other practical, official things. Col. Clifton dances his eyebrows and makes the gals giggle and blush, while Hanlon barely makes eye contact with pretty ladies (except his wife, who was also his high-school sweetheart). And the colonel says things that Hanlon would never, ever utter. Hanlon’s almost embarrassed by some of the stuff the colonel blurts out, like he’s some wildly inappropriate uncle that everyone reluctantly interacts with at holidays.
Simply put, Hanlon’s business wouldn’t be what it is without his alter ego. Without that drawn-on mustache and the devilish grin, the bloody mary mix wouldn’t move as fast and customers wouldn’t feel the emotional tug of the show. There’s something about Hanlon’s performance as the colonel that sells the drink even more than it sells itself.
Hanlon admits some people just don’t “get” the colonel. Some stay a careful distance from his booth and walk by with their heads tilted like confused dogs. Others listen politely and then ask him if this is his “hobby” or compliment him on his “little project.”
But others come to farmers’ markets or festivals for the express purpose of glimpsing the colonel in action, and they can’t wait to see what hilarious quips he’s going to finesse the crowd with this time. They bring their friends to meet him, say they have to try this delicious elixir, or wave and yell, “Hello, Colonel!” That just about makes Hanlon’s day. Others want a photo with him. He’s happy to entertain and obliges their admiration for the colonel, who loves having his photo taken with pretty girls.
Some customers don’t even drink bloody marys, but they buy a few bottles. One couple even returned to his booth at a festival two years after purchasing his product, asking if it was still good. They clearly bought the drink mix in appreciation for the show. The colonel is a kick in the pants. After all, his motto is “fun rarely tastes this good.”
Hanlon’s charismatic nature and lightning-fast ad-libbing makes for an incredibly hilarious back-and-forth with customers. When it’s working, the compliments roll off his tongue like honey and the people gather for samples. The time flies when the colonel is on a roll, and Hanlon feels euphoric as his performance flows with precision.
The business has turned into somewhat of a family affair, with Hanlon’s wife, Sherry, and children, Cal and Dolcie, helping, as well as his parents Clay and Kaye assisting on occasion. Cal’s character is Capt. “Gunny” Gunnison, and his backstory is that the colonel took Gunny under his wing as his personal chauffeur and bodyguard after he found him running a Three-card Monte scam.
Dolcie plays Professor Palisade, the mustachioed past-present-prospective pilgrim and author of “Time Traveling on 75 Cents a Day,” who also serves as the colonel’s bookkeeper. And Hanlon’s father, Clay, plays a reformed conman and auctioneer, simply known as “The Commodore.”
Hanlon loves to have his family helping on the festival circuit with him because they’re such hard workers and he genuinely enjoys spending time with them. The Hanlons brainstorm sales strategies and goals together, and the kids contribute valuable input and ideas to the venture. And they make a great time for themselves while they’re working, creating valuable memories of the time Cal entered the pie-eating contest at Strawberry Days in Glenwood Springs or the time Dolcie insisted on getting their photo taken with a bald eagle.
Despite the 80-hour workweeks, the exhausting festival circuit and the financial strains of being an entrepreneur, Hanlon is living the dream. He’s not stuck at a desk job, he’s spending time with his family, and he’s bringing joy to people in liquid form and in laughter. He loves this character he’s brought to life and the colonel gives him an outlet for his theatrical talents.
Deep down, Hanlon is truly grateful to the alter ego he created. Behind the cheesy, drawn-on mustache is a man who was secretly relieved to leave that desk job four years ago. Behind that confident, flirty drink slinger’s facade is a keenly observant entrepreneur with the guts to do what he wanted to do when he grew up.
“I will always be indebted to Col. Clifton DeBeQue,” he said. “He saved me from a life of quiet desperation. I feel like the boy who ran off and joined the circus, but the best part is, I never had to leave home.”