Giving It To Them Straight

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In an era when superficiality and hyperactive pace pervade most sectors of society, little wonder that many of the distilled spirits industry’s long-established “core” categories that represent stability — whiskey, vodka, brandy/cognac, rum, tequila — are flourishing. Many beverage alcohol industry observers agree that consumers mature dramatically from their mid-twenties to their late-thirties. They tend to move past the fleeting allure of “faddy” things like neon-colored drinks, jello-shots and shooters as they start to hunt for genuineness and products that match their own developing adult identities. As the past two decades have irrefutably demonstrated, affluent, educated consumers, especially in the key 25 to 40 year age demographic, demand quality more than any other product attribute when they need to escape contemporary life’s breakneck pace. The reasoning is: If my life is a morass of cell phones, i-Pods, computers, e-mail, Sunday afternoon business appointments, and weeknight PTA meetings, whatever I’m drinking had better be good.

Enter America’s booming straight bourbons and straight Tennessee whiskeys. These no-nonsense, grain-based, oak-aged spirits appeal to knowledgeable consumers as much because of their sturdy quality as with their deep-rooted American pedigree. Retailers, better than anyone, understand that their blue chip customers are known by their brands. As much as any alcoholic beverage sectors, premium and superpremium whiskeys make a clear social statement about the drinker. Brand loyalty is a hallmark trait of American straight whiskey drinking. People become known in their circle of friends as being an admirer of “Jim,” “Jack,” “Evan,” “Turkey” or “Maker’s.”

Jack Daniels Low-BallThe leading straight whiskey in the U.S., Jack Daniel’s increased sales 7.4% in 2004, to 4.225 million 9-liter cases. The brand is featuring this gift set for the holidays.

In an increasingly borderless world, the brand loyalty assertion is true on an international scale. As evidenced by their domestic and international growth, America’s straight whiskeys (in the U.S. market, Jack Daniel’s up 7.6% in 2004; Jim Beam up 3.2%; Maker’s Mark up 11.2%; Wild Turkey up 3.5%, to name a few) are the beverage alcohol equivalent of Levi’s blue jeans and Coca-Cola. Legal-age drinkers from Sydney to Hong Kong to Paris to Prague to Cape Town to Vancouver are as familiar with the labels of Jim Beam and Jack Daniel’s as they are with the emblems of other purely American icons, like McDonald’s, Harley-Davidson, Apple computers and Goodyear tires. Make no mistake. America’s straight whiskeys are a global phenomenon that shows no signs of slowing down.

What makes straight whiskeys so, well, darned American

Consumer fascination with American straight whiskey approaches mystique status, both at home and abroad. What exactly are they, though, in legal terms? Straight whiskeys, according to the U. S. Government, are distilled, grain-based spirits that must be made up of a minimum of 51% of one type of grain (the predominant grain is virtually always corn, the Americas’ quintessential native grain); distilled at no higher than 80% alcohol; and matured for at least two years in new charred oak barrels at no higher than 62.5% alcohol. Further, American straight whiskeys are, by law, completely natural distillates that contain no artificial flavoring or coloring.

KnobCreek

Knob Creek, one of the vaunted quartet of
Jim Beam’s small batch bourbons, is
partnering with poker hotshot Howard
Lederer in an ongoing poker and
Knob Creek promotion.

JB_BLACK

Jim Beam Black is offering this gift set
with a flask/cigar holder for the upcoming
holidays. Overall, Jim Beam gained
2.4% in 2004, with sales of 3.175
million 9-liter cases.

But, let’s be honest here. There are no frills with Jim Beam Straight Kentucky Bourbon, just 210 years and seven generations worth of distilling mastery in the world’s best-selling straight bourbon. No bells or whistles accompany Jack Daniel’s Old Time No. 7 Tennessee Whiskey, the planet’s most popular American straight whiskey that hails from bump-in-the-road Lynchburg, TN. No ornate packaging, just a red wax seal comes with Maker’s Mark Straight Kentucky Bourbon, one of today’s fastest-growing straight whiskey brands. Wild Turkey owns a terrific logo and an even better straight bourbon whiskey. And Evan Williams is an in-your-face whiskey aged for seven years in new, charred oak barrels. What, then, makes these American straight whiskeys so special and such a driving force in the global marketplace?

Maker's Mark bottleMaker’s Mark had another stellar year in 2004, increasing sales by 11.2% to 545,000 9-liter cases.

These and other domestic straight whiskies enjoy perennial popularity the world over because they are, in the vernacular of the day, the “real deal.” They are not artificially gussied up and, as such, are totally natural beverages. They are straightforward drinks, comprised mostly of fermented and distilled corn mash, that satisfy the libation needs of millions of people. Therein, in my opinion, lies their most crucial asset: They possess homegrown legitimacy that reflects the essential American virtues of ingenuity, wise use of natural resources and commercial enterprise. At their most basic level, straight bourbons and Tennessee whiskeys are America in a glass.

If you consider this viewpoint to be naî¯ve or too facile, think again. In a vast, spiraling consumer goods galaxy where unabashed hype, the hollow influence of focus groups and marketing propaganda all-too-frequently reign, the image of authenticity goes a long way with sophisticated consumers. Authenticity in a product category suggests truth and integrity. If a better selling point exists, I’m not aware of it. If the nature of American straight whiskeys can be summed up in a single word, let’s employ the term genuine.

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