STRAIGHT UP OR ON THE ROCKS?
The bourbon category
It’s as American as apple pie and the Fourth of July, but the last two decades of the 20th century have not been especially kind to bourbon, America’s native spirit. By 1997, total consumption had dropped to fewer than 13 million 9-liter cases, less than half the category’s total in 1980. Since that time, sales of bourbon and other straight American whiskies have been relatively stable, hovering between 13 million and 13.2 million cases annually. In 2002, according to Adams Liquor Handbook 2003, total consumption was 13.1 million cases, an increase of about 65,000 cases over the previous year.
As with most spirits categories, however, the total numbers don’t tell the entire story. The introduction of a number of premium, superpremium and even ultra-premium brands has helped bring a new cachet to American whiskies in recent years, much the same way that similar introductions have boosted the profile of Scotch whisky. And while the category’s growth is stalled, the two leading brands, Jack Daniel’s and Jim Beam, both managed to showcase volume increases in each of the last two years. In fact, 2002 marked the eighth consecutive year of growth for Jack Daniel’s.
The top-selling straight whiskey in the U.S., Jack Daniel’s is repeating its successful Great American Tailgate promotion this fall.
Like many American whiskies, a good part of Jack Daniel’s success is due to the brand’s history and authenticity. “We have obviously spent many years of consistent investment to attract new consumers to the brand,” explained vice president/brand director John Hayes. “Consumers recognize that Jack Daniel’s is the benchmark by which all similar whiskies are judged. We have a long true heritage and tradition that makes Jack Daniel’s authentic and not phony at all. It’s felt by people of all ages to be a very American brand.”
To underscore that point, Hayes cites Rolling Stone‘s recent publication of a list of American icons in which Jack Daniel’s was the only distilled spirits brand mentioned. The brand also has the advantage of having its name come from a real person, a distinction it shares with Jim Beam, the category’s number two brand and several other American whiskies.
“Jack Daniel’s, to be honest, has become part of the American history,” said Hayes with a certain amount of understandable pride. “It’s almost become America’s drinking companion. People will talk about, after a hard day, sitting down to have a drink with their friend Jack.”
Jim Beam’s fall merchandising program includes materials that highlight the brand’s high scores in a tasting competition.
The number-two brand in the category is Jim Beam, which after three years of flat performance inched up in 2001 and again last year to finish off 2002 at the 3.15 million case mark. A good deal of the brand’s recent success can be attributed to the company’s decision in 1997 to supplement Jim Beam White Label with an upgraded line extension. Recently, Jim Beam Black, an 8-year-old 86-proof bourbon, was given the highest score in a recent tasting by the Beverage Testing Institute. That has become the focus of the brand’s new consumer and trade media campaign. “Jim Beam Black will be supported like never before among trade and consumer outlets, both on- and off-premise,” said Tom Hernquist, senior vice president of marketing, Jim Beam Brands Worldwide at the time of the campaign’s unveiling. “Great bourbon deserves great support.”
Together, Jim Beam and Jack Daniel’s account for more than half of all the category’s consumption.
Holding down the number three spot from a considerable distance is another brand named for a bourbon pioneer, Heaven Hill’s Evan Williams. And although Adams Beverage Group statistics show the brand flat for the last few years, marketing manager Susan Wahl indicated that in fact there has been modest growth on an annual basis. Furthermore, she says the company is very excited about future prospects for Evan Williams now that an effort aimed at presenting a national identity has been completed. Historically, like a number of other bourbons, the brand had products bottled at different ages and different proof levels in different markets. As a result of this recent standardization, Evan Williams is now available nationally as a seven-year-old bourbon, bottled at 86 proof and with one consistent label.
“We felt that to really step up to the plate we had to project one voice nationally,” said Heaven Hill’s corporate communications director, Larry Kass. “We kept it at seven years, because as we say in our ads, age matters.”
“We’re trying very much to make the consumer aware that they need to be looking for an age statement. Part of the reason we do that is because, from a price standpoint, we compete against brands that don’t have an age statement and are four years old.”
Wahl also pointed out that as part of the brand’s makeover, Heaven Hill is introducing a new square, glass bottle for the 1.75-ml size that matches the regular bottle.
“The saying that people are drinking better is true for younger consumers as well as older,” Wahl said. “And with Evan Williams they can have a seven-year-old bourbon at a very approachable price point.”
“In the last few years we’ve seen tremendous growth for Maker’s Mark,” said senior brand manager Kevin McCarthy. According to Adams Liquor Handbook 2003, Maker’s Mark achieved a 14.9% increase in volume last year, the highest comparative increase of any brand in the category and its 55,000 cases of additional volume was second only to the 72,000 case gain (+1.9%) realized by Jack Daniel’s. And according to McCarthy, recent Neilsen scan data shows the brand continuing to grow in double-digit numbers for 2003.
“We’re seeing a groundswell from consumers, especially in key urban centers,” McCarthy continued. “Maker’s Mark is the new chic thing to be seen drinking. A lot of the usage is traditional — for example, Manhattans and consuming the product on the rocks. But there’s also more mixing going on than a few years ago.”
When asked about the core audience for the brand, McCarthy’s answer was similar to those of other bourbon marketers — young men aged 25 to 35 with disposable income who are attracted to the image bourbon projects. “I think they reject some of what vodka stands for. Maker’s Mark has heritage and authenticity attached to it,” he said. “It’s a little less about flash and more about substance.”
McCarthy also stressed that the brand continues to be supported at the retail level. The Allied-Domecq sales team and their distributors have been focusing on delivering high-quality permanent point-of-sale pieces that they hope can enhance the retailer’s selling environment. “We’re always striving to meet the needs of our retail partners,” explained McCarthy. “We truly welcome comments from the trade on whether or not we’re delivering the tools that they are asking for. We want input on what moves product and helps the retailer make more money.”