Flavored whiskeys are unlikely to reach the level of variety that vodka achieved, but new flavors are still coming. Jim Beam has just introduced a green apple version, joining Beam Suntory’s Red Stag black cherry and spiced, Jim Beam maple and Kentucky Fire and Knob Creek’s Smoked Maple (the main super-premium flavored whiskey).
“If you’re the biggest Bourbon producer out there, you have to play in all the spaces,” says Beam Suntory’s Harris. “We put things like green apple flavored whiskey out there for people who want it.”
But Beam also included last year in their Beam Signature Craft series a limited edition finished with Oloroso sherry
and Spanish brandy. “It was not a barrel finish but a liquid finish, and you could honestly say it was a flavored whiskey,” he adds.
One of the flavored whiskey success stories among new suppliers is Bird Dog. Jon Holecz, vice president, marketing for brand owner Western Spirits, says the brand will pass 250,000 cases this year, up from 28,000 three years ago. Its flavor line has just added spiced and jalapeno honey to a portfolio that started with blackberry, peach, hot cinnamon, maple, apple, chocolate and a peppermint moonshine (a straight Bourbon completes the line.) Apple sells best, with peach and blackberry not too far behind.
“Retailers are still very accepting of our flavors, although we may be reaching a plateau in the category,” Holecz says. “Retailers now want more and are constantly asking for tastings and samplings to help drive it out the door.”
Bird Dog isn’t the only player in the spicey-sweet sweepstakes. Flavored whiskey pioneer Wild Turkey, which launched a honey flavor in the 1970s, now offers American Honey Sting, spiked with the infamously hot ghost pepper.
Heaven Hill, which has done very well with the Evan Williams flavored line, has recently added Raven’s Lace. It’s designed to appeal to a female base, says Kass, who points out that while flavored whiskies do attract some women, the larger consumer segment is young males.
To that end, Evan Williams has added peach to the line that includes honey, cherry and fire and two seasonals, cider in fall and eggnog in holiday. “Our flavor franchise is really, really strong, and a lot of the flavor growth has moved over from white spirits to whiskies. There’s a lot of interest and growth there and we are certainly benefiting from it. But I don’t expect many cupcakes or whipped creams – there will be a slower, more deliberate innovation to package flavors that work well with whiskeys,” he says.
While long-time blended whiskey category leader Seagram’s 7 faltered last year (down 2.1 percent to 2.130M cases), other brands in the top tier showed growth – Kessler (up 2.5 percent to 730,000 cases), Kentucky Deluxe (up 2.4 percent to 302,000 cases), McCormick Blend (up 1.1 percent to 240,000 cases), and Beam 8 Star (up 4 percent to 180,000 cases). The leading blends accounted for more than four million cases sold all told, nothing to sneeze at and a sign that this portion of the whiskey market seems to have stabilized.
“Purely because of the halo of whiskey itself, even blended whiskey is catching more eyes than it used to,” Kass says.
Concludes Beam Suntory’s Harris, “The whiskey boom has certainly brought attention to all the suppliers, big and small, of all kinds – not just those in Kentucky but all across the country. The challenge now will always be having enough whiskey.”
Jack Robertiello is the former editor of Cheers magazine and writes about beer, wine, spirits and all things liquid for numerous publications. More of his work can be found at www.jackrobertiello.com.