A quick scan of any retailer’s shelves reveals how important flavors are to the modern spirits market. You’ll see rows upon rows of vodkas, rums, whiskeys and brandies, made with every conceivable flavor and then some.
The days of the extremes — of chocolate jalapeño tequila, toasted marshmallow vodka and other off-the-wall attempts to light a brand on fire — have mostly receded. Those items are relegated to the bargain bin, but suppliers are still seeking out the right new flavors, rethinking their offerings and looking to provide contemporary consumers with flavored spirits that fit, while introducing new drinkers to their categories.
“Flavor trends come and go, but we have seen over the past decade that there are a few tried-and-true flavors that are timeless,” says Nikhil Shah, senior brand manager, Smirnoff. “For example, flavors like citrus, watermelon, green apple and raspberry are consistently top performers each year. The reason for this is likely that these flavors all have broad appeal and familiarity, which allows them to stand the test of time.”
“I think overall the trend among flavors is a return to normalcy, to more traditional flavors, to what is known and fresh,” says Heaven Hill’s communications manager Josh Hafer. “Organic and fresh are meaningful to people because it communicates a sense of realness and that’s what consumers are looking for right now,” he adds.
The current market may be shedding poorly performing iterations, but that doesn’t mean innovation has been abandoned.
Back to Basics
“Consolidating all the flavors is making sense, but we do see success in new flavors like dragonberry, one of our top-three performing flavors,” says Ned Duncan, VP of Bacardi Rum. “There is room to launch new and exciting flavors and recruit new consumers, with flavors that are intriguing. The challenge, and what our experience has taught us, is to be sure we are disciplined in how many flavors we have in the market at any one time and when we launch a new flavor, we’re keeping an eye on how large the segment is becoming.”
“The majority of volume remains in more traditional fruit flavors and blends, but there is still room for innovation,” says Melanie Batchelor, VP marketing, Campari America. “The industry just needs to be smart about it. We believe many brands learned a valuable lesson around chasing passing fads, rather than focusing on a long-term strategy.”
“Our strategy has been to focus on real fruit-infused vodka rather than confectionary flavors and that has worked for us,” she continues. “Our core products in the Skyy Infusions line include citrus, pineapple and blood orange. These flavors continue to perform well against competitors and are a staple of the brand.”
But flavors themselves aren’t the sole factor in potential success; suitability (for the spirit and the consumer) also matters.
“We introduced Evan Williams Peach, one of the few American whiskies that has that flavor, but it makes sense, just as pineapple makes sense with rum,” Hafer says. “Pineapple bourbon, not so much.”
“There is still very much a place for flavored spirits in the rum category,” Duncan says, “and we see areas that are growing. But it depends on which type of flavors you’re looking at. Five to seven years ago the flavored spirits segment was proliferating at such a rate that the category was fragmenting quite a bit, and now consumers are consolidating their tastes behind some core flavors and we’re seeing growth in those areas.”
It’s a key point: producers are these days more likely to focus on matching flavors with spirits in a way that connects logically or emotionally with consumers, rather than straining for novel and even wacky combinations.
“We are seeing in the vodka category a macro trend – consumers have a heightened level of curiosity and care about what they drink,” says Grey Goose global SVP, Yann Marois. “In short, we believe authenticity, traceability and natural ingredients are what works with consumers.”
To survey this large and growing field, responsible for growing volume in the American market, Beverage Dynamics has decided to focus on flavors first, looking for those that cross categories, and see which fit with specific spirits.
Take citrus: both vodka and rum producers, even when trimming or rationalizing their portfolios, usually include one or more forms of citrus among them, while with brown spirits, that combination is virtually unheard of.
“Consumers are still gravitating towards citrus and that includes our portfolio: Absolut Citron, Absolut Mandarin and Absolut Lime,” says Regan Clarke, brand director, Absolut.
Lime also had appeal for Malibu Rum, which along with Bacardi leads the flavored rum field. In February 2018 the brand brought in its newest expression, Malibu Lime. “As lime is the most popular fruit purchased and paired with rum, Malibu capitalized on this trend and added this innovative, juicy and fresh flavor to its portfolio offering,” says Daniel R. Clarke, brand director USA, Malibu Rum.
Vodkas have long found reliable success in citrus – recently, Deep Eddy’s Ruby Red Grapefruit is a good example of a fast-growing citrus vodka, with the difference in this case being the inclusion of some sediment that Heaven Hill’s Hafer says appeals to a younger generation used to shaking chilled teas and other non-alcohol beverages before drinking.
Other brands have also found that previously neglected citruses – blood orange, nectarine, mandarin and other varieties – have done well. Matt Spellman, division manager, west region, for Hood River Distillers, says 44 North Nectarine has found some success in regional markets, primarily on-premise.
That’s also the case with Skyy vodka.
“Although the category as a whole is declining due to the reduced interest in the ‘confectionery’ flavors, natural fruit flavors continue to appeal to consumers,” Batchelor says. “Skyy will continue to drive growth in this segment through its successful made-with-real-fruit Skyy Infusions line,” which includes Texas grapefruit, citrus and blood orange. “For grapefruit, we chose Texas grapefruit, because that’s where some of the sweetest fruit heralds from.”
Citrus vodkas have proven suitable for easy-to-make-at-home cocktails like the Cosmo, Moscow Mule and others, while the already-easy mixability of rum with soda and juices makes the tangy citrus flavors steady performers for the two white spirits. Tequila has seen a few entries, mostly citrus, but for whatever reason, few consumers are looking for flavors added to their agave spirits.
While pineapple and coconut vodkas exist, those and other tropical flavors – mango, guava, passion fruit, banana, coconut and others – have become firmly lodged in the rum category.
Bacardi’s line currently boosts four citruses – Limon, Grapefruit, Tangerine, Orange – three tropicals – Coconut, Pineapple, Mango – as well as Dragonberry and Raspberry. Limon is the leader but pineapple, coconut and dragonberry are also top performers. Banana, another tropical, is the latest flavor.
“We are thrilled with the launch last spring of Bacardi banana,” Duncan says. “We identified a trend through the Bacardi Legacy competition that bartenders were using banana and banana liqueurs a lot more in cocktails, which sparked the development.” The brand also saw double-digit growth last year for coconut, another flavor they see consumers engaging with. “Tropical fruits can tie well into a cocktail strategy that works with consumers,” he says.
Malibu recently trimmed its expansive portfolio and tightened focus on certain tropical flavors.
“We’re seeing consumers return to simple, but compelling, tropical fruit flavors including pineapple, banana, mango, passion fruit and lime, as they are looking to drink flavors they are familiar with and know will pair well with simple ‘plus one’ mixers such as cola, soda and fruit juices. Recently, Malibu embarked upon a renewed focus on great tasting tropical fruit flavors,” Clarke says.
“For Malibu, we are constantly looking to see what flavors can be developed that perfectly fit with the Malibu brand, which is all about summer. Malibu is known for sweet and refreshing flavors, and that’s why we have a renewed focus on tropical fruits. With this in mind, it wouldn’t make sense for Malibu to venture into savory flavors.”
The flavored rum sector has seen continued growth over the past few years (the only part of the rum category with significant growth, in fact). There is still room for innovation, but consumer behavior that has led to an increased demand for flavors that make sense and connect with rum. Other rum brands see the wisdom in sticking with tropical – Heaven Hill’s Admiral Nelson recently added pineapple to a range that included coconut, vanilla and cherry.
Up a Tree
Cherry, according to Hafer, is a real cross-category performer, and it can be found in rum, vodka and whiskeys currently. “We continue to see a rise in flavored whiskeys – for us it is cherry and peach continuing to do well. We sold 250,000 cases of flavored whiskey annually and that continues to grow. Although it has slowed some, it is still growing high single-digits.”
Grey Goose, which has a fairly tight flavor portfolio, has done well with two citrus flavors – Le Citron and L’Orange, but according to the brand’s global SVP, Yann Marois,the pear flavor has made a big splash.
“The fact that Grey Goose is a super-premium brand has given it an edge in connecting La Poire with bartenders, as the brand has already established itself in many on-premise operations,” Marois says. The brand’s small assortment – Cherry Noir and Le Melon round out the flavors – means Grey Goose can control each flavor’s market strategy better.
Skyy also has found success with pear – “Rather than just producing a pear vodka in 2017, we selected the Bartlett pear, the most recognized and planted variety in the U.S., for our infusion,” Batchelor says.
“Over the past few years, we’ve refined the portfolio of flavors to focus on those made with real fruit (discontinuing flavors like ginger), but also recognize the macro tend of localization or specificity,” she adds. “By identifying fruit that is well-known based on its place of origin or its particular varietal, we’re able to connect the dots for the consumer.”
For Belvedere vodka, cocktail trends are important as they expand their flavor portfolio, says North American brand ambassador Brian Stewart. “Nowadays there seems to be a great bar program in just about every bar and restaurant across the U.S., and even better cocktail makers. This is why we try to offer macerations that are not only delicious, but also gives the drink maker an advantage. Having Belvedere Peach Nectar in your home bar means that you can enjoy natural summer fruit in your cocktail no matter what time of the year it is.”
Cherry, pear and peach aside, it is apple that has crossed categories and provided a big fruit break through flavor for whiskeys – Crown Royal Regal Apple has sold more than one million cases in recent years. Now there’s also a Canadian Club Apple variant in many markets.
For Jim Beam, the American whiskey brand with the largest flavor portfolio, Jim Beam Apple, is the most successful innovation in the brand’s more than 200-year history, says Marguerite Allolding, senior director Americas innovation at Beam Suntory.
“Since Jim Beam entered the flavored whiskey category in 2009 with the release of Red Stag by Jim Beam Black Cherry, the segment has seen tremendous growth and continues to drive increased consumer demand. We’ll continue to keep our finger on the pulse of consumer demands to introduce relevant flavored offerings that appeal to both consumers and bartenders, including those who love whiskey and those who haven’t yet tried brown spirits,” she says.
Sweet, Spicy, Savory and the Rest
In addition to cherry, whiskey has done best in the cinnamon/honey range of flavors – Wild Turkey pioneered honey whiskey in the 1990s, but since then other entrants have crowded the field, none more successfully than Jack Daniel’s
“There are a handful that seem to have risen to the top – cinnamon/fire, honey, apple and vanilla,” says Casey Nelson, brand director, Jack Daniel’s Flavors. “Each of these flavors is naturally present within whiskey and each offer a nice complementary profile to whiskey.”
The brand has focused on Jack Daniel’s Tennessee Honey and Jack Daniel’s Tennessee Fire. “I think flavor will always have a role within spirits as an approachable way into various categories,” Nelson says. “How broadly suppliers will expand within flavored whiskey is still to be determined, but hopefully it doesn’t reach too far like we saw in vodka. Don’t hold your breath waiting for a cotton candy from Jack Daniel’s.”
Fireball’s phenomenal success has stimulated many spicy whiskies – Sinfire Cinnamon Apple has seen success on the retail end in the regional focus market, and Spellman says Hood River is now launching Sinfire Cinnamon Vanilla.
Vanilla, once a major vodka flavor, seems to have receded slightly but is growing in whiskey – Jim Beam Vanilla was launched in 2017 and has become an easily mixable favorite fast.
Smirnoff, a vodka brand known for pushing the flavor boundaries, finds some of their sweet or spicy flavors do better depending on the season.
“For example, Smirnoff Vanilla and Smirnoff Kissed Caramel typically spike around the winter holidays when decadent cocktail recipes are more popular,” Nikhil Shah says. Similarly, Smirnoff Red White & Berry does best and gets most brand attention around the summer.
“Even though shelf space may be limited, winning flavor propositions will always break through and find their way to shelf,” Shah says. “As the flavor leader, it’s our responsibility that we develop the right innovations that really make an impact with consumers, which we have had a strong track record of being able to do. For us, our flavors strategy now is all about finding the specific flavors that people are looking for most.”
Some vodka brands stick to a more traditional Eastern European flavor style – for Nemiroff vodka, it’s honey pepper.
“The honey used by Nemiroff comes from its own beehives cultivated on their property. So this is not some artificially flavored vodka, but a truly unique style of vodka that consumers can trust as an authentic, fully differentiated vodka that produces high-quality cocktails,” says Roy Danis, president and CEO of importer Conecuh Brands.
Heat is big not only in whiskeys but in vodkas. “We’ve found that with the popularity of brunch, Absolut Peppar is a unique and compelling offer, specifically for the Bloody Mary cocktail,” says Clarke of Absolut.
Belvedere has especially gone outside the standard with a Bloody Mary flavored vodka, as well as a Lemon Tea expression – and lately the brand has added ginger.
“Life is full of flavor and it’s not always sweet,” Stewart says. “Sometimes we enjoy spicy, savor, tart citrus, etc. Ginger Zest is being received incredibly well. I think the success is our ability to understand current cocktail trends.”
Deep Eddy’s Sweet Tea is one of their best performing flavors, a flavor with which few large brands have managed to do well.
Meanwhile, other fruits come in and out of trend – for example, watermelon.
“We are seeing incredible response out of the gate for our new SKYY Infusions Sun-Ripened Watermelon, which launched this spring and is exceeding all expectations,” Batchelor says. Watermelon gets other spirits companies interested this time of year – Captain Morgan recently introduced a Watermelon Smash variant as well.
Whatever’s next, most suppliers are being more thoughtful than in the past.
“The challenge in the flavored market is making sure your provide a sense of the new, exciting innovation for the consumer and at the same time not overwhelming them with too many different varieties that can cause confusion at the shelf,” says Bacardi’s Duncan.
“Retailers’ reluctance to bring on more flavors should be a key indicator that less is indeed more,” says Belvedere’s Stewart. “They have their finger on the pulse of what consumers are looking for, and that is not having artificial flavors and huge amounts of them. I hope that other brands follow these indicators and narrow the lens that is flavored vodka. Having mass amount of artificial flavors has hurt this category greatly.”
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.