Whisky Advocate

The Rush of Flavor

April 12th, 2014

Author - Lew BrysonStick with me; this is going to be about whiskey, but first we need to make a detour. I’ve done some writing about vodka and FMBs — what’s an FMB? It’s like an RTD. RTD? Well, it’s an alcopop. You know: like Smirnoff Ice. An FMB is a “flavored malt beverage,” which is basically beer with all the beer flavor stripped out and replaced with a variety of fruit flavors. (“RTD” means “ready to drink,” which seems redundant to me, but then, I’m not a marketer.) Anyway, the vodka category is dominated by the talk and advertising of flavors (though unflavored vodka is still the dominant seller), and FMBs are, obviously, all about flavors.

To look at a backbar these days, you’d think that flavored vodkas were a brilliant move. They take up a lot of real estate, they’re available in a broad assortment of different flavors, from fruits to confections to spices to the simply bizarre, like tobacco, and meat, and “fresh cut grass.” The FMBs had a similar rush of flavors, and still maintain growth in the market with that strategy, albeit at a large cost of promotions.

But look back a bit to the beginning. There were flavored vodkas going back to the 1950s; often colored, and flavored with a heavy hand. They were cheap booze, usually for kids or novelty cocktails. (We’re overlooking the original flavored vodka — gin — deliberately, of course.) It was a similar situation with FMBs: beer with cherry flavor, a horrible citrus concoction called Hop’n’Gator, and again, the weird, like Cool Colt, a menthol-flavored malt liquor, and the gin-flavored StingRay.

It always starts small...

It always starts small…

Each category was changed by a singular product. Flavored vodka changed in the late 1980s when Absolut put out Peppar, followed quickly by Citron. Suddenly flavored vodka had solidity, it had subtlety, and it was supported by an ad campaign that won awards for its simplicity and artistic nature; people framed these ads. Other vodka brands quickly added similar flavors; some, like Three Olives, were focused on flavors.

FMBs had flash in the pan success with Two Dogs, Zima, and DNA (which was essentially an alcoholic club soda), but the breakout product was Smirnoff Ice, a citrus-flavored cloudy white beverage, followed by Mike’s Hard Lemonade. They were huge successes, and spawned imitators.

But a funny thing happened; people got bored. Whether it was the drinkers, or the marketers, or the squirrely guys down in the flavor labs driving it, the flavor introductions accelerated. Vodka brands became literal rainbows of flavors (and colored labels), and new ones popped out every month: cherry, raspberry, lime, pear, peach…and then whipped cream, Swedish fish, “Dude,” tobacco, and, no kidding, Electricity!! The FMBs went through the same frenzy, albeit mostly limited to fruit flavors; the latest from Seagram’s Escapes is “Grape Fizz.”

There was howling from the neo-prohibitionists that flavored booze was on the market only to attract underaged drinkers (I honestly believe that’s not true, but…Grape Fizz? You gotta wonder), there was a ton of money spent on advertising, and round and round things went. The categories are big, but they’re a churning mess, and there are only a few flavor brands that retain any consistent traction in the market.

So what, right? Let them do their foolishness, we drink whiskey!

Yeah. You know where I’m going now. Flavored whiskey. Or, thanks to Dewar’s jumping off the high board (followed by J&B Urban Honey), flavored whisky. Sorry, flavored “spirit drink,” though the front label of Dewar’s Highlander Honey says, “Dewar’s Scotch whisky infused with natural flavors; filtered through oak cask wood.” Which, I would argue, is actually a more honest description of what’s inside than “spirit drink.”

But I’m not here to make fun of the labeling hoops the SWA sets up for companies to jump through. I’m here to wring my hands about the possibility of whiskey/whisky sliding down that disgustingly slippery flavor slope that vodka is whooshing down now. Because it starts with honey, and cherry, and cinnamon, then it’s maple, and tea, and barbecue, and mango, and actual heather…and the next thing you know, we’re coating our young whiskeys in dipping sauces and sucking them down raw, still wriggling as they slide down our throats, and they’ll never get to be fully mature and beautifully naked.

Think I’m exaggerating? Does anyone else remember Vijay Mallya at the 2008 World Whiskies Conference (back when people still cared what he thought about whisky), suggesting that for Scotch whisky to attract more young drinkers it needed “a spectrum of flavors”? Yeah, well…turns out that not everyone was repulsed by that. The folks in the stillhouse, the warehouses, and the tasting rooms figured “that’s crazy talk,” made faces, and went back to making the real item, sure. But in the offices? The suits looked at the vodka market, and proceeded to think the unthinkable: Hey guys? That crazy stuff Vijay said? Why not?

They made it happen, and flavored the whiskey. Some of them sold like mad, to the point where almost half of last year’s whiskey category growth in the U.S. market was from flavored whiskey. Beam’s rolling out new flavors, Jack Daniel’s is rolling out new flavors, Canadian Mist is in on it, and who knows where it will stop? Or if it will?

I’ll admit my complicity: I didn’t hate Red Stag, I used a bottle of it to make faux Manhattans. I didn’t even hate the Highlander (maybe because I thought, there can be only one! Whoops, I was wrong). All I can say in my defense is that I had no idea how successful they’d be.

That’s the real issue. It’s not that they exist, it’s that they’ve picked up a sizable number of drinkers. We’ve all seen what that did to Irish whiskey: proliferation of brands, expansion of production facilities, more more more. Money chases success. Flavored whiskey is exploding; and so, money chases success.

There will be more flavored whiskeys. To make them, barrels will be emptied that would have otherwise stayed in the warehouses and become our 15 year old whiskeys and whiskies. Sure, the big distillers are expanding production capacity, but flavored whiskey was not part of the expansion equation, and I hear there’s maybe a barrel shortage. They’ll make the money while they can! It’s not that we’re drinking our young; someone else is drinking our young, and they don’t care about the consequences. Whee! Cinnamon shots! I’m drinking whiskey!

The worst thing? There’s not really anything you and I can do about it. Don’t drink it? Don’t be absurd, you’re already not drinking it! Do you think the people who are drinking it — by the bottle! — read reviews of it? Do you think the companies are going to be able to resist the profits? Do you think the brands will survive becoming a rainbow of flavors? I don’t think whiskey will become the punchline vodka is, but it’s going to have an effect. Paint and dress a Cabinet secretary like a clown for a year, and no one’s going to take them as seriously again.

What to do, what to do? I don’t know…like I said, I’m wringing my hands here. Appeals to decency aren’t going to work when we’re talking hundreds of thousands of cases of sales. But man…I hope they make enough for us. I’d like to be able to afford 18 year old whiskey in 2030. Unflavored 18 year old.

13 Responses to “The Rush of Flavor”

  1. Jordan says:

    I can’t imagine that it would be malt whisky going into this flavored concoctions. More likely grain whisky. In which case, so what?

    I can see this being a bigger problem for American whisky, but they may play the label game and make it ‘spirit whiskey’ or some such to stretch the product.

  2. Mark says:

    There will still be some malt whisky going in to the “flavored concoctions” (e.g., there is likely some Aberfeldy in Dewars Highlander Honey) – how much, I don’t know. With the sales for the flavored stuff growing like they are, any barrel going to that instead of real whisky is bad news.

    Now, if American Whiskey producers start re-using casks for the flavored swill instead of selling them to Scotch Whisky producers, that becomes an even bigger problem (since they will not be labeled “Straight Bourbon Whiskey” and therefore would have the flexibility to re-use the casks).

  3. local spirits says:

    One solution, drink more quality micro distilled product. I realize not all micro distilled product is quality and I’m not claiming it is, but there is plenty out there to try.

    • Lew Bryson says:

      I don’t see how that’s going to be a solution…there’s not going to be any significant amounts of similarly mature craft whiskey for quite a while!

  4. Danny Maguire says:

    First things first, Dewars Highland Honey is in all probability made with their white label, never seen it so I don’t know what its strength is, is it below 40%?
    Lew, relax, you yourself said the biggest seller in the vodka market is still the clear stuff, the real vodka. The biggest seller in the whiskey/whisky market is still going to be the golden stuff, in other words real whiskey/whisky. I remember when I was a kid that I liked sweet drinks, I shudder to think of them now. As the people who are drinking them now get older they will move to the spirit base as their tastes change with age.

  5. Danny Maguire says:

    Should have said this above, if I’m deliberately drinking a soft drink I would expect some sweetness.

  6. Mr. Manhattan says:

    I like to believe that the greatest effect of this on the big U.S. distilleries will be to divert product and stocks away from bottom shelf labels—i.e. stuff that was going to be consumed young and/or after blending.

  7. Dr. J. says:

    Someone bought me a bottle of Red Stag. I wondered what I had aver done to deserve such swill. Then I discovered it is delicious on vanilla ice cream!

  8. Donald MacKenzie says:

    Lew, thanks for these words of sanity… The same thoughts had crossed my mind, but you have perfectly captured the same sense of unease I feel!
    So, when will Mitchells bring out a ‘honey-infused’ Longrow?
    Okay, at least that seems unlikely!

  9. Whisky File says:

    Interesting piece — I’d certainly like to know how much of an effect this is likely to have on stocks. To be honest though, I’m more concerned about the possibility of reducing tariffs on whisky to India. When that market opens up, it could mean a huge surge in demand.

  10. Apolon says:

    Don’t forget the fun when they start to premiumize flavored whiskies. Just like we have flavored Belvedere and Grey Goose, perhaps we’ll end up with The Glenlivet 12-Year-Old Maple Apple or Laphroaig 18-Year-Old Campfire Marshmallow.

    • Danny Maguire says:

      It’s already got the campfire, all it needs is some marsh to get the mallow from.

    • merd says:

      Hahaha… Or an annual hunt for the elusive September limited release of Pappy Van Cinnamon @ $400/bottle.

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