Archive for the ‘Flavored whiskies’ Category

The Rush of Flavor

Saturday, 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.

If you hate flavor-added booze; here’s another reason

Friday, March 7th, 2014

Author - Lew BrysonPresident Obama delivered his annual budget proposal to Congress earlier this week, and while — as usual with presidential budgets — it’s given little to no chance to pass, it does contain one proposal that would directly affect American whiskey drinkers, and whiskey producers here and abroad…and drinkers of those drinks we love to hate: flavored vodkas, and yes, flavored whiskeys. The president proposes repealing the “excise tax credit for distilled spirits with flavor and wine additives.

Ha! Bet you didn’t even know that existed! Why would you; excise taxes — tax policy in general — are convoluted and confusing, often involving arcane percentages and policy goals, and this one’s no exception. Here’s how the the Distilled Spirits Tax Revision Act of 1979 — the foundation for the credit we’re talking about –works, as explained in an Esquire piece by Nate Hopper from last year (when Obama also put this in his budget):

“The bill did two things: it taxed foreign distillers (from friendly trade partners) at the same rate as domestic ones, and it rewarded manufacturers that, instead of letting the flavors become infused naturally in their spirits like through fermentation, instead added wine and outside flavoring to their product, like blended whiskies, but also cordials, liqueurs, vodkas, and gins. According to a U.S. General Accounting Office report to Congress in 1990, that meant that some producers could lower their tax rate from $12.50 per proof-gallon to as low as $6.30.”

Graph 1 shows a 30 year drop of over 50% in U.S. whiskey sales.

Tax-driven drop?

When the taxes on a bottle of liquor can be over half the price, you can see that cutting those taxes by half would make a big difference in profits. Why did this go through? Support from California vintners was one big reason; getting a tax break if you put wine in your spirits means a lot more producers putting wine in spirits (and remember, “wine” can mean something very different from what you sip with your steak). Another reason is that every industry loves a tax break, and they do what they can to score one. It also helped Canadian whisky makers, who could add unaged “wine” (very light in flavor and color, and blended to taste like the non-wine-added product) to whisky destined for the U.S. market and reap the tax advantage. Hopper blames the tax credit for kicking American whiskey when it was down and accelerating its decline; the category was in the midst of a monumental slide that wouldn’t turn around until the late 1990s. That seems to be overstating the case; there were more factors involved than just this tax, but it’s possible it did have an additional effect.

What effect would repealing it have (other than bringing in an estimated $1.09 billion in taxes over the next ten years)? A Huffington Post writer guessed that “…it’s possible that consumers would be hit with a price increase as distillers pass on the cost.” I say ‘Ha,’ again! Yes, if taxes on booze production go up, it’s pretty much assured that distillers will pass on the cost, with a markup. That’s how things work. So shelf prices of flavored booze would go up (and technically, most gins are flavored vodkas, so there goes the martini…). Will that kill the flavored whiskey boom? Doubtful, but it could take some of the wind out of its sales. Would it mean more whiskey sales? Doubtful, as we’re already buying almost all they can make. So mostly what it would mean is that things would stay pretty much the same, and flavored booze would cost more.

A weird little bit of booze tax law that we bring up to remind you that for the governments of the world…it’s not about how the whiskey tastes, it’s about how much they can tax it. Press on, have a good weekend.

Gin Meets Whisky (in a barrel)

Monday, January 27th, 2014

We welcome Geoff Kleinman, editor of the DrinkSpirits website, as a guest blogger on the subject of aged gin…which can be tantalizingly close to whisky.

Author_Geoff KleinmanAged Gin isn’t a new spirit category, but it’s a category that has been getting an increasing amount of attention. Craft distillers have embraced aged gin as another vehicle for creative expression and as an aged product that can be sold during the long waiting game that’s required for aged whisky. The problem with the category is that, at times, it tends to blur the lines between gin and whiskey, with one product, Pow-Wow Botanical Rye, completely obliterating the lines.

“Early American gin (up through the 1860s) was made in the flavored-whiskey style, and it was often barrel aged. Later, once (neutral-spirit based) English styles took root, that, too, was often aged, but much more lightly,” explains David Wondrich, spirits historian and author of Imbibe!.

One of the first contemporary entries in the aged gin space came from Ransom Spirits, in Sheridan, Oregon. With Ransom’s Old Tom Gin, distiller Tad Seestedt helped resurrect a “lost” style of gin and in the process helped kick off a new wave of the aged gin category. “The idea was initially to replicate the short amount of time that the gin would have historically spent in barrel during transport over land or sea to its final destination. We also realized afterwards that the barrel aging had an obviously pleasant effect on the gin,” says Tad Seestedt.

agedginRansom’s Old Tom Gin soon became a darling of the craft spirit world, and it opened the door for more craft spirit companies to follow in the aged gin space. “One of the most challenging aspects of “craft distilling” is that the big boys make outstanding products – aging gin allows me a chance to not only be creative but create products that the big boys fhave to play catch up, like with Beefeater’s Burroughs Reserve,” says Paul Hletko, founder and master distiller of FEW Spirits.

Many craft distillers don’t have the ability to truly rectify spirits and scoff at using neutral grain spirits for their products. The result can be a malty botanical spirit with similar characteristics to a young whiskey. “The primary difference, besides the addition of the botanicals to the spirit, is the distillation proof of the base spirit. As you know, whiskey is distilled to a much lower proof off the still, so there are fusels and other congeners in the whiskey distillate that aren’t there in the base of the gin distillate,” remarks John Little, head distiller of Smooth Ambler Spirits.

Seeing this intersection between aged gin and aged whiskey, Amir Peay, CEO and founder at Georgetown Trading Co., created Pow-Wow Botanical Rye. “We took a fine, mature whiskey and then infused it with whole botanicals over an extended period of time. My idea of a good whiskey is one that is complex and balanced, and I wanted to see if we could take a great whiskey and add new layers of botanical complexity that worked in concert with the existing flavors.”

The dividing line between a botanical flavored whiskey and an aged gin may be murky, but it’s there. “Aged London dry style gin, or any gin that’s based on neutral spirits, is not aged whiskey, it’s aged vodka. If you make your gin with an unrectified grain spirit that’s been distilled to a relatively low proof, as the Dutch do with their moutwijn, then it’s a flavored whiskey,” explains David Wondrich.

While aged gin is predominantly seen among craft distillers, this year Pernod Ricard got into the space with their limited Beefeater Burrough’s Reserve “Barrel Finished Gin.”

“Aged or rested gin opens up another drinking occasion for gin. Most people wouldn’t think to sit and enjoy a glass of neat gin with a cheese plate after dinner, but with Burrough’s Reserve on the market now we can,” says Nick van Tiel, Pernod Ricard’s English gins brand ambassador.

Whether or not whiskey drinkers will embrace the aged gin category remains to be seen, but it’s certainly a category that deserves exploration. Paul Hletko best sums it up: “It is a wide open place, and much of what we do is education on what ‘brown gin’ is and why it’s brown.  But the opportunity to be creative is worth it.”

More new whiskies coming on the market

Monday, October 3rd, 2011

(This is from a U.S. perspective…)

The Family Casks from Glenfarclas are finally coming to the U.S. (I’m not certain of the actual list of whiskies and timing.)

Bunnahabhain 18 year old is being phased out and replaced by a vintage offering in 2012.

The Mackinlay (a.k.a. the re-creation of the whisky discovered in the Antarctic from the Shackleton expedition in 1907) is finally being introduced to the U.S. (A very nice whisky, btw.)

Johnnie Walker Double Black is also just now being introduced to the U.S. market this month. More smoke than the regular JW Black Label, and dangerously drinkable. (I brought my bottle to a friend’s house on Friday night and by the time I brought it home 3/4 of it was gone. Everyone liked it.)

On the American whiskey front, the newest Parker’s Heritage Collection is out. This one’s a 10 year old rye-formula bourbon finished in cognac barrels. (Another dangerously drinkable whiskey!) It’s the same cognac brand (and from the same producer) that was part of Jim Beam’s Distillers’ Masterpiece cognac-finished whiskey introduced over a decade ago. (Beam was ahead of their time with those Distillers’ Masterpiece releases.)

Also noteworthy, but available only at Heaven Hill’s Bourbon Heritage Center in Bardstown, is a single barrel, 20 year old bottling of Elijah Craig that was produced to celebrate the 20th Anniversary of the Kentucky Bourbon Festival. Why do I mention this very limited, logistically-challenged bourbon? I tried it and it’s excellent! If you know someone heading that way, have them purchase a bottle for you.

There’s a low-cost, very smooth Canadian whisky just released called “Rich & Rare Reserve” from Sazerac (Buffalo Trace’s parent company). My guess it’s from the same stock of Canadian whiskies that produced the recent releases of Caribou Crossing Single Barrel and Royal Canadian Small Batch, but just less expensive. It comes in a cool-looking 375 ml flask-shaped bottle.

On the liqueur front, following the successful introduction of Red Stag Black Cherry, Jim Beam is introducing two new flavors: Red Stag Honey Tea and Red Stag Spiced.

Guest blog #4: Flavored whiskies

Thursday, September 2nd, 2010

Today, I introduce Jason Cretacci, a Fine Spirits Consultant in Western New York as a guest blogger. Jason explores the flavor of things . . .

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My question to the What does John know? readers concerns flavored whisk(e)ys.  I have always enjoyed Compass Box Orangerie, Wild Turkey American Honey & Phillps Union Cherry Whisky.  I have also had the good fortune to try Bird Dog Blackberry Whiskey and Whitetail Caramel Flavored Whiskey.  Now, these are not something I would drink on a regular basis, but they have their place on whiskey rack, the store shelf, and on the back of bars.  These are great ways to introduce people to whiskeys, the same way I would introduce friends to wine with sweeter, more approachable ones before they move on to the dryer varietals.

What flavored whiskeys have you enjoyed? Did you get your start on whiskeys through flavored whiskeys? What other flavors would you like to see on store shelves? What bad experiences have you had from flavored whiskeys?

Good Drinks,

Jason Cretacci
Fine Spirits Consultant
Passport Wine & Spirits
http://www.passportwineandspirits.com