Flavored Whiskies – Much Ado About Nothing?

jerry thomas
Jerry Thomas, New York saloon keeper.

Dynamic changes are occurring in the whisky industry. One of the most controversial  is the influx of flavored whiskies. Sazerac introduced — technically reintroduced — Fireball Cinnamon Whisky to the market in 2007 and things have never been the same. For some, the introduction of flavored whiskey is sacrilege and smacks of the commercialism of the candy flavored vodka industry. Surely, we whisky drinkers are better than that!

Unfortunately, the controversy has pitted traditional, die hard whiskey enthusiasts against a newer, trendier breed of whiskey drinkers. The purist argue that whisky is grain, yeast and water, nothing more, nothing less. I’ve even heard some argue that the smoky, peaty flavor associated with Islay scotches qualifies them as flavored whisky! That’s carrying the argument a bit too far in my opinion.

So, let’s step back and try and put the flavored whiskey discussion in perspective.

Precedent

First of all, many of these new brands are technically not whisky due to their lower alcohol content. Fireball, for instance, only has an ABV content of 33%. By law, a product must contain at least 40% alcohol to be legally termed whisky. While it is true that the majority of flavored whiskies have an ABV of 40% or more, you can understand why some folks prefer to classify them as  “liqueurs” or “cordials.”

jerry thomas
Jerry Thomas, New York saloon keeper.

Second of all, folks flavoring whiskey with some type of additive is not really new; folks have been flavoring whisky for as long as they’ve been making it down on the farm. Kara Newman noted in the blog Saveur  that in 1862, Jerry Thomas, a New York saloonkeeper, published a book entitled How to Mix Drinks, Or, The Bon-Vivant’s Companion”. In the book he provided a recipe for mixing 10 gallons of Irish whiskey with ten ounces each of ground cloves, nutmeg, ginger, and allspice, plus a pinch of Spanish saffron, and a few ounces of “tincture of rhubarb”—and, oh yes, a pound and a quarter of cinnamon and 8 pounds of “sugar candy.” The sweetness of the candy helped smooth out the spicy bite of a young whiskey.

Potions of this nature soon acquired the moniker, “rock and rye’. When the temperance movement started to heat up in the late eighteen hundreds, producers started bottling the concoction.   By adding the sweetener they were able to sell their whisky as a medicinal tonic avoiding the wrath of the protestors. Oh, and by the way, this practice also offered them the advantage of skirting the federal tax on whisky!

Consumer Trends

Consumers are a fickle bunch and can get bored with a product over time. In the eighties the whisky market became dated and vodka became the “spirit du jour”. Vodka, however, is a neutral spirit, meaning it is essentially odorless and tasteless. That is partially the reason why it makes such a good mixer. But alas, its strength is also its weakness. Being odorless and tasteless is quite boring.

However, vodka manufacturers overcame this by adding flavoring to their product. And then producers such as Absolut and Smirnoff mounted aggressive marketing campaigns aimed at younger drinkers. Boring old vodka became hip and sales soared. But in order to keep the market fresh, producers could not sit on their laurels. Lemon vodka and other citrus flavors were cool but for only so long. Soon manufacturers were concocting some pretty wild flavors including tobacco flavored vodka, fresh cut grass, cinnamon bun and even bubble gum vodka!

Then guess what happened! Beginning in the mid-nineties consumer tastes began to shift once again. It seems consumers, American consumers in particular, want something with “authenticity, heritage and taste.” And guess what! Whisky has taste derived from a “natural” aging process! It also has  a rich cultural heritage. In fact, that’s one of the chief reasons we are seeing a resurgence in the popularity of whisky, single malts in particular.

The Crafts Movement

The desire for authenticity gave rise to another interesting phenomena, the rebirth of the crafts industry. “Buy local!”, became a rallying cry for artisans around the world. Certainly the internet opened new opportunities but it turns out the millennials are quite a creative bunch. Entrepreneurship is now recognized as a profession and the economy of the twenty-first century is being turned upside down.

number of breweries in US
Historical number of breweries between 1873 and 2012. (Brewers Association)

The artisan brewer is leading the charge in the beverage industry. In 1990 there were a little over two hundred local breweries in the United States. Today there are over four thousand craft breweries!

Craft distilleries are having similar success.  In fact, according to the information released by the American Distilling Institute the number of “in-production” distilleries in the US has broken the 1000 barrier. And that number is projected to double within the next five years. That’s a lot of growth and a lot of competition.

Distillers are scrambling to corner a share of the market. But according to Tom Mooney, co-owner and CEO of Portland’s House Spirits Distillery it’s harder to differentiate whisky . “Spirits is a much more product-diverse industry, so it’s harder for there to be one difference to explain what is craft versus what isn’t craft,” says Mooney.  “If you’re a small producer, you have every incentive to try things that have never been done. … I don’t know how to make bourbon that’s better than the 2,000 bourbons out there. I think we look, as a community, for something new.”

Precedent, Again

Well here we are, back to precedent. (Actually, that sounds a bit redundant.) Anyway, there is an old saying, “If you understand the past, you understand the future.” It turns out the competition amongst distilleries was pretty stiff before Prohibition. Although the exact number is hard to pinpoint, it’s been estimated that there were upwards of 8,000 producing distilleries in the United States.

Interestingly, the majority of whiskey was not sold by the distilleries but through local merchants. The merchants  bought casks, aged them, and then bottled the whiskey under their own brand name. They were known as “whiskey rectifiers”.  Michael Veach notes on his blog, bourbonveachdotcome that many of today’s most popular whisky brands owe their existence to rectifiers. Brands such as Four Roses, Old Forrester, I.W. Harper and even Wild Turkey were created under a rectifier’s license.

It was a common practice for rectifiers to add macerated fruits, spices, and black tea to their whiskey to give it a proprietary taste. The additives not only personalized their whisky, the ingredients took the edge off young whisky. It also helped provide a certain consistency to the product so that the merchants could build brand loyalty.

Drawing on the precedent set by eighteenth century rectifiers is one way craft distilleries are attempting to gain an edge in the marketplace.

Fireball Cinnamon Whisky

fireball flavored whiskey
Fireball Cinnamon Whiskey broke the flavored whiskey market wide open in 2007.

Let’s get back to “flavored” whiskey and focus on what’s been happening lately in the industry. In recent years, Fireball Cinnamon Whisky has been one of the fastest growing liquor brands in the world. It is a product of the Sazerac Company of New Orleans, Louisiana, however, it’s roots are in Canada. Seagram originally developed Fireball as a part of a line of flavored schnapps in the mid-1980s. The Sazerac Company purchased the brand rights and formula from Seagram in 1989 and marketed the product as  “Dr. McGillicuddy’s Fireball Whisky”.

In 2007, they changed the name to Fireball Cinnamon Whisky but sales lingered and as recently as 2010, Sazerac only sold 125,000 cases. But then Sazerac began an aggressive social media marketing campaign aimed at the college-aged demographic, women in particular.  It seems that Fireball is easy to drink as a “shot” for the party scene. Unlike other whiskies it does not have that bite that can cause some folks to grimace. Marketers say that in addition to be easy to drink, it was cheap and the name was easy to remember and order at the bar.

The social media campaign was an astounding success! Sales skyrocketed and revenue went from $1.9 million in 2011 to $61 million by 2013. The brand has continued to grow, a staggering 12.3% in 2015, and accounted for 4.375 million cases sold. If you doubt social media played a part in this incredible story, consider the fact that the number one FAQ on Fireball’s website is, “How can Fireball sponsor my band or event?”

Success Breeds Competition

By 2014 the flavored whiskey market moved nearly six and half million cases, the majority of which was Fireball.  The Distilled Spirits Council of the United States reports that flavored whiskey accounts for 11% of the American whiskey market. Naturally this has not gone unnoticed. Soon brands such as Jim Beam Kentucky Fire and Jack Daniels Tennessee Fire were in hot pursuit.

black cherry flavored whiskey
Red Stag, a black cherry flavored whiskey was Jim Beam’s first contender in the flavored whiskey market.

Fireball’s cinnamon candy may have lead the way but when Jim Beam introduced Red Stag, the doors blew wide open! In the first half of 2013 alone, 50 new flavored whiskey products were introduced. Today, producers are flavoring whiskies with cherries, blackberries, apples, toffee, honey, chocolate and even maple syrup.  Some products, like Wild Turkey’s American Honey, first introduced in the 1970s, is getting a new lease on life.

Now everyone wants a piece of the action and distillers around the world are sugaring and flavoring whiskeys.  Crown Royal joined the party in very Canadian fashion with its maple-flavored offering. And its Regal Apple Flavored Whiskey held a 2.36% U.S. whiskey market share in 2016. Bushmills introduced a flavored whiskey, called Bushmills Irish Honey. Even the Scots are getting in on the act, Dewar’s promotes a Highlander Honey.

The Future of Flavored Whiskies

Where will the trend go from here? Will flavored whiskies disappear from merchant shelves as they did before? I think that’s doubtful, at least for the foreseeable future. The market for locally sourced products continues to grow. Nowadays people, especially millennials, place an  emphasis on lifestyle and quality of life issues. As craft distilleries hone their skills it is logical the quality of their whiskies will improve. And as the merchants and rectifiers before them, they will build a loyal customer base.

So, let’s not brood over flavored whiskies. They have a time honored place in the industry and deserved to be recognized on their own merit. Sit back, get some ice, (actually you’re encouraged to drink it on the rocks) and pour yourself a refreshing drink. You might even enjoy it!

5 Popular Flavored Whiskies

Here are five flavored whiskies that come highly recommended.

mr katzs rock and rye whiskeyMister Katz’s Rock and Rye

An American classic, authentic Rock & Rye could once be found on the back bar of most noteworthy establishments. Mister Katz’s Rock & Rye is a blend of youthful rye whiskey and rock candy sugar with sour cherries, cinnamon, and a wisp of citrus. Enjoy it on its own or in a cocktail.

Bird Dog Peach Flavored Whiskey
Bird Dog takes its classic bourbon and infuses it with the refreshing flavor of a fresh peach. The sweetness of the peach and vanilla of the bourbon is perfect on the rocks.

 

honey whiskeyWild Turkey American Honey
Wild Turkey American Honey is an exceptionally smooth 71 proof (35.5% alcohol) liqueur. It consists of Wild Turkey Bourbon Whiskey blended with pure honey. Drink it neat, chilled, or on the rocks. It’s the sweeter, smoother side of Wild Turkey, with notes of sweet honey, caramel, and orange.

Pow Wow Botanical Rye
Fine Rye whiskey matured in new, charred oak barrels. Then carefully infused with tiny batches, over an extended period of time, of Saffron, Orange Peel, and other whole botanicals. No extracts or artificial colors are added.

 

Crown Royal apple whiskeyRegal Apple
Crown Royal is a master of blending whiskies. Their Regal Apple combines Gala apples with their soft and sweet Canadian whiskey. Mix a shot of Regal Apple with some cinnamon for a “Bad Apple” shot.

 

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