Purists tend to scoff at innovation. Some of that skepticism is well-founded, since a number of new products are shameless riffs on existing success rather than truly revolutionary ideas. Look at white Zinfandel—since the late 1970s, wine snobs have been railing against the cloying pink stuff, protesting that it bears little resemblance to actual Zinfandel.
Yet nearly 50 years later, white Zinfandel is still with us. It’s like a bicycle with permanent training wheels, and consumers who like it may never take the leap into more “serious” categories of wine, so it remains hugely popular. More important, it is a cash cow for many wineries, providing the capital to finance their flagship products that require years of barrel aging.
The same scenario is playing out with flavored whiskey. For the consumer buying a bottle of liquor flavored with cinnamon, maple syrup, or apples, it doesn’t matter much who the distiller is, where the water comes from, or how long the spirit is aged in cask. What matters is how the whiskey tastes—an important consideration, given that drinking spirits is a hobby many people don’t acquire overnight. All the fruit and sugar in flavored whiskey makes the product more accessible to those who would not ordinarily drink it.
To be sure, the current explosion in flavored whiskey was preceded by a tsunami of flavored vodka, but the popularity of brown spirits is overtaking vodka for the first time in decades. Flavored whiskey now accounts for 12 percent of all domestic whiskey sales, and Rabobank’s Spirits Quarterly recently called it “the hottest growth segment in the U.S. spirits market,” while sales of flavored vodka have declined 5 percent. Fireball Cinnamon Whisky offers a good example. In 2011, the brand’s sales hit $1.9 million in package stores; by 2013 that figure ballooned to $61 million. It doubled the following year, and that total didn’t even include the whiskey sold in bars.
People have been masking the harsh taste of whiskey for centuries, so the idea is not new. In 1976, legendary distiller Jimmy Russell created Wild Turkey Liqueur, which was rebranded three decades later as American Honey. The event that brought flavored whiskey into the mainstream was the release of Jim Beam Red Stag in 2009, and the market was soon flooded with similar products, such as Evan Williams Honey Reserve and Cherry Reserve from Heaven Hill, Jack Daniel’s Tennessee Honey, and Dewar’s Highlander Honey. Similarly, Fireball spawned competitors like Jim Beam Kentucky Fire Bourbon and Jack Daniel’s Tennessee Fire. What’s more, a number of producers have even unveiled cinnamon-flavored tequila.
So why not just mix bourbon and Coke, rather than buy a sweetened whiskey? There are no ads for it on television, for one thing, and no peer group to extol its trendy hipness. Within the spirits industry, the conventional wisdom is that flavored whiskies appeal to new segments of the market, such as millennials and women. Just as with white Zinfandel, the hope is that the neophytes will eventually graduate to more traditional spirits. If not, though, one suspects the spirits companies would be just as happy if consumers never make the leap to Bookers or Glenmorangie. While purists may be horrified at the surge in flavored whiskey, the moguls have nothing to worry about. More than $20 billion worth of whiskey is sold in the United States each year, and 88 percent of that total is no small thing.