Follow the leader

This week’s issue of Advertising Age has a story about flavored whiskey with the headline “Brown liquors get shot of flavor as distillers look to broaden audience.” The sub headline – “Can cherry bourbon and Tabasco SoCo woo women without scaring off men?”

Right off the bat, a few things bothered me. Brown liquors? Careful Ad Age, your bias is showing.

As to the appeal to women, I suppose that’s correct but the real story is innovating the whiskey category to broaden its appeal – to all audiences, not just women – and to expand usage occasions as well.

Ad Age also forgot the brand that created the category in the first place – Wild Turkey American Honey that was launched in 2006 and has been a big seller since then.

Here’s my view on the flavored whiskey category.

When Beam introduced Red Stag by Jim Beam (Black Cherry), many people (myself included) didn’t think it would work. But I at least gave them credit for a brand extension rather than a line extension. What’s the difference? As my friends at Absolut used to say, if you add an extension, it must feed the brand not eat the brand. Extend usage and consumers without cannibalizing the core franchise.

Launched in 2009, Red Stag sold 100,000 cases that year and 190,000 in 2010. I’m told that by the end of 2011 the brand will have sold 500,000 cases since the launch. Further, according to Nielsen data, Red Stag accounted for 15% of all the growth in the Bourbon category in 2010. That, my friends, is feeding the brand.

The attractive thing about Red Stag is that it’s “Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey Infused with Natural Flavors.” At 80 proof, it’s whiskey not a liqueur. It’s the only one on the market that’s whiskey according to the regulations.

Based on the success, the race is on.

Brown Forman has two entries in the market both interesting, but more whiskey specialty and liqueur than Beam’s entry. Jack Daniel’s Tennessee Honey is a 70 proof product, has great reviews and is more expensive than Red Stag. Gutsy pricing move.

Even gutsier is the Southern Comfort entry – Southern Comfort Fiery Pepper. It’s a liqueur (like the base brand and the Lime extension) at 70 proof. As the name suggests, it’s certainly not fruity and is co-branded with Tabasco hot sauce.

The Evan Williams folks (Heaven Hill) introduced Evan Williams Honey Reserve and are launching a Cherry Reserve. Both at 70 proof, they are classified as liqueurs.

In addition to brands, the race seems to be between cherry and honey.

Which brings me to the Seagram’s 7 Crown entries – Dark Honey and Stone Cherry. (Can someone tell me what a stone cherry is? How is it different from a cherry without a stone? Sounds like a brand manager hoping consumers will add a “d” to the word stone.)

This one is worthy of some further comments, as though I could resist.

First, it’s probably a good idea – what do they have to lose and 7 Crown could use the face-lift. Second, the brands are 71 proof, not 70. That’s probably because the flavorings have alcohol and those amounts are not taxable. I think it’s called draw back credit. Third, it sells for $19.99 or about the same price as Red Stag. That’s more than gutsy — that’s chutzpah.

Flavored whiskeys could be just the ticket to revise and grow the whiskey market. It changes perceptions, increases usage and brings non-whiskey drinkers into the mix.

Somewhere, Mr. Sam (founder of Seagram) is spinning in his grave.


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