Kings of bling

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 You can’t really be a celebrity nowadays without your own brand of hooch. Clinton Cawood joins an Imbibe panel on the red carpet as they rub shoulders with the rich and famous…


On the television, on the magazine racks, and now on our back bars and wine lists – is there nowhere we can be free of the cult of the celebrity? 

Celebrity ownership of drinks brands is nothing new – golfers have been slinging wine for quite some time now, and even the rapper-cognac association has lost its novelty. But still it continues, throughout categories and price points (although admittedly at higher price points than usual).

But where do these fit in the on-trade, when there are so many other product stories to tell, and where the focus, hopefully, is more heavily on the product itself rather than on the packaging, as it is in the off-trade? 

And how do the actual products stack up? Are they just hiding behind a famous face, or are they genuinely talented, deserving to be all the way out there in the limelight?

We called in a selection of these products to find out. 

To be eligible, a drink had to be associated with a well-known figure. The result was a varied bunch, including beer, wine, whisky – and one energy drink.

And so, with a copy of Heat in one hand, an Imbibe panel went celeb-spotting at Hakkasan Mayfair.

HOW IT WORKED: 

Drinks products with some degree of celebrity involvement were included in this tasting: beer, wine, spirits and one energy drink. All products were tasted blind, in increasing order of abv, and tasters were asked not only to score each out of 20, but also to guess which celebrity they thought was behind each one. Products were then revealed, with further discussions about how effective the celebrity tie-in was for each. Scores were averaged out, with percentage scores given for each product. Only scores over 50% are given. 

TASTING PANEL Giulio Amodio, China Tang; Irina Atanasova, Barbecoa; Sophie Bratt, Oxo Tower Bar;  Clinton Cawood, Imbibe; Vanessa Cinti, Cut at 45 Park Lane; Chris Dennis, Wax Jambu; Cuan Dumas, Drake & Morgan; Dominic Jacobs, Harvey Nichols Fifth Floor; Oskar Kinberg, Dabbous; George Matzaridis, Hakkasan; Ondrej Pospichal, ex-Quo Vadis; Sam Plummer, Met Bar;  James Teng, Hakkasan Mayfair

RESULTS

76 AquaRiva Tequila, Mexico
Celeb: Cleo Rocos
‘Kapow’, as one taster eloquently put it. Powerful in this company, Aqua Riva was nevertheless recognised as an approachable, light reposado tequila, with some perceptible sweetness and an attractive spice element. 
The praise continued when this tequila’s packaging was revealed, and in discussions about the actress behind it. Cleo Rocos may be well known in the UK for her television appearances, but within the drinks trade she is even better known for her promotion of tequila and her role in setting up the Tequila Society. Rocos now has her own tequila, described by one panellist as ‘a beautiful product’.
Most-guessed celeb: Cleo Rocos
38% abv. £23 RRP. [email protected]

75 Bellerose Bière Blonde Extra, France
Celeb: Gérard Depardieu
A number of tasters were convinced this was a Belgian beer. And lacking any knowledge of Belgian celebs, their guesses turned a bit random – everything from Sean Connery to Alex James, via, inexplicably, a certain kleptomaniac TV chef. 
The brewery was founded by Gérard Depardieu in 1997 with some fellow French thespians. Depardieu also owns various vineyards around the world, but is apparently no longer directly involved with Bellerose.
The beer itself scored highly, with tasters complimenting its yeasty character and creamy mouthfeel. Flavours ranged from light citrus to dark chocolate, with a clean, bitter finish. ‘Elegant and powerful at the same time,’ summarised one taster.
Most-guessed celeb: Antony Worrall Thompson
6.5% abv. £31.35/24x330ml trade price. James Clay, 01422 377560

75 Sangue d’Oro 2008, Passito di Pantelleria, Italy
Celeb: Carole Bouquet
You can’t go wrong with an apricot-dominated dessert wine, it seems. This Italian was almost universally loved, with its ‘cake, raisins and dried fruit’, ‘powdered sugar’ and ‘dried figs’.
‘Is this what Justin Bieber has on Christmas Day?’ wondered one taster – not the only one to associate the teen pop singer with this wine. Others got it into their heads that Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie have a vineyard in Hungary (it’s in Provence, actually).
But none thought of former Bond girl Carole Bouquet – the personality, once the label was revealed, very evidently behind this. The For Your Eyes Only star’s name is prominent on the packaging, but this didn’t concern our panel. ‘I don’t mind the name on the label,’ said one taster. ‘Particularly when it’s a celebrity that doesn’t appear on every page…’
Most-guessed celeb: Justin Bieber 
14.5% abv. £25.60/50cl ex-VAT. Marc Fine Wines, 020 7856 9210

74 Crystal Head Vodka, Canada
Celeb: Dan Aykroyd
Put a vodka into a blind tasting of celebrity drinks products, and most people are going to guess that it’s Dan Aykroyd’s Crystal Head. Some might speculate, incorrectly, that it’s P Diddy’s Cîroc, and some joker might wonder whether Carla Bruni-Sarkozy is behind it, but most will correctly recognise it as Aykroyd’s skull-shaped bottle of vodka.
The Ghostbuster and Blues Brother’s vodka drew praise –  sweet and spicy, with citrus notes – and tasters had little to say in the way of negative comments. 
The bottle, as always, was a hit too. ‘Definitely a good choice for table service,’ said one panellist. 
Aykroyd himself commands a degree of respect, it seems, which has an effect on how the product is perceived. ‘He strikes me as the kind of man who wouldn’t do something if he wasn’t passionate about it – he strikes me as an honest guy,’ said one bartender.
Most-guessed celeb: Dan Aykroyd
40% abv. £50 RRP. Bibendum Wine, 020 7449 4100

72 Blackwell Rum, Jamaica
Celeb: Chris Blackwell
Conversely, put a rum into a blind tasting of celeb drinks products, and most people are going to guess that it’s porn star Ron Jeremy’s. In this case, they couldn’t have been further from the truth.
The rum with Island Records founder Chris Blackwell behind it drew praise from our panel. Dark, buttery and sweet, with stone fruit, coconut, toffee and caramel, tasters were impressed by its complexity and long finish. 
On the reveal (after being surprised at not discovering a mustachioed adult film star on the label), the panel praised the branding, and the celebrity connection. ‘I love the packaging,’ said one taster. ‘It’s a nice bottle – I like it,’ added another.
Most-guessed celeb: Ron Jeremy
40% abv. £24.99 RRP. [email protected]

70 Botham Merrill Willis, Cabernet Sauvignon, Australia
Celeb: Ian Botham and Bob Willis
The collaboration between winemaker Geoff Merrill and these two English cricketers resulted in a wine that elicited mostly positive comments from the panel. Bold and juicy, with ripe fruit and some spice, many identified this as Australian, describing it as ‘full-bodied’, with ‘dark plums and cassis’, ‘high tannins and low acidity’, as well as a smoky element. 
One insightful taster guessed Shane Warne, but the majority of our panel turned out to be cricket-averse, and few had heard of Beefy, let alone Willis. ‘I don’t watch cricket’, said one taster, ‘but the wine’s good on the palate.’
Most-guessed celebs: Kate Moss, Bill Clinton
14.5% abv. £12.46 ex-VAT. Richmond Wine Agencies, 020 8744 5550

65 Professor Green’s Remedy, Signature Brew, UK
Celeb: Professor Green
Most tasters approved of this beer from musically inspired beer company Signature Brew. The premise is simple: the company gets together with a musician or a band, conducting tasting sessions and pinning down a flavour profile with them. They then have the beer brewed by a UK brewer, and just like that, another celeb beer is born. Next in the pipeline is a Frank Turner beer. 
The beer itself was thought to have some perfumed elements, as well as a lychee note, and was generally light and refreshing overall. It was praised for its crisp bitterness too.
Straightforward, unadventurous ale – must be Top Gear’s Jeremy Clarkson, two of our panellists guessed. Similar thinking, no doubt, that led others to guess Simon Cowell or Alan Sugar. 
Revealed, the overall package was a hit with most of the panel, even if the mention of Professor Green elicited groans from the room. One taster decided the drink and endorsement worked as a whole – was ‘inoffensive’, to be exact – while another said they could see it working well with young businessmen having a beer after work. 
Most-guessed celeb: Jeremy Clarkson
4.5% abv. £9.99/4x33cl RRP. Signature Brew, [email protected]

64 Ernie Els Proprietor’s Blend 2010, Stellenbosch, South Africa
Celeb: Ernie Els
Another wine associated with a sport that our panel were almost entirely unaware of (golf this time), but that didn’t stop them appreciating the wine. ‘Quite sophisticated’ and ‘interesting’, this was a powerful wine, with big, drying tannins, and red and black fruit.
Shown the packaging, our tasters were positive. One thought this was one of the best bottle designs in the tasting. ‘It looks premium,’ said another.
The only concern was with price. Some felt that the celebrity angle had resulted in too much of a premium being added to the wine.
Most-guessed celeb: Oprah Winfrey, Gérard Depardieu
15% abv. £16.73 ex-VAT. Seckford Agencies, 01206 231188

62 Two Paddocks Pinot Noir 2008, Central Otago, New Zealand
Celeb: Sam Neill
Kiwi actor Sam Neill, best known for his roles in films like Jurassic Park and The Piano, also planted a vineyard in New Zealand in 1993. The wine was well received, with compliments for its ‘big fruity nose and light spice’, ‘cherries and red fruit’, and ‘great balance of fruit and acidity’. It was correctly identified by more than one taster as New World Pinot Noir. 
Once tasters were aware of the celeb behind the vineyard, they felt that the association was a good one. ‘In my place, it might work to mention his name’ said at least one of the panellists. ‘It’s not over the top,’ said another. 
Most-guessed celebs: Johnny Depp, Jamie Oliver, Tom Cruise
13.5% abv. £17.76 ex-VAT. Haynes, Hanson & Clarke, 020 7584 7927

56 Build a Rocket Boys, Robinsons Brewery, Cheshire, UK
Celeb: Elbow
This beer was a real panel-divider. Its proponents described aromas of toasted nuts, honey, shortbread, fruitcake and ginger, leading into a light, nutty palate. The less enthusiastic argued that this was too light, too bitter, or too short in flavour. 
Either way, the beer’s flavour profile caused untold problems when associating this with a celebrity. Boris Johnson, Neil Morrissey… Pink?
Once they knew who was behind it though, most of the panel thought the tie-up between Elbow and Robinsons made sense, and that it suited both the beer and the band.
Most-guessed celeb: A random selection of B-listers
4% abv. POA (£2.80–£4 RRP). Frederic Robinson, 0161 480 6571

55 Glenn Rossie, Scotland
Celeb: Francis Rossi OBE
A divisive single malt, some tasters thought this was light and subtle, with a short finish, while others found it pungent, strong and spicy, with smoke, honey and cinnamon. 
Status Quo’s Francis Rossi picked up this nearly 200-year-old whisky brand relatively recently, conveniently already (almost) named after him. The brand’s been suitably repackaged, complete with requisite music puns on the label.
Most-guessed celebs: Sean Connery, Ewan McGregor, Macaulay Culkin
40% abv. £26.99 RRP. The Brand Cellar, 020 3170 8710

53 Scheckter’s Organic Energy Drink, UK
Celeb: Toby Scheckter
There was speculation that this bright red drink was rapper Lil Jon’s Crunk Juice. Or maybe energy drink Pussy – although no one was quite sure what celebrity would be behind that. ‘Kim Kardashian?’ mused one panellist. 
A far more respectable character turned out to be behind this. Race car driver Toby Scheckter – son of even-more-famous race car driver Jody Scheckter – developed this organic, natural energy drink. Sweet, with cranberry, cherry and cassis flavours, tasters commented on its light carbonation. ‘Good as far as an energy drink goes’ was the common theme.
‘The packaging really hits the spot – they give as much information as possible,’ said one taster.
Most-guessed celebs: Lil Jon, Paris Hilton, Jordan
£1.35/25cl RRP. Scheckter’s Organic Energy, 01256 399292

Also ran:
Christian Audigier Syrah 2009, Vin de Pays d’Oc, France
Celeb: Christian Audigier
The Syrah in French designer Christian Audigier’s range of drinks didn’t impress many, but when the packaging was revealed, this generated more discussion than many of the other products in this tasting. 
Some thought the packaging would be better suited to Audigier’s vodka, while most agreed that this wouldn’t be at home in a restaurant. One suggested that it could work on a club back bar.
Most-guessed celebs: Silvio Berlusconi, Lemmy (Motörhead), Lindsey Lohan
13% abv. c.£15 RRP. christianaudigierwines.com

Ron de Jeremy, Panama
Celeb: Ron Jeremy
Subtle at best, tasters described a spirit lacking in aroma and flavour – and one lacking in overt rum character too. More than one toyed with the idea that this might have been a cognac…
It’s undeniable that the brand works though – and the panel agreed that the product is still a successful one. 
‘I wouldn’t necessarily stock that in a bar, but I’d maybe keep it at home,’ said one. ‘I’d buy this as a gift, rather than as a digestif or aperitif,’ said another.
Most-guessed celebs: Beyonce, Oprah, Keira Knightley
40% abv. £29.99 RRP. Spirit Cartel, 07980 792735

Honourable mention:
Danny de Vito’s Limoncello
One of the most eagerly-anticipated of this tasting’s contenders, the sample bottle of de Vito’s limoncello was cruelly smashed by the courier en route to Imbibe HQ. It nevertheless sparked conversation with the panel. ‘Personally, I think they should only sell it in 37.5cl bottles…’ quipped one taster.
30% abv. £19.50/70cl RRP, Design Spirits UK, 01386 792766

Many thanks to the team at Hakkasan Mayfair for hosting the tasting and for all of their help on the day.

PANEL COMMENTS: Giulio Amodio, China Tang
‘I thought that some of these would work in the market, but others didn’t satisfy my expectations. Celebrity endorsement is about the type of audience you want to reach. For example, Belvedere sells because of its quality. Roberto Cavalli Vodka sells because of his name, in fashion only, and even then only to a particular audience.’

Irina Atanasova, Barbecoa
‘The drinks we tasted could be described with one word: promising. The wines would please most people’s palate, and the spirits were good too. At the end of the day, though, most of these products are designed to sell because of the name behind them.’

Sophie Bratt, Oxo Tower Bar
‘People will always want to buy into that celebrity lifestyle and experience how the other half live. Having a product endorsed by a celebrity is a great initial selling point, but ultimately it’s the quality of the product that is important.’

Clinton Cawood, Imbibe
‘In this tasting, as in the broader realm of celebrity in general, there’s something for almost everyone, whether you’re into golf or hip hop, real ale or tequila. It was good to blind-taste these without all of the overt branding that usually goes with them. Overall, these need to be targeted carefully. What’s perfectly pitched for one audience can be meaningless, or in bad taste, for another.’ 

Vanessa Cinti, Cut at 45 Park Lane
‘Celebrity endorsements are less important at my restaurant, where our guests recieve more personalised service. Generally speaking, the quality of the products was very good. I enjoyed the products overall, but I think I favoured the spirits over the wines.’

Chris Dennis, Wax Jambu
‘It can sometimes be hard to distinguish which products are created out of passion, and which are simply cases of lending a name to help shift a product. The majority of these today were of a high standard, and anyone, celebrity or otherwise, becoming involved in this industry with passion and reach is generally positive.’

Cuan Dumas, Drake & Morgan
‘Some I didn’t really enjoy in terms of quality, but I think that in certain venues they would still work really well. The non-branded celeb products would work in most venues, as I think they have a story behind the product which would be a handy selling tool.’ 

Dominic Jacobs, Harvey Nichols Fifth Floor
‘Compared to wine, spirits are more lifestyle brands. When I buy a product, I want to know that the person who makes it knows what they’re doing. I’d buy a cricket bat from Ian Botham. I’m not sure what I’d buy from Ron Jeremy though…’

Oskar Kinberg, Dabbous
‘I think if you want this to work well, you need the right celebrity behind the right product. Jay-Z may sell loads of his champagne, while no one really cares if Mariah Carey says it’s cool to drink hers.’

George Matzaridis, Hakkasan
‘If a celebrity likes a particular drink and develops a product because they want to focus on quality, I think that approach works best. When the celebrity is too big, that can be a disadvantage.’

Ondrej Pospichal, ex-Quo Vadis
‘I wouldn’t necessarily choose any of these products based on what the label says, but on what is in the bottle. Most professionals can sell anything they believe in, and what they believe in is, most of the time, inside the bottle rather than outside.’

Sam Plummer, Met Bar
‘I feel that these tend to have more of an impact in a busy nightclub or bar situation. In terms of general quality, these have more of an impact when the drinks are aimed at, let’s say, a less fussy clientele.’

James Teng, Hakkasan Mayfair
‘Every product needs a selling point – people like stories behind their products. That said, the celeb-endorsement factor should be just one among other selling points, including price and quality. These need to find the right niche market.’  

CONCLUSIONS

  • Price was undoubtedly a concern for our panel – there were very few products that represented good value. The price of celebrity is high, and it’s important to weigh up the benefits against the additional cost.
  • The on-trade always looks for stories behind products, but when these were too overt, they weren’t felt to be of much use. These were frequently the products that our panellists imagined in an off-trade setting. The more subtle products, however, had a useful story to tell.
  • Each category had a different feel in this tasting, with some notable exceptions in each. Spirits no doubt draw a more mainstream, higher-profile celebrity, while wine is more the preserve of sportsmen, and is often more subtly branded.
  • Different products were better suited for some sectors rather than others, and it’s important to choose the correct avenue for these. Used correctly, they can no doubt be very successful.

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