Although people have been adding flavours to American whiskey for over 100 years, many in the bartending community remain sceptical. Are they right, or, with off-trade sales surging, should they just get over themselves, asks Richard Woodard?
To listen to many bartenders at the top of their trade, you’d think flavoured whiskeys were the devil’s brew; evil potions sent to ensnare naïve punters with not much money and even less sense. At a time when the zeitgeist is dominated by craft spirits and bespoke, barrel-aged cocktails, to hear some of them go on you’d think the idea of bourbon or Tennessee whiskey spiked with honey and cinnamon is the purest form of anathema known to the bartending species.
Flavoured whiskeys are useful recruitment tools – gateway products to get people onto the more traditional stuff
Take this discernment/snobbery (delete as applicable) at face value and it would be easy to dismiss Jack Daniel’s Tennessee Honey, Jim Beam Maple, Fireball Cinnamon Whisky and their ilk as the Machiavellian constructs of a cynical team of marketeers who tapped 'how can we best fleece our customers?' into a computer and waited for the results to flash up on the screen.
But hang on a moment. While Red Stag by Jim Beam is a fresh-faced addition to a historic franchise, people have been mucking around with whiskey (and indeed whisky – see Drambuie, for one, though here we’re only concerning ourselves with the marquee transatlantic names) for centuries.
In American terms, we can go back to New Orleans and 1874, when a bartender called Martin Wilkes Heron first tried putting a bit of honey, a few lumps of fruit and a handful of spices into bourbon. He – apparently – called it 'Cuffs and Buttons', though the name was later changed (wisely, I think) to Southern Comfort.
The big bourbon brands have been doing this for a while, too. Wild Turkey master distiller Jimmy Russell hit upon the original formula for Wild Turkey American Honey back in the 1970s – although it’s fair to say that it didn’t immediately gain the kind of traction that the category has acquired in the past couple of years.
So is the premium on-trade missing a trick here by dismissing flavoured whiskeys so summarily and completely? Or is it simply a case – as Brown-Forman head of advocacy Nidal Ramini puts it – of ‘horses for courses’ and not being able to be ‘all things to all people’?
Here comes honey
First of all, there’s no doubt that these products are flying in the market as a whole. Jim Beam’s flavours portfolio saw off-trade sales surge up 30% in the year to 10 October (Nielsen), according to Janice McIntosh, Maxxium UK’s marketing controller.
Meanwhile, Brown-Forman’s Ramini reports that Jack Daniel’s Tennessee Honey is 'really going great guns', while early indications for more recent introduction Tennessee Fire are that the 'on-trade [is] really embracing that'. Well, certain sections of it are, anyway.
To understand the appeal and the broader role of flavoured whiskeys, think about spiced rum. In both cases, these products work because – duh – people like them. Or, to put it in full-on marketing speak, they tap into the current flavour trends that are especially prevalent among millennial consumers.
The flavours are great for mainstream bars and restaurants catering to 18- to 25-year-olds – they give accessible cocktail alternatives
They’re also – and again this applies to spiced rum too – potentially useful recruitment tools for the broader whiskey category. Think of them as gateway products to get people to move onto the more traditional stuff (ie regular bourbon/Tennessee whiskey) and you won’t be far wrong.
'We are looking to recruit drinkers to whiskey by providing them with a more accessible taste profile,' says McIntosh. 'Data highlights that flavoured whiskeys are recruiting customers into the category, and each flavour attracts a distinct consumer base, with extremely low cannibalisation.' In other words, those who drink flavoured whiskies aren’t migrating to them from non-flavoured variants; they’re coming into the category from elsewhere.
'The flavours have also been successful in securing a strong repeat buying rate, suggesting consumers are enjoying the products and are adopting them into their repertoire of spirits,' continues McIntosh.
This particular point about cannibalisation is important. This isn’t flavoured vodka, and it’s also not the US market, where the sheer size (and consumer love of a highly diverse palette of flavours) makes the opportunities for brands so much greater than in the UK.
'The flavour of honey just works well with American whiskey,' says Ramini. 'That works, I think, but you won’t see lots and lots of flavours coming out of Jack Daniel’s – and none at all from Woodford Reserve.'
He sees targeted recruitment as the name of the game for Jack Daniel’s. 'Your legal drinking age-to-21-year-old consumer isn’t drinking American whiskey on the rocks. With [JD] Honey you’re getting people on the American whiskey journey and away from drinks like Corky’s and so on.'
No shortage of opinions… just none in the middle ground. Is flavoured whiskey the Marmite of the booze world?
Try ringing round high-end bartenders and asking them about flavoured whiskey and you’ll get some idea of what it must have been like to play J R Hartley in the 1980s Fly Fishing ad for Yellow Pages (Google it if you’re too young to remember it). Let’s jump in…
‘Flavoured whiskey? It’s not very “Rules”.’
Mike Cook, Rules, London
‘We don’t carry any of these at my bar. But, as the cocktail scene becomes more “serious”, a bunch of bartenders are looking for ways to make bars “fun” again. Some well-respected bars have begun stocking flavoured whiskeys as a sort of backlash against the “uptight” stuffiness of “mixology” bars.’
Ryan Fitzgerald, ABV, San Francisco
‘I think that the flavoured whiskey market aims at a very different target consumer than where we are. I haven’t witnessed any craft cocktail bars in the US, or elsewhere, stocking the products.’
Alex Kratena, ex-Artesian at The Langham, London
‘When I was at LAB we used Red Stag by Jim Beam. Flavoured bourbons and whiskeys are a great introduction product for all those people not used to drinking whisky. We used it in fruity cocktails – the one we had on the menu was called Band Camp, and is a mix of Red Stag, lemon, cranberry and bubblegum syrup, served tall over crushed ice and garnished with a marshmallow.’
Marco Piroli, ex-LAB, London
‘I’ve never worked with flavoured whiskeys before. They’re definitely more for your high-volume, college-type bars or nightclubs.’
Naren Young, Caffé Dante, New York
Time and place
So, while SoCo in a simple serve with lemonade might be the first drink of the night, Ramini suggests that Honey provides a 'mid-tempo' moment – more likely to be consumed sitting down, served long with lemonade or ginger ale, or on the rocks. And Tennessee Fire, like Sazerac’s hugely successful Fireball, is simply shots. 'No-one’s drinking that on the rocks,' says Ramini.
It’s a similar story for the Jim Beam range, says McIntosh – Apple served long over ice with tonic, Red Stag bridging cocktails and shots, Honey and Maple doing a similar linking job between neat/on the rocks consumption and cocktails.
That’s what these products do and why they work – but what’s their place in the on-trade spectrum?
'The flavours are great for mainstream bars and restaurants that are catering to 18- to 25-year-old consumers as they provide accessible cocktail alternatives,' says McIntosh. 'American-style restaurants and bars are popping up around London and other metropolitan cities in the UK so, as this type of cuisine becomes more popular, so do beverages, including spirits.'
The democratisation of cocktail culture provides opportunities, too. Jack Daniel’s Tennessee Honey sells huge volumes through the Be At One chain, says Ramini, and the company was an official launch partner for Tennessee Fire.
'It was flying out of the window,' he says. 'The consumer still trusts the bartender, no matter what level of the trade you’re at.'
So is that it? Are flavoured whiskeys destined to remain confined exclusively to the on-trade mainstream? Not necessarily. Ramini highlights Nightjar’s listing of the Honey Smash, which combines Jack Daniel’s Tennessee Honey with ginger wine, lemon, bee pollen, watermelon, karela bitters, spearmint and elderflower – a thoroughly grown-up drink for a thoroughly grown-up audience.
Ramini adds: 'What happens if Ryan [Chetiyawardana] or someone makes something flavoured and puts it out there? If the top guys want a honey-flavoured American whiskey, they’ll make it themselves and they have the skill to be able to do it.'
Rather like, in other words, Martin Wilkes Heron in 1874 New Orleans and the creation of Cuffs and Buttons/Southern Comfort. If bartenders get past the prejudice and embrace the positive potential of these crowd-pleasing products, might it be that the flavoured whiskey story could yet come full circle?