Are flavoured spirits a honey trap?

Flavoured spirits drinks are being released at a pace. But are they blurring the rules over whisky production, and are they just a passing fad? Dominic Roskrow reports

It’s summer 2011 and I am in London at a brainstorming meeting for a major spirits producer. I am here to give an outsiders’ view on where I think the market is heading, and to help the company decide what sort of product it should be launching next.

And it is not going well. It seems that what I plan to suggest – premium spirits, single cask, cask strength – is a long way from what the current speaker is suggesting.

“We need something easy to drink and light for a younger palate,” he says. “Maybe we should be looking to a Canadian whisky. And there is a growing interest in flavoured whiskeys.”

Then he pauses and smirks a little.

“Of course we can’t call them that because it breaks the rules. But let’s be honest, that’s what bartenders are calling them.”

Because this all happened at a consultancy meeting I am not at liberty to tell you what the company was, and I can tell you Jack about its whiskey. But as we are talking about 2011 and Scotland has yet to take its first tentative steps down this particular slippery slope, I leave you to make an educated guess.

And it’s water – or whisky – well and truly under the bridge now anyway. This is no secret any more and the trickle of whiskies infused with honey, maple, lime and cherry has become a flood.
And Scotland, too, has jumped on the fruity bandwagon.

Defending definitions

What’s more, our speaker was bang on the money with his prediction. Whether the purists like it or not, bartender shorthand for a whisky flavoured with fruit or honey is ‘flavoured whisky’.

So what’s going on, and are we in danger of dumbing down the category by blurring definitions? The whisky industry is rightfully proud of the fact that it has defended rigorously its definitions of scotch, blended whisky and single malt whisky. The rules are that the ingredients here should be just grain, yeast and water. You can add nothing apart from some colouring in Scotland.

So these drinks must surely be leading to market confusion? After all, it’s a very fine line. A few years ago London-based boutique whisky maker Compass Box launched Orangerie – whisky with orange peel and spices – and called it a ‘whisky infusion.’ It was on the border.

“But imagine if the company had called it infused whisky,” remarked one observer. “They wouldn’t have had a chance with that.”

Fine lines.

At the risk of sounding snobby, you sort of accept that the bourbon and American whiskey producers would have little problem with adding honey, maple or cherry to whiskey and indeed, Jack Daniel’s, Wild Turkey and particularly Jim Beam have done so. 

But how do we really feel about such great names as Ballantine’s, J&B and Dewar’s in Scotland and Paddy in Ireland associating themselves with the category?

After all, it’s fewer than 10 years since a Scottish marketing person stood up at a whisky conference and predicted this very trend – and he was fired for it. What’s more, surely the lines are being blurred when a public relations company for a major spirits producer – not Diageo – used the words ‘flavoured whiskies’ in the headline of a press release?

And take Maxxium’s robust and perfectly legitimate defence of the new category and its Beam whiskeys within it. Fine, until you note the wording it, too is using. “Flavours represent an important segment of the whiskey category,” says Eileen Livingston, marketing controller of Imported Whiskey. 

“In the on-trade, young adult consumers are purchasing more flavoured whiskies and they are a good point of entry for those who may not otherwise have considered drinking whisk(e)y.  

“There are many different ways to consume whiskies, which are being enjoyed by men and women. Red Stag by Jim Beam, Jim Beam Honey and Jim Beam Maple are versatile, flavoured bourbons that can be served in cocktails as well as over ice. 

“These flavours tap into the flavoured bourbon trend that is thriving in the UK by offering authentic tasting flavours of black cherry, honey and maple syrup, which resonate well with consumers and broaden the appeal of bourbon among young adults who may not previously have considered drinking whiskey.”

New drinkers

The argument that flavoured spirits bring new drinkers to the category is a pertinent one. Certainly that’s the view of Brendan Buckley, global innovation and category development director at Irish Distillers.

“Paddy has always appealed to the younger whiskey drinker,” he says. “The flavour range appeals to a younger (legal drinking age to 25) male and female audience that either already loves the brand, or are looking for something new to discover. 

“Paddy is the perfect introduction to Irish whiskey and, in particular, we are confident that the range will appeal to a young adult audience whose usual drink of choice would be vodka, rum or beer.”

Perhaps the most famous Scottish name associated with the new category is Ballantine’s. The team responsible for it declined to be interviewed for this feature, leaving the Scottish flag to be waved by Diageo, which has launched J&B Honey – complete with a picture of a bee rather than the letter B. So isn’t there a danger of confusing the customer and blurring boundaries?

Head of outreach director Nicholas Morgan thinks not, but is cautious about how it is spoken about.

“These drinks are all very new and there is insufficient data to conclude too much about who is drinking them, whether they are here to stay and whether they are a fad or not,” he says. “But I would say that if we are careful to clearly differentiate them from blended scotch then this is a new era to explore. Many of the potential drinkers wouldn’t be normal scotch drinkers anyway.”

Irish Distillers’ Buckley goes further. He argues that the new drinks will bring younger drinkers to whisk(e)y earlier. It would certainly seem to be more than a fickle trend.

“The flavoured spirits category continues to perform very strongly, notably in the US showing continued strong growth last year, so we can confidently say that it is more than a passing fad,” he says. 

“With new entrants from Irish Distillers, other Irish whiskey producers and the scotch and bourbon categories gaining momentum, we predict that the sector will continue to be popular among adventurous, millennial consumers.

The Paddy flavours range appeals to an audience who may not necessarily class themselves as whiskey drinkers, making it the perfect introduction to Irish whiskey. 

At Irish Distillers, we aim to provide the perfect whiskey for any occasion and we hope that as these drinkers mature, they would migrate through our portfolio, beginning with Paddy itself, moving on through, Jameson, Powers and the single pot still Irish whiskey ranges.”

Certainly in the short to medium term these drinks – sweet and not unlike ready-to-drink cocktails – offer potential for canned products and for younger style bars. It’s only a matter of time before someone goes the whole way and comes up with a full-on youth focused marketing campaign.

And there’s something else, too. We’re seeing the first acknowledgement from the traditional producers that whiskies from other places – Australia, India, Taiwan, England – are not a challenge to the old world order but the exact opposite. 

Many of these whiskies are sweeter and less complicated than, say, a Scottish single malt, an Irish pot still whiskey or a premium bourbon. 

They have the potential to provide a baggage-free introduction to whisky, providing a stepladder to Scotland and Ireland.

Across the world companies are turning to whisky – but they are already making genevers, eaux de vie, gins and fruit liqueurs with real fruit beautifully married with spirit. 

Many of them – especially across the Netherlands, Switzerland, Germany and Austria – could wipe the floor with some of the whiskies we’re talking about here. Who knows? In that battle for new drinkers, this might just be the tip of a fruity iceberg.