The spirits industry is certainly in flux, as consumers move away from vodka toward whiskies and embrace flavored spirits in new categories. The cinnamon whiskey, moonshine and premium bourbon trends continue to mature, increasing competition within the category as brands fight for staying power. As that battle plays out, distilled spirits are also competing for market share with beer and wine as customers cross categories more frequently.
“Last year was a transitional one for beverage alcohol, as changing consumer trends forced the industry to adapt,” says Adam Rogers, manager of information services for the Beverage Information & Insights Group, the research unit of Cheers’ parent company. “Consumers are no longer tied to one category, as they now approach their consumption type by occasion. Beer, wine and spirits are interchangeable to many consumers, based on how they believe one or the other will enhance their drinking occasion.”
Spirit brands are also benefiting from consumers trading up to premium and superpremium brands, turning the corner on the downward trend that began during the recent recession. “What stands out to me most in the beverage alcohol industry right now is the renaissance going on with regard to product quality,” Rogers says. “Although consumers are often drinking less, they’re also drinking better, which bodes well from a revenue perspective.”
Then there’s Rising Star Growth Brand winner BuzzBallz, a line of premixed cocktails packaged in ball-shaped plastic cans. “BuzzBallz isn’t playing into the premium trend, but rather a convenience trend,” Rogers says. “Other newcomers, like Ménage à Trois Vodka, are prime examples of targeting consumers through occasions,” he adds. “In the case of Trinchero Family Estate’s vodka extension of its popular Ménage à Trois Wine (an Established Growth Brand itself), the company is seeing brand loyalty as consumers cross from wine to spirits.”
Rogers expects 2015 to be an even better year for the wine and spirit categories, with more winning Growth Brands.
“Current economic factors like lower gas prices are expected to bring people back to the on-premise,” he says. “Also, many suppliers have recently invested in the off-premise, which was quicker to return to pre-recession levels. So both the on- and off-premise are primed for increased consumer demand.”
American Whiskey Takes the Lead on Innovation
It’s no surprise that so many American whiskeys—especially bourbons—won Growth Brand Awards this year: Consumers have driven a whiskey revival in the U.S., leading to production, aging and flavor innovation from whiskey suppliers.
“As the world’s number-one bourbon, we’re honored to be named a Growth Brand and continue to deliver strong growth across our portfolio through our flavored offerings, premium expressions and Jim Beam White Label, which continues to gain momentum,” says Vanessa Jenkins, senior director of U.S. bourbon for Beam Suntory.
Beam last year unveiled its “Make History” campaign, the first global marketing campaign in the company’s 220-year history, and began a partnership with actress Mila Kunis. The company also introduced a variety of new products to the Jim Beam line, including Single Barrel, Signature Craft, Harvest Bourbon Collection and Kentucky Fire.
In the coming year, Jim Beam will feature another Signature Craft expression and the final four batches of the Harvest Bourbon Collection. In response to feedback from mixologists, the brand also recently introduced Jim Beam Bonded and Jim Beam Rye.
Evan Williams has also seen recent success with line extensions. The brand’s Flavor Reserves include honey, cinnamon, cherry and a soon-to-be-released peach; the products will be renamed Evan Williams Honey, Evan Williams Fire and Evan Williams Cherry later this year. The flavors have their own advertising and activation efforts, but Heaven Hill looks to promote them together, especially since the flavors bring in younger consumers and women.
“We have an integrated marketing program for the entire brand, including our ongoing sponsorship of Bass Fishing and Championship Bull Riding, a spring music program and fall tailgating program,” says Kate Latts, the company’s director of marketing. “The brand is activating in all possible ways.”
The Evan Williams Bourbon Experience at the brand’s visitor center in Louisville, KY, which Latts says has been called “The Disney Experience of Bourbon Tours,” also serves as a trailhead for the Kentucky Bourbon Trail. “It’s an amazing facility and attracts more and more consumers to the brand,” she says.
Woodford Reserve’s recent line extensions include Double Oaked and Reserve Rye, which was just introduced in select markets. Brand director Jason Kempf says Woodford will release its newest Master’s Collection offering and a fourth permanent line extension in the coming months.
“We’ll also be continuing many of our promotional programs,” Kempf says. “Last year was our first television advertising campaign, which helped generate a lot of brand awareness. Our Manhattan Experience bartender competition helped solidify our trade and bartenders relationships around the country as well.”
Diageo broke ground on the future home of the Bulleit Distilling Company last year, and opened The Bulleit Experience at Stitzel-Weller, while also launching the Bulleit Woody Tailgate Tour during the fall.
“We made a tangible effort to bring the liquid to the lips of thousands of consumers in 2014,” says Yvonne Briese, Diageo’s vice president of marketing for North American whiskey. “We continue to empower our Masters of Whiskey team to be our eyes, ears and palates in a number of major markets. They have been a valuable asset in growing the brand on-premise, and turning bartenders into true brand advocates.”
The focus in 2015 for the brand will be on sharing founder Tom Bulleit’s story of entrepreneurship, including how he quit a law career in 1987 to revive his family’s bourbon recipe.
Meanwhile, Maker’s Mark is expanding its digital presence by using platforms that engage with the brand’s fans in real time, including Reddit, Celtra and customized social programs. It recently engaged consumers and bartenders for feedback during a limited launch of Maker’s Mark Cask Strength, which will have national distribution this year.
“We want to push boundaries with new technologies and digital platforms that will reach consumers with relevant brand experiences,” says Gigi Dadan, senior director of U.S. Maker’s Mark. “We’ll help them create personal discoveries at the local level by expanding initiatives with digital partnerships.”
Maker’s Mark also celebrated its strong female influence last year, as Marge Samuels—wife of founder Bill Samuels, Sr.—was inducted into the Kentucky Bourbon Hall of Fame. She’s the first woman to join that group who was directly connected to a distillery.
McCormick Distilling’s Triple Crown has used social media to build its brand following. The brand leveraged its horse racing tie-in when California Chrome was competing for the Triple Crown in June.
“We contributed to online conversations, celebrated with the horse racing community and engaged with sportscasters and race fans,” says the company’s vice president of marketing Vic Morrison. “We asked, ‘America is ready for a Triple Crown, are you?’”
While there may not be another Triple Crown contender in 2015, the brand is ready to continue its social media engagement to drive awareness and connect with consumers again this year.
The number-one selling superpremium bourbon took things up a notch last year, as Knob Creek launched its first television ad, Bookerisms, which showcased the product’s bourbon heritage. The campaign will continue in 2015, as will the brand’s commitment to celebrating the spirit of founder Booker Noe.
The brand also partnered with celebrity chef Michael Symon, bringing 10 fans to the distillery in Kentucky for a campout and grilling demonstration as part of a summer sweepstakes.
“We plan to bring consumers even bigger, better and more flavorful content and experiences in 2015 as we continue our partnership with Chef Symon,” says Beam Suntory’s Jenkins. “We’ll continue to demonstrate Knob Creek’s big, full flavor on the grill and in the glass.”
Tequilas Expand Their Reach
Like their bourbon counterparts, tequila brands won an impressive number of Growth Brand Awards this year—especially the higher-end spirits. What’s even more striking is that these brands are branching far out from traditional tequila consumers and consumption patterns, embracing a more sophisticated view of agave and tequila’s mixability.
Diageo’s Don Julio tequila brand, founded more than 70 years ago, spent 2014 traveling across the U.S. in partnership with the Airstream Speakeasy, a mobile cocktail bar designed and built by three bartenders. The Airstream’s on-tap cocktail system allowed the brand to serve craft cocktails to more than 30,000 consumers across the country.
“This collaboration enabled the brand to reinvent the way we approach large-scale sampling, while also reaching influencers, engaging with press and delighting spirits enthusiasts with an engaging activation,” the company explained in a statement.
Don Julio this year will roll out a fleet of pickup trucks resembling those that founder Don Julio Gonzalez used to travel to and from his agave fields. The 1940’s-era restored trucks will also function as mobile cocktail bars and drive growth and interest for the brand across the country.
Espolon Tequila also emphasized craft cocktails during the past year, launching the Espolon COCKtail Fights to challenge courageous and daring bartenders. The brand visited 11 cities, allowing local fans to wager on their favorite mixologist.
“We plan to build on that success in the next year,” says Kathleen Schuart, senior marketing director of white spirits at Campari America. “We want to amp up the energy with a second tour this year. We have high expectations that the competitors can out-create the courageous geniuses behind the bartops last year.”
Patron used social media in 2014 to connect with the brand’s consumers: It began the year with hardly any social media presence and ended 2014 as the top spirit brand on Twitter and among a handful of the top brands on Facebook.
“Our brand has a lot of swagger, and it’s become ubiquitous, but what’s often lost in that is that we’re a small-batch, handcrafted, artisanal tequila,” says Lee Applbaum, Patron’s chief marketing officer. “We just produce a lot of it in very small batches. In the past year, the company has concentrated on better telling that story through traditional, digital and social media, as well as event and experiential activations.
Since a year is not long enough to convey that artisanal process and history, Patron plans to continue that focus on telling its story through unique promotions and events. Those include what Applbaum calls a “game-changer,” which will be unveiled in the spring.
Omeca Altos Tequila lives by the credo, “tasting is believing.” The brand uses three-wheeled taco bikes in restaurants and bars offering tacos to accompany samples of the tequila. In 2014 it also invited consumers to interactive experiences in liquor and grocery stores, where they could try to match wits with the brand’s Master Distiller, Jesus Hernandez.
In the coming year, Omeca Altos plans to invite even more bartenders to events that celebrate them and the brand’s “invented by bartenders” origin, as well as investing in new campaigns. “Everyone deserves great tequila at an affordable price,” the brand said in a statement. “We have confidence that consumers will deliver Altos because we deliver.”
Vodka Down, but Not Out
The vodka category—especially the flavored vodka segment—isn’t what it once was, but there are some standouts who rose above their peers and sustained growth in 2014.
Belvedere’s main catalyst for growth last year was its “Know the Difference” campaign, which educated consumers about how rye, water and character make Belvedere different. “It was very successful in promoting knowledgeable choice,” says Virginia Lawson, Belvedere’s brand director. “In addition, the launch of Mango Passion continued the brand’s path of innovation and helped increase momentum.”
Belvedere also partnered with Sony Entertainment and EON Productions on the 24th installment of the James Bond franchise, Spectre. The vodka brand feels that the movie be a major growth driver in 2015. The marketing program around the film will include a global advertising campaign and activation rights around the release.
For Roust’s (formerly Russian Standard) Green Mark Vodka, being named a Growth Brand winner means the company is achieving its goal of more consumers enjoying its spirit. “That’s our number-one priority,” says Tom Lewis, senior brand manager at Roust USA. “We’re proud to have built a core following of the brand since the launch, and expect to grow gradually through targeted promotions to drive trial and word-of-mouth.”
Devotion Vodka, the gluten-free and sugar-free spirit, doesn’t have the marketing budget of a global brand, so its philosophy “since day one has been to roll up our sleeves and work harder than everyone else,” says CEO Drew Adelman. “We remain committed to focusing our marketing on the grassroots level, as it’s been a competitive advantage for us.”
Devotion plans to debut two new flavors in the spring, as well as create more promotional signage, special in-store events and social media campaigns to create additional awareness.
Deep Eddy, which launched in 2010 in Austin, TX, with a sweet-tea-flavored vodka, expanded to nationwide distribution as of last year. The Fast Track brand went from 190,000 cases sold in 2013 to 455,000 sold in 2014. Deep Eddy’s growth was also fueled by the release of its Ruby Red grapefruit-infused vodka.
Global Whiskies Show Growth
Like their American counterparts, imported whiskies registered impressive growth in 2014, stemming from innovative product extensions, consumer engagement and marketing initiatives.
Tullamore Dew opened a $50 million, state-of-the-art distillery in 2014, marking the return of whiskey production to the Irish town of Tullamore 60 years after the original facility closed. This new distillery “puts us firmly in control of our destiny, as we can now match production to demand,” the brand said.
What’s more, the brand premiered its first-ever national commercial during the finale of The Colbert Report on Comedy Central—reaching an audience of 30 million. Tullamore Dew this year will debut the Daniel E. Williams Snug, an immersive brand experience that mimics the classic Irish snug commonly found in pubs, consisting of a small, cozy room for loyal patrons to enjoy their drams in private.
Another Irish whiskey, 2 Gingers, expanded from limited distribution in 2014 to nationwide availability. Founder Kieran Folliard and the team from Beam Suntory coordinated a Road Show in a customized Airstream, allowing bartenders, distributors and consumers to discover the Big Ginger, the brand’s trademarked cocktail (2 Gingers mixed with ginger ale, served with lemon and lime slices).
“The road show presented an exceptional opportunity for us to spread the word and officially introduce 2 Gingers from coast to coast,” says Claire Richards, director of world whiskey and Cognac for Beam Suntory, which acquired the brand in 2012. “We continued the momentum with the implementation of a national sampling program in both the on- and off-premise, driving trial and growth for the brand.”
Walking the Line
In the Scotch category, Johnnie Walker Black Label made the “Keep Walking” campaign a focus, after it was relaunched the previous year. The brand used a multimedia program, as well as limited edition gift boxes, to toast “Keep Walking” occasions like fatherhood, a new job or retirement.
The brand also introduced two new innovations—Johnnie Walker Platinum Label and Double Black—which have provided more Scotch occasions for consumers.
Buchanan’s, a Diageo brand like Johnnie Walker, launched a new campaign in 2014, called “A Lo Grande,” and simultaneously expanded the brand distribution beyond California and Texas to reach new consumers. Buchanan’s also became the official spirits sponsor of the Latin Grammys and continued a partnership with the Latin Billboards—two of Latin music’s biggest nights.
Canadian whisky Revel Stroke has engaged consumers through social media, as well as through on-premise promotions like “Seek the Stroke,” which encouraged consumers to seek out Revel Stroke locally. “We’re excited to say that our growth is being driven not only by our loyal fan base, but also by our new Stroke customers,” says Marla Burke, director of marketing for Phillips Distilling Co..
The company plans to continue building the brand across the entire portfolio, which includes pecan, spiced and cinnamon flavors, as well as the straight Canadian whisky. But based on the success of pecan, “we’ll be increasing our marketing efforts on-premise with tastings and promotional activities to induce trial and purchase,” Burke says.
An Old Rum and a New Rum
Two Heaven Hill rums, Admiral Nelson and Blackheart Spiced Rum, won Growth Brand Awards this year.
Admiral Nelson debuted a premium, updated look in 2014 following the company’s acquisition of the brand in 2011, according to Heaven Hill’s director of marketing Kate Latts. “I think you saw the effects of that new look in 2014, coupled with premium POS and merchandising items, including a wooden core to be used outside in the summer months, supporting consumption for outdoor occasions,” she says.
In the coming year, the brand will add high-value display items, such as a wooden bar cart for on-premise. It also plans to launch Admiral Nelson Black Patch, a 94-proof black rum.
Blackheart Spiced Rum, on the other hand, saw its first year of national advertising in 2014 through a close partnership with Playboy magazine. “We created a custom Blackheart-branded mini-magazine that went into every copy of Playboy one issue, which was really engaging,” Latts says. “It capitalized on the bolder, edgier segment of the spiced rum category and surpassed all of our goals.
Blackheart will begin sponsoring Mixed Martial Arts fighting as the official rum of the series this year. This involves signage, arena branding, television advertising on the Spike network, and a continuation of the print program with Playboy.
A Quarter-Millennium of Growth
As Hennessy celebrates its 250th year, it continues with the mantra “Never stop. Never settle.” That campaign, along with a collaboration with singer Nas, helped drive awareness around the Cognac brand in 2014.
“We also recently held the 11th annual V.S.O.P Privilege Awards and honored Shark Tank investor and FUBU founder Daymond John for his commitment to mentorship and fostering entrepreneurship within his community,” says brand manager Jacqueline Long.
The brand will pay homage to Hennessy’s 250-year legacy and heritage throughout 2015, releasing a limited edition Cognac and showcasing the Hennessy 250 Tour at Lincoln Center in New York.
Passion for the peculiar
As a category, gin has had considerable ups and downs. So how has Hendrick’s Gin manage to sustain its growth since the brand was founded in 1999?
The brand attributes its success to the passion of the team at distributor William Grant & Sons, as well as enthusiasm of mixologists. Bartenders nationwide have embraced the gin with its unique taste, character and ability to craft cocktails.
Hendrick’s launched a traveling event called the Emporium of the Unusual last year. The show visited six cities and welcomed more than 16,000 people into the Hendrick’s brand world. The company says it plans to build upon that program in 2015, but “bring it to a new peculiar level this year.”
Identifying the Growth Brands
The Beverage Information & Insights Group uses the following criteria to select this year’s Growth Brand winners, based on the distilled spirit or wine brand’s projected case sales for the 2014 calendar year:
Fast Track Growth Brands must have exceeded 100,000 nine-liter cases, with double-digit growth in each of the last four years. All Fast Track Brands must also be at least five years old.
Rising Star Growth Brands must be less than five full years old and have exhibited notable growth in the past few years, reaching at least 20,000 nine-liter cases in 2014.
Established Growth Brands must be a top seller in their category, moving a minimum of 400,000 nine-liter cases annually. They must also have grown moderately or substantially in each of the past four years.
Comeback Growth Brands include previous winners that have rebounded in sales to at least their previous level, following a recent decline.