Flavored whiskey isn’t new, of course — rock and rye and apple and berry variations have been around since the colonists first fired up their stills.
What is new is the rapid rise of a flavored subsegment concurrent with consumer fascination with the overall whiskey category.
Parallels can be drawn to the vodka flavor craze a few years ago, but with whiskey’s added cachet. Jim Beam was one of the flavor pioneers with the launch of Red Stag Black Cherry in 2009, though it was the 2006 rebranding of the spicy Dr. McGillicuddy’s Fireball Cinnamon Whisky that really set the category on fire.
Millennials took to the Canadian whisky brand like the eponymous hot cinnamon candy. Fireball’s success inspired other whiskey brands to release their own versions―Jim Beam Kentucky Fire, Jack Daniel’s Tennessee Fire and Heaven Hill’s Cinerator―to name just a few.
Latching onto a good thing, brands soon developed other whiskey flavors―honey, apple, maple and more―that have found success in the U.S. market. Indeed, the Distilled Spirits Council cites the flavored whiskey segment as a major factor in overall spirits growth.
Tackling the Trend
For on-premise operators, the question is not whether to offer these trendy spirits, but how to choose from the rapidly proliferating options, how to promote them and how to incorporate flavored whiskeys into their mixology programs.
“What I like about flavored whiskeys is that they are approachable, Millennial-focused and far different from the spirits their parents were drinking,” says Cindy Busi, worldwide beverage director of Hard Rock International. The Orlando-based hospitality company debuted two flavored whiskey cocktails during the holiday season in its 47 U.S. Hard Rock Cafes and worldwide.
“My customers are looking for a whiskey that’s fun and can be enjoyed in many different ways,” Busi says. “That’s what I like about flavored whiskeys: Traditionally they are drunk as a shot, but they have a wonderful mixology aspect, too.”
St. Louis-based Gamlin Restaurant Group operates Sub Zero Vodka Bar and the Gamlin Whiskey House. “By two to one, I sell more flavored whiskeys at Sub Zero Vodka Bar than I do at the Gamlin Whiskey House,” says corporate bar manager Dustin Parres.
The clientele at the Whiskey House is more interested in higher-end straight whiskeys, Parres explains, while Sub Zero attracts a crowd that likes to drink more refreshing, fruity cocktails. The flavored whiskey lineup at the latter establishment includes Fireball, Jim Beam Kentucky Fire, Wild Turkey American Honey and Crown Royal Regal Apple, among others. “We carry them because they are great shooters right out of the bottle,” says Parres. Gamlin Whiskey House carries the top spicy cinnamon whiskeys. “We do put a bit of a push behind those and have success with them,” he notes.
Also popular, Parres adds, are Irish expressions, such as Paddy Bee Sting and Paddy Devil’s Apple, as well as Bushmills Irish Honey. “I go through a lot of Dewar’s Highlander Honey as well, because it’s got that smoky dimension.”
Parres notes that his clientele is not just the whiskey nerds―they bring their friends, too, who are maybe looking for something more approachable to drink than a cask-strength bourbon. That’s where flavored whiskeys fit in.
While flavored whiskey entrants may be proliferating on retailers’ shelves, on-premise operators have to contend with an already crowded backbar and limited menu space. How do beverage managers decide what to stock?
“For better or worse, name brands are important,” says Parres. Brands such as Jack Daniel’s, Jim Beam and Crown Royal have followings, he contends. So when one of those comes out with a new flavor, customers will want to try it.
“Other whiskey brands may offer flavors too,” Parres adds. “Those may sell off the shelf in a retail store, but no one comes into a bar asking for it.”
All of the Hard Rock Cafes worldwide carry Fireball. Its nearly universal availability was key in the decision to stock the whiskey.
“When we make these decisions, we look at brands that have a global presence, in every beverage category,” says Busi. “That way, when we run promotions, there is one unified message to celebrate that. And the bartenders are making the same drink in Sidney, Australia, as they are in Orlando, Florida.”
But in some markets, especially in areas of the U.S. where whiskey is particularly popular, Hard Rock locations may offer more flavored whiskey brands. Busi cites Jack Daniel’s Tennessee Fire and Tennessee Honey, and Jim Beam Maple and Red Stag Black Cherry as examples.
On a much smaller and perhaps more adventurous scale is Brian’s 24 Restaurant, Bar & Grill in San Diego’s Gaslamp Quarter. “It is important to check out the trends. Sometimes they don’t pan out; nobody buys them. Sometimes they do,” says Andrea Epstein, general manager and a co-owner at the 24-hour, casual-dining spot. Brian’s 24 currently carries just a few different flavored whiskeys, but will buy an additional bottle or two to feature as a special promotion. “That’s part of the advantage to being family owned and operated business as opposed to a corporation,” Epstein says. “We can try new things just because they sound like fun.”