The annual Distilled Spirits Council (DISCUS) New York holiday event is a window into what’s currently hot in alcohol — and what’s gaining steam.
Brand reps from some of the world’s biggest drinks companies — Brown-Forman, Diageo, Pernod Ricard, Beam Suntory, etcetera — poured products at the 2016 party last week at the The VYNL in Manhattan. Below are four trends from the event that should carry into 2017 and beyond:
1) “Blended” Will No Longer Be A Whiskey Pejorative
Some customers turn noses up at blended whiskey. This derives from Scotch, where single-malt expressions are traditionally thought superior to blended versions. But the current craft movement is educating consumers to the contrary. “Blended” no longer has to mean “lower quality.”
For instance: High West Distillery. This U.S. spirits-producer mixes up unique whiskey blends with bourbon, rye and even Scotch. Their Campfire whiskey, poured at the DISCIS event, is a combination of all three styles: a balance of sweet, spicy and smoky.
It’s unlikely that consumers would drink Campfire and think the whiskey worse for being a blend. Rather, consumers today care much more about quality, flavor and uniqueness.
“People want something that’s different and the only way to achieve that at this point is through blending,” explained Jack Shute, High West Director of Sales, East Region, at the DISCUS event. “The whiskey connoisseur understands that blending is the new trend. As for the average consumer, they’re getting there.”
And that extends now even into Scotch. Major brands like The Macallan and Highland Park are riding high in the brown-spirits boom, but running out of product to meet demand. In response, they’re created tasty new blends like Macallan Rare Cask and Highland Park Dark Origins to get new product onto shelves and into the hands of eager consumers.
As more consumers embrace these products, the days of looking down on whiskey blends will likely become a thing of the past.
2) Big Brands Seek Craft Angles
As the craft boom continues, most big brands have understandably upped the emphasis on their craft qualities. Phrases like “handpicked,” “hand-selected,” “hand-labeled,” “artisanal,” “super premium” and “authentic” have become common even for the largest of brands and the most ubiquitous of products. Other brands have highlighted their storied histories as a component similar to “craft.”
“Authenticity trumps craft,” said Colin Campbell, New York Market Manager for Brown-Forman, in describing Jack Daniel’s Old No. 7, which dates back to the 19th century. “Obviously we see the movement towards craft and welcome all the little distilleries, but there’s still a lot to be said about longevity.”
Jack Daniel’s in recent years has also launched its own craft variants: Gentleman Jack, Single Barrel, Single Barrel Barrel Proof and Jack Daniel’s Sinatra Select.
It’s a balance, then, among producing spirits for the new wave of whiskey connoisseurs, while maintaining emphasis on flagship products, and finding ways to marry both strategies.
“I remind you, all our premium whiskeys started out as Old No. 7. The recipe never changes,” Campbell said. “Most people had a little bit of fun with Old No. 7 in college, but then they circle back around to it years later and see its true craftsmanship.”
Patrón Tequila, too, has become adept at this craft/mainstream balance in recent time. While obviously a big brand, the tequila excels at portraying its production as “small-batch on a large scale.” Everything is still done through traditional methods, just multiplied many times over, including crushing agaves with a Tahona stone. “Though we obviously don’t use a donkey anymore to turn the stone,” said brand rep Jessie Fink.
Elsewhere at the DISCUS event, Belvedere Vodka was comparing the farm fields in Poland that produce its rye to the Champagne vineyards of France. The idea being that optimal production locations and methods produce optimal alcohol — and that’s what modern consumers and mixologists care about.
3) Craft Cocktails Elevate Brands
Another route for big brands to tap into the craft craze is through craft cocktails. This is nothing new nowadays, of course, but is worth remembering as more brands seek their way into the mixology movement.
Jägermeister was pouring a craft cocktail called “Waes Hael.” Created by mixologist Justin Noel, it contained 2 parts Jäger, ½ part Ancho Reyes, ½ part Strega, ¼ part peppermint syrup, 6 parts drip coffee, topped with whipped cream and holiday spices. The hot cocktail made excellent use of Jäger’s boozy spicy qualities.
This is quite the upgrade for a spirit with a reputation for fueling crazy college parties. “The same people who were doing shots of Jäger in college are now in the mid-30s and making craft cocktails with it,” said bartender Blake Adams at the DISCUS event. “It’s come a long way from the freezer in college. Jägermeister is now evolving beyond that stigma.”
The spirit plays well in cocktails, he adds, with its complex spice profile, and booziness that cuts through flavors and reminds consumers they’re drinking alcohol.
Patrón, again, has also embraced this strategy, with craft cocktail recipes featured prominently on its website.
4) Rum Wants To Take On Whiskey
Craft rum in recent times has touted itself as the “cheaper” alternative to whiskey. Not that premium rum is lower in quality, of course, just less expensive in price. A $40 rum that’s been aged for 12 years is arguably comparable in quality to a 12-year-old Scotch, rye or bourbon priced $80 or more.
But top rum brands like Brugal, with bottles above $40, see their products not as an alternative to whiskey — but as a competitor.
“Rum is capable of saying, ‘I’m here too and I’m worth it’,” said Edrington Brand Ambassador Jordan Zimmerman at the DISCUS event. “Premium rum is trending towards a new, higher place in terms of reputation.”
Kyle Swartz is associate editor of Cheers magazine.