Distilled Spirits sales continued their two decades of steady increases in 2018, with whiskey sales continuing to rise among all sub-categories. This year’s list of Growth Brands winners includes 71 spirit brands in four categories: Rising Star, Fast Track, Established Growth and Comeback. Together, they represent more than 74 million 9-liter cases sold.
The largest brands at the list are as diverse as Tito’s Vodka (which grew more than 20% last year), Crown Royal, Jack Daniel’s and Fireball. Some of the fastest-growing brands are much smaller but notable, including two brands from Ole Smoky, Western Son vodka and DeLeon tequila.
This year’s Spirits Supplier of the Year, Brown-Forman (repeating from 2018), had 10 brands on the list. More will be said about those winners in the next issue.
How did these winning brands achieve their sustained success needed to make our Growth Brands list? A combination of successful marketing, increased distribution, unique activation programs on- and off-premise and generally tapping into consumer trends at the right time.
A World of Whiskeys
You can’t talk about growth within the spirits industry without emphasizing how much whiskey brands are expanding. New brands are entering the market, existing brands are branching out with new expressions, aging processes and finishes, and consumers just can’t get enough.
“We see consumers drinking across categories in whiskey, particularly in social occasions,” says Tullamore DEW brand manager Conor Neville. The William Grant & Sons brand was a Fast Track winner this year for its nearly 20% growth.
“Consumers are becoming more engaged with an increasingly accessible Irish category as it opens its doors to new audiences, occasions and rituals,” Nevelle says. “We’ve seen a decade of double-digit growth, and there are no signs of anything slowing down.”
Irish whiskey category leader Jameson, which entered the Growth Brands Hall of Fame last year, is a Fast Track winner again this year, with nearly 3.5 million cases sold.
“Last year Jameson launched the ‘Love Thy Neighborhood Block Party,’ a program that gives back to local communities across the country,” says vice president Paul Di Vito. “The events support Keep America Beautiful, with the tour kicking off in San Diego and continuing to Austin and Nashville. We celebrated the features of these cities with local food vendors, brewery partners and local musicians.”
One of the highest-selling brands on this year’s list of winners, Diageo’s Crown Royal, has continued to expand its portfolio of flavors and expressions, as well as its charitable giving. The brand was an Established Growth winner once again, with nearly 6.3 million cases sold.
“Consumers want to feel good about the brands they support, and brands are expected to contribute to the greater good in society,” says brand director Nicky Heckles. “With initiatives such as the Purple Bag Project, which aims to send 1 million care packages to troops serving overseas and those affected by national disasters by 2020, as well as the Crown Royal Water Break, a movement that encourages responsible game-day consumption, we resonate with consumers through our generosity and social responsibility.”
Within the larger whiskey category, rye has stood out as a bright spot to watch in coming years. Jack Daniel’s Tennessee Rye spokesperson Svend Jansen calls the rye category “very hot.” Tennessee Rye was a rising star this year, rising nearly 10% to 35,000 cases in its second year.
“We’re benefiting from rye’s recent resurgence and adoption from consumers and bartenders,” Jansen says. “It’s a bold and spicy spirit that’s versatile and stands up nicely in classic cocktails.”
Beam Suntory’s Knob Creek has also benefited from a rye variant within its portfolio. The original brand was an Established Growth winner for its 450,000 cases sold in 2018, and has seen its portfolio of expressions grow over the years.
“The award-winning Knob Creek Rye continued to stand out as a bartender favorite for classic whiskey cocktails like the Old Fashioned,” says Rob Mason, vice president of whiskey for Beam Suntory. . “The brand’s success off-premise was strengthened by variants within its rye portfolio—the introduction of Knob Creek Single Barrel Rye and the limited releases of Cask Strength Rye and Twice Barreled Rye.”
Cordials, Liqueurs and Flavor
Flavored spirits continue to drive sales, and while exotic flavors that were all the rage a decade ago haven’t come back yet, traditional flavors are booming. Cinnamon-flavored whisky Fireball surpassed 5 million cases for the first time in 2018, earning it another Established Growth win.
“Our success is based on the devotion and support of our Fireball nation,” says senior marketing director Becky Henry. “Fireball fans continue to love igniting the night!”
Cinnamon has also worked well for Jack Daniel’s, which has both Tennessee Fire and Tennessee Honey on this year’s list as a Comeback Brand and Established Growth brand, respectively.
“Our official partnership with the NBA has created great excitement for JD Tennessee Honey and has helped us reach new friends of Jack,” Jansen says. “We’ve also worked on a program called ‘neighborhood flavors,’ which celebrates the culture and creativity of five unique communities around the U.S.”
“The Tennessee Fire ‘Rise from the Fire’ cause-marketing program was something that helped drive awareness and buzz around the brand,” he adds, “along with our ‘Gather Round the Fire’ media campaign earlier in the year.”
Traditional liqueurs have dropped as a category, thanks to flavored spirits and the mixology trends surrounding natural flavorings. But Grand Marnier earned another Comeback Brand win this year for its 1.2% growth to more than 522,000 cases.
“During the summer we brought consumers what they wanted during warm months—refreshing cocktails,” says Lana Kouznetsov, U.S. category director of European icons for Campari America. “We dialed in on the Grand Margarita for Cinco de Mayo and our Grand Collins—a low-ABV alternative for at-home entertaining. During the holidays, we focused on in-store displays to show how gift-worthy our bottle truly is.”
Grown South of the Border
“Rising interest in tequila cocktails can be largely attributed to bartenders’ experimentation with tequila cocktails on-premise,” says Sauza senior marketing director Matt Plumb. The Beam Suntory brand is an Established Growth winner in 2018, selling more than 2.5 million cases. “Leveraging the refreshment trend on-premise, we activated several ‘poptail’ executions showcasing tequila’s flexibility in frozen form,” he adds.
In its first full year as a Diageo brand, Casamigos grew 50% to more than 250,000 cases in 2018. “We’re seeing people drinking Casamigos that never tried tequila before,” says CEO Lee Einsidler. “Consumers want the best, and they appreciate the authenticity and quality of Casamigos.”
Campari’s Espolon tequila highlighted its Mexican roots in 2018, utilizing label artwork to pay tribute to 19th-century artist and printmaker Jose Guadalupe Posada, who used his art to comment on social injustice.
“We also highlighted our authentic Mexican roots by launching a Day of the Dead roaming altar, allowing our consumers to interact with the brand in a completely unexpected way,” says category director of White spirits Bernadette Knight. “We’re focused in 2019 on driving distribution and increasing consumer awareness.”
Other Notable Winners
While Tito’s dominates the headlines when talking about vodka, it’s far from the only winner in the category on our Growth Brands list. Fast Track brand Deep Eddy, which was acquired by Heaven Hill a few years ago, is driven by partnerships with Southwest Airlines, music festivals such as SXSW and other brands that fit within the brand’s “Authentic American” lifestyle.
“Vodka continues to be the largest category in the spirits business, and Texas premium vodka has experienced exceptional growth over the last several years,” says Matt Krocheski, marketing director for Fast Track winner Western Son vodka. “We’re continuing to build our footprint on-premise with our signature cocktail and mule programs. Consumers continue to search for authentic, crafted brands with unique offerings.”
Zach Brinley, “chief bootlegger” of Brinley Gold Shipwreck rum—a Rising Star for the third straight year, agrees. “We’ve been helped tremendously by the overall move by consumers to premium and craft brands,” he says.
“We know that rum—especially infused rums—has a lot more room for growth,” Brinley notes. “We rely heavily on off-premise tastings, and our flavors have always been the key to sales, leading us to many fans.”
Heaven Hill’s Admiral Nelson, a perennial Established Growth Brand, is another rum doing well in a lackluster overall category. “Rum has the second-highest impulse purchase rate of all spirits,” according to a brand manager. “We’ve seen spiced and traditional flavors perform well as consumers and brands return focus to the basics for the category. Our pineapple exceeded expectations when it launched in 2018, and we look forward to launching our watermelon flavor nationally in 2020.”