Once again, spirits sales rose in 2019, continuing an unprecedented growth streak. This year’s list of Growth Brands winners includes 75 spirits across four categories: Rising Star, Fast Track, Established Growth and Comeback Brand.
Combined, they represent more than 85 million cases sold.Tito’s Handmade Vodka continued its upward trajectory, growing by more than 20% again last year. The remaining list of large brands (million-case sellers) is dominated by whiskey, tequila and vodka. Hennessy, Malibu, Baileys and JD Country Cocktails also showed impressive growth.
This year’s Spirits Supplier of the Year for the third year in a row is Brown- Forman, which saw 12 of its spirits make this year’s Growth Brands list.
How did these 75 brands achieve sustained success and meet our Growth Brands sales criteria? A combination of successful marketing, increased distribution, unique activation programs on- and off-premise and by generally tapping into consumer trends at the right time. (Visit the Growth Brands section of our website for more on the criteria.)
Editor’s Note: The information collected for this article predates many of the travel and business restrictions put in place in response to the coronavirus. Many 2020 marketing and promotion plans may be impacted as a result.
It’s A Whiskey World
Brown-Forman’s Woodford Reserve reached the 1 million case mark in early 2020 across its portfolio of expressions, with the original whiskey earning a Fast Track recognition for 20% growth in 2019 to 684,000 cases.
“Trends show consumers are drinking less, but drinking better and more premium, which is a great market position for a superpremium brand such as Woodford Reserve,” says brand director Tracey Johnson.
Since its creation in 1996, Woodford Reserve’s focus has been on-premise advocacy, connecting with bartenders globally through cocktail competitions and classic cocktail recipes.
“Off-premise we carry our message of quality and attention to detail through high-quality display tools,” Johnson adds. “And Woodford Reserve makes a wonderful gift during key periods like Father’s Day and Christmas, which we highlight via engraving programs, personalized labels and high-quality VAPs like a cut-crystal Old Fashioned glass.”
Also in Brown-Forman’s portfolio, Jack Daniel’s Tennessee Rye won its third Rising Star award, which brand manager Adam Hayes attributes to the appeal of the rye category.
“Rye is attracting a vast array of spirits consumers,” Hayes says. “Bartenders are leaning on rye whiskey as the base of many classic cocktails, as well as exploring their own creations. The home bartender is also contributing to the rise, as consumers are becoming their own home mixologists.”
On-premise, JD Tennessee Rye relies on brand ambassadors to educate bartenders about their unique rye, while off-premise the brand has seen success in national accounts with RTD partner Angostura Lemon Lime and Bitters.
“There’s been a continued rise in popularity of finished whiskeys and an increased emphasis on premiumization within the whiskey category,” says Angel’s Envy chief innovation officer Wes Henderson. “As a leader in these spaces, our brand grew exponentially in 2019, and we launched the Angel’s Envy Cellar Collection—our platform for limited and special releases with a special focus on innovation.”
The Bacardi-owned brand was a Fast Track winner again this year, growing 38.6% and surpassing 100,000 cases for the first time.
Henderson credits on-premise events, food-pairing experiences and brand ambassadors for its success on-premise.
“Our partners in local markets throughout the world put great time and energy in connecting with local accounts to create engaging experiences that leave a lasting impression,” he says.
While the flavored whiskey category is down significantly from its heyday a few years ago, there are new brands capturing consumer attention. That includes Skrewball Peanut Butter Whiskey from Infinium Spirits, which was named a Rising Star this year after growing by more than 500% in 2019.
“Our message of a brand developed and influenced by the bartending community, for bartenders, has struck a chord of acceptance and loyalty,” says president Carl Carlson. “The peanut butter flavor is a comfort flavor, one that doesn’t create flavor exhaustion and is consumed by all demographics.”
Off-premise, 50-ml. counter displays for consumer trial have been highly successful for the brand, as has impactful POS that reinforces the brand story, “to the misfits, black sheep and Skrewballs.” The brand’s premium price point and turn velocity “have caught the attention of our retail trade partners,” Carlson says. “The higher ring and favorable gross profit potential has been recognized as a key factor in focusing their attention on the Skrewball growth opportunity.”
Vodka Keeps Soaring
Led by top-selling spirit Tito’s, the vodka category continues to grow. Tito’s earned its 13th Growth Brands Award this year as a Fast Track winner, continuing its impressive rise. Vice president of trade marketing Frank Polley attributes that success to consumers’ appreciation for quality.
“The ability to provide a great drink with low-calorie, no-carb, gluten-free options in various cocktails gives consumers what they want,” Polley says. “What’s really been effective year in and year out is sticking to the basics, which starts with offering up cocktail solutions aligned with what consumers are looking for.”
Tito’s also leverages its philanthropic efforts, which include the brand’s Love, Tito’s campaign and Vodka for Dog People.
“Both are great initiatives that allow us to program our brand to help drive awareness and fundraising to support a wide range of local charities,” Polley adds.
Like Tito’s, Dixie Southern Vodka has benefited from the recent trend of consumers shifting from imported to American vodkas.
“The big, global brands are falling out of favor, particularly with younger consumers who want to know who’s behind the brands they support, where the ingredients come from, and are more inclined to support local and independent brands,” says Grain & Barrel Spirits CEO Matti Anttila. “We check all those boxes, and consumers and the trade are supporting us for it.”
Dixie Southern highlights that “drink local” message on-premise, featuring stories from ingredient partners on menus. Off-premise, the brand highlights a “Flavor of the South” message with POS, in-store tastings and staff education. The brand’s status as an official NASCAR partner in 2020 will help expand its national distribution.
Texas-based Western Son Vodka, a Fast Track award winner, has also benefited from the trend towards local and independent brands—with a variety of consumers.
“This was a big growth year for us on-premise, activating across independents with positive consumer response,” says director of brand marketing Erin King. “The beauty of Western Son is how well we fit into a variety of concepts. It’s not uncommon to see us at a local watering hole, and also on a cocktail menu at a white-tablecloth concept.”
The focus for 2020 will be telling the brand’s story, connecting with more consumers and developing brand loyalists.
“Consumers are looking for more than just great products; they want connection and shared beliefs,” King says. “Western Son was built on independent, hard-working, innovative thinkers, and those characteristics are still driving our brand today.”
ROC House Brands’ Recipe 21 Vodka benefits from its value proposition, earning Fast Track status for a 32.5% growth in 2019.
“R21 offers four-times distilled, premium vodka at one of the lowest price points in the market,” says branding director Mary DeMarco. “We’ve also seen significant growth because of the brand’s modern packaging—the colorful, bright bottle pops on-shelf when compared with other brands in the value vodka category.”
On-premise, the brand has seen success with themed parties that include shot specials, signature cocktails, free merchandise, sampling and a geo- fenced snapchat filter. Off-premise, recent promotions include a life-size golf cart display and summertime grill-out BBQ.
“We recently launched our Wicked Cin cinnamon whiskey, which has been gaining momentum and will be a focus for 2020,” DeMarco says. “Keeping the momentum going, we’re also adding a spiced rum to our portfolio.”
Runs On The Rise
While the rum category as a whole is still struggling to gain traction against other brown spirits, a few brands have taken advantage of current consumer trends. Shaw-Ross Importers’ Ron Barcelo is a Comeback Brand for 2020, riding a wave on the premiumization trend.
“The growth in superpremium brown spirits, primarily American whiskeys, has had a profound influence on our sales,” says brand manager Rod Simmons. “Consumers are beginning to understand this, and becoming more inclined to consume superpremium rum in the same manner as other brown spirits.”
Ron Barcelo has relied heavily on consumer sampling to drive sales, where permitted, and is committed to expanding distribution in the coming year to continue its growth. Kenny Chesney’s Blue Chair Bay is thriving in the cream part of the rum category, thanks to increased interest in cream liqueurs. The brand is a Fast Track winner for 2020 in recognition of its double-digit growth.
“There’s been a good amount of innovation in the liqueur category over the years, and we feel we’ve contributed to that,” says president David Farmer. “Our fruit-flavored rum creams have allowed us to offer consumers a product for innovative cocktails while being health conscious.”
The brand’s biggest 2019 campaign was pairing its Banana Rum Cream with peanut butter whiskey, providing a new shot and cocktail strategy for on-premise accounts. Combined with its focus on beach accounts, both of those strategies helped increase off-premise sales as well.
2020 will see the brand launch a bus tour, where representatives will travel the country to off-premise accounts engaging consumers with sampling opportunities and engraved bottles.
Gin Is In
Gin has been resurgent on-premise in recent years, thanks to consumers’ embrace of cocktail culture. Some of that momentum is transferring off-premise, thanks to a rise in those same consumers making cocktails at home.
“Hendrick’s has been driving the growth of the premium gin category,” says senior brand manager Paige Parness. “This is a category that is flourishing. Because of our unusual approach to production and experiential marketing, consumer demand for our liquid is strong.”
The William Grant brand is a perennial Fast Track winner, growing just over 10% in 2019. On-premise, Hendrick’s has focused on large consumer sampling events such as Austin City Limits, where the brand set up a large-scale festival installation at a park. It’s also benefited from expanding the portfolio with new releases.
“Last spring we announced the release of Midsummer Solstice, a small-batch limited-edition gin created by female Master Distiller Lesley Gracie,” Parness says. “The unconventional release featured
floral essences chosen to enhance and accentuate the existing elements of our brand’s original house style, including rose and cucumber.”
Drumshanbo Gunpowder Irish gin, which used several off-premise promotions and activations in 2019, won a Rising Star with 30,000 cases sold in just its second year.
“Our displays feature a premium copper look, inspired by the medieval copper pot stills used to produce the gin,” says Palm Bay’s general manager of wine and spirits Gary Schlem. “Our VAPs include a matching Gunpowder signature blue, ridged high ball glass.”
The brand will release a limited-edition ceramic bottle, and will increase participation in key trade events.