Each year our Growth Brands Awards recognize the fastest-growing and top-selling spirits in the U.S. These products have effectively connected into the consumer consciousness, while driving alcohol trends in the past year.
The past 12 months were among the more difficult of our lives. While not matching the murky, unprecedented chaos of 2020, the year 2021 was still plagued by Covid-19 and its resulting economic, social and public health hardships. In many ways, our lives remained upside down.
The result was cultural change at a rapid clip. Ecommerce, convenience and social responsibility burst to the forefront, spurring our purchasing decisions.
At the same time, more of Generation Z graduated into legal drinking age. Supplanting Millennials as the youngest LDA consumers, Gen Z brought its own set of new trends. What did this entail? Zoomers tend to drink lighter and healthier, favoring easy-drinking hard seltzers and RTDs. Lower-alc brands have also caught their eye.
Which is all to say that the alcohol industry has continued to evolve significantly in the pandemic era. Brands highlighted by our awards this year have diligently navigated this shifting, difficult landscape, tapping into a number of trends. We salute all winners in 2022 for achieving this momentous accomplishment.
Growth in RTDs
Perhaps the most dominant trend in the past year was the meteoric rise of ready to drink beverages. This includes Rising Star winner, Jack Daniel’s Can Cocktails.
“Jack Daniel’s Can Cocktails hit at a perfect time when RTDs were really taking over, as people looked for a single-serving option of their favorite drinks,” says Dallas Cheatham, Jack Daniel’s RTD’s brand director. “I think that started our success, but I also think that consumer’s need for convenience will continue to fuel us. We are also seeing the spirit-based subcategory for RTDs enjoy a lot of success, as people look for more premium options, and we think that more specifically, whiskey-based RTDs have a lot of runway left.”
With today’s consumers experimenting eagerly, many RTD brands captured growth by launching new, creative flavors.
“Our mission is to create fun, innovative cocktails! We were able to release two new flavors in the past year, Chili Mango and our seasonal Eggnog,” says Tia Wines, director of marketing for the Fast Track winner, BuzzBallz. “We will be launching a new flavor this year, BuzzBallz Cocktails Espresso Martini.”
“Consumers continue to demand convenience, and their rapid adoption of RTDs over the past few years has helped drive sales exponentially for our brands,” she adds.
This convenience is not only about cans and other, smaller packaging. Fast Track brand Western Son Vodka rolled out a new portfolio of larger-format RTDs.
“This spring we are excited to launch our large-format (1.75-L) Ready to Serve Spiked Lemonade lineup,” says Erin King, senior director of brand marketing and on-premise. “These lemonades come in four fresh flavors all made with our award-winning vodka: Original, Blueberry, Peach and Strawberry. Now more than ever, we are seeing consumers gravitate towards familiar and classic flavors. Western Son Spiked Lemonades are perfect for the upcoming season: simply pour over ice and enjoy! Distribution kicked off in Q1 2022 and will continue into Q2.”
Other popular RTD formats include boxed products. Rising Star Drake’s Organic Spirits found success with their Boxtail lineup.
“In 2021, we launched our Perfect Margarita Boxtail, which joined Minted Mojito, Watermelon-Tini, Mango Punch and Black Cherry Limeade in this innovative, eco-friendly, ready to drink cocktail line,” says Mark Anderson, CEO and co-founder, Drake’s Organic Spirits. “We brought the convenience of boxed wine to the cocktail arena, used only organic ingredients and built a whole new category: organic pre-mixed craft cocktails in sustainable packaging. Since the 2020 launch, Boxtails have significantly bolstered Drake’s growth trajectory.”
“Regarding activations and promotions, most specifically for the Boxtails, we heavied up on in-store tastings, executing about 3,000 over the course of the year,” Anderson adds. “We worked with independents, as well as chains, including Walmart, Sam’s Club, ABC Fine Wine & Spirits and Meijer. Our conversion rate was 55% at the low-end, and 90% at the high.”
Many brands leaned into marketing that appealed to the younger LDA demos who are driving the RTD trend.
“In April 2021, we kicked off with the U.S. launch of our first-ever line of canned cocktails: Bombay Sapphire & Tonic and Bombay Sapphire & Tonic Light,” says Jaime Keller, brand director for Bombay Sapphire, which won a Rising Star award. “To take the new collection to the next level, we partnered with cultural touchstone Bill Nye the Science Guy to create a tongue-in-cheek content series, where Bill broke down ‘the scientific reason behind why the Bombay & Tonic tastes so good.’ Our target audience were discerning Millennials, people who are willing to pay more for a premium cocktail, and yet often don’t have the time to make one themselves. Many of these people grew up watching Bill Nye’s show, and we were able to capture their attention through this playful, out-of-the box partnership.”
Bacardi earned a Rising Star Growth Brand for their RTD line.
“Spring and summer saw some exciting new product launches from the brand, with the first being the expansion of the Bacardi Real Rum Canned Cocktails range back in May 2021,” says Lisa Pfenning, VP, Bacardi North America. “This expansion introduced three new flavors, including Bahama Mama, Mojito and Sunset Punch, in addition to our first-ever Variety Pack — featuring Mojito, Rum Punch and Sunset Punch variants. This launch followed the successful debut of Bacardi Real Rum Canned Cocktails in spring 2020, and with the ever-growing market for ready-to-drink cocktails, Bacardi debuted these new flavor offerings to meet the growing consumer demands.”
“Building on that momentum, we’ve just launched even more flavor additions to the RTD range,” she adds, “including Bacardi Pina Colada, and a brand-new Mojito Variety Pack with new Mango Mojito and Strawberry Mojito variants.”
It’s likely that RTDs are in great position for post-pandemic, as well. The convenience of canned cocktails will find a welcome home in the return of mass, live events.
“Jack Daniel’s Can Cocktails were set up for success in the Covid environment, but we are ready to get back to live music, festivals, recreation areas and all the things that were on hold in the past few years,” says Cheatham. “The is no brand more associated with music, so our brand is once again set up to win.”
Healthier and Eco-concious
Living a healthier lifestyle was already on the minds of many consumers before Covid-19. Then the public health crisis heightened many people’s belief that they must take better care of what they put into their bodies. Accordingly, consumers bought more brands that were low- or no-alcohol, and made with better ingredients.
For instance: Rising Star winner Grey Goose Essences.
“Grey Goose Essences was born from the increasing consumer desire for products that are light, bright, low on calories and include natural ingredients,” explains Aleco Azqueta, VP of marketing, Grey Goose. “We’re lucky to have a family of products that plays perfectly into this, but we wanted to create a new line of low-ABV spirits specifically designed to be enjoyed in a simple soda cocktail, and garnished with just fresh fruit and herbs.”
“The result was Essences, which comes in three juicy varietals — Strawberry & Lemongrass, White Peach & Rosemary, and Watermelon & Basil — all made with the same Grey Goose vodka that consumers already know and love, infused with the best fruits and botanicals from around the world to add vibrant flavors without artificial ingredients or sugars,” he adds.
Consumers also increasingly turned to brands that remained eco-conscious.
“We chose bag-in-box packaging rather than cans for sustainability reasons: all Drake’s Boxtails are packaged in 1.75-liter recycled cartons that are 100% compostable, and both the inner bladders and spigots are 100% recyclable,” says Anderson. “At 14 cocktails per box, Drake’s Boxtails save five aluminum cans going into landfills, making it both a delicious and ecologically sound choice.”
American Whiskey Booms
Bourbon and other American-made whiskeys were already trending prior to 2020. Then Covid-19 sent so many people home for long stretches of time, much of which we spent online, researching new hobbies and interests. Whiskey communities exploded in size on Facebook and elsewhere. Suddenly, everybody became a bourbon nerd.
A whole new wave of whiskey-curious consumers leapt into the deep end of American brown spirits. As these people connected online, they shared their favorite bottles, showcasing the “good stuff” while fueling premiumization.
“The demand for super-premium spirits has helped drive growth of Woodford Reserve, which leads the super-premium American whiskey category (brands priced above $30),” says Tracey Johnson, VP and brand director, United States and Canada, Woodford Reserve.
This brand received a Fast Track award. Like many other distilleries, Woodford Reserve tapped into the immense consumer demand for top-shelf whiskeys with different finishes, blends and special releases.
“Woodford Reserve launched two master’s collections and three distillery series products in 2021, in addition to our annual Kentucky Derby bottle,” Johnson says. “We also debuted co-branded cocktail mixers with the retailer Williams Sonoma.”
“Woodford Reserve Baccarat Edition will return for the second year,” she adds. “This luxury expression is Woodford Reserve bourbon finished in XO cognac casks and bottled in a handmade crystal decanter from Baccarat, France.”
Comeback Brand Maker’s Mark also reflected the category’s premiumization with several innovative releases.
“In February 2021, we announced two new limited-edition Wood Finishing Series products, FAE-01 and FAE-02,” says Rob Samuels, president. “These two whiskies explored two completely different flavor profiles of Maker’s Mark through the organic compounds called fatty acid esters (FAEs), which are responsible for both fruit-forward notes and texture variations.”
“In the past, we’ve only released one expression for our yearly Wood Finishing Series,” he adds. “But upon experimenting with numerous stave types, we quickly realized that one release wouldn’t even begin to scratch the surface of what we were tasting, and made the decision to release two separate bottles in order to tell the complete FAE story.”
Fast Track-award winner Angel’s Envy helped popularize creative cask finishes when the brand first launched in 2011. A decade later, they continue this focus.
“Within the past year, Angel’s Envy has released three limited-edition products: Angel’s Envy Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey Finished in Madeira Casks, which is part of our Cellar Collection; Angel’s Envy 2021 Cask Strength Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey Finished in Port Wine Barrels, which is part of our annual Cask Strength program; and, most recently, Angel’s Envy Rye Whiskey Finished in Ice Cider Casks, also part of our Cellar Collection,” says Gigi DaDan, Angel’s Envy GM.
“The expansion will make it possible for 64,000 additional people to experience our brand home each year, while still allowing for the intimate, customized experiences we are known for,” says DaDan. “The expansion will add more than 13,000 square feet to the facility,” expected to reach completion this summer.
Specific additions include: Five new tasting rooms, where guests can partake in educational bourbon tastings; an additional bar space, where the Angel’s Envy team will continue to craft cocktails for reservation and event guests; an event space and full catering kitchen; a designated room for Angel’s Envy’s “Bottle Your Own” experience; and a larger retail area. (Worth noting: During the pandemic, Angel’s Envy never shut down, keeping their entire workforce employed.)
Established Growth Brand and 2022 Hall of Famer Jack Daniel’s looks into the coming year with planned launches of new premium products.
“The Jack Daniel’s family is excited about several new innovations, including the upcoming launch of the Jack Daniel’s Bonded Series, along with the second year of our age-stated products,” says Alicia Johnson, Jack Daniel’s Tennessee Whiskey senior brand manager. “Innovation will continue to play a key role for Jack Daniel’s moving forward.”
The whiskey boom has also included a rise in moonshine products, such as Ole Smoky Distillery, which took home a bevy of Growth Brands for its flavorful lineup.
“The launch of our Peanut Butter Whiskey in 2020 was a remarkable success, and we made a bigger push in 2021,” says Robert Hall, CEO, Ole Smoky Distillery. “Our Peanut Butter Whiskey is a great-tasting product, and was named the number-one best-tasting flavored whiskey in the U.S. by the Beverage Testing Institute in a recent Forbes publication.”
“We are continually evaluating the best-selling products at our distilleries, and based on the tremendous recent success of the White Chocolate Strawberry Cream and Banana Pudding Cream Moonshine products, we launched both into wholesale in 50-ml. and 750-ml. sizes in Q1 of 2022,” he continues. “People’s interest in making great-tasting cocktails at home is also contributing to our sales growth, as our products (which taste good on their own) when mixed with other beverages or flavors, result in a terrific-tasting, easy-to-make cocktail.”
Diversity and Inclusion
Numerous brands in 2021 reflected the growing demand among consumers for products that reflected and supported social equity.
“After working with the Black Bourbon Society in 2019, we admired what the organization was doing to combat inequality in the industry, and sought out ways that we would be able to work with them again in the future,” Samuels of Maker’s Mark explains. “We were thrilled to extend our partnership with the release of Black Bourbon Society’s Maker’s Mark Private Selection: Recipe 2, and look forward to continuing our partnership with BBS.”
“Working closely with Samara and Armond Davis, the founders of the Black Bourbon Society, this second Private Selection specifically celebrated Diversity Distilled, a non-profit organization that advocates to address the diversity, equity and inclusion of brands in the spirits world, and was developed in time for the Black Bourbon Society’s fifth anniversary,” he adds.
In June, Bombay Sapphire launched Bombay Bramble. This Rising Star winner is a natural, fresh-tasting, berry-infused gin, with the 100% natural flavor from freshly harvested blackberries and raspberries, with no added sugar. “To bring the flavor notes of Bombay Bramble to life, we worked with Chef Marcus Samuelsson in a series of food and cocktail pairing classes to highlight emerging Black chefs,” says Keller, “as well as a clever OOH campaign that highlighted the bottle’s vibrant color with renowned Black artists Cey Adams and Dianne Smith.”
Established Growth Brand Crown Royal will continue its partnership with the GLAAD Media Awards.
“We are excited to join GLAAD for the 11th year as a presenting sponsor of the 33rd Annual GLAAD Media Awards, celebrating the in-person return of the show in both Los Angeles and New York City,” says Nicola Heckles, VP of Crown Royal Whisky at Diageo. “And you can expect to see [Established Growth Brand] Ketel One Vodka toasting the changemakers advancing fair media representation of the LGBTQ community in its continued effort to celebrate and support community, inclusivity and authenticity.”
The premiumization trend drove sales for more than just whiskey, of course. All categories benefitted from consumers willing to open their wallets for “affordable luxuries” like high-end alcohol — one way that we have dealt with pandemic-related stress.
“Behind RTDs, the second largest pillar of growth is premiumization, with ultra-premium spirits up 17%,” Pfenning says. “As a brand that’s always looking for ways to entice dark spirits drinkers to trade up to Bacardi rum, we see a lot of opportunity in this space to educate consumers. One way we’re keeping premium spirits drinkers interested is through our Bacardi Reserva Ocho Cask Finish series.”
Premiumization is easier said than done. Maintaining levels of consistency and quality is key.
“We really haven’t changed our philosophy: number one, it’s about the product,” says Rande Gerber, cofounder of Casamigos, which snagged a Fast Track award. “We have a great tequila, and people understand the differences in that.”
“So many people are drinking it, more and more every day, and they spread the word,” he adds. “A lot of those customers who were drinking vodka, whiskey, gin and other liquors are now drinking Casamigos. You can’t have a product that’s only a little bit better than others, because then people will go back to what they know. That’s why you have to create a product that’s much better than others, that really stands out. That’s the true secret to success.”
Premiumization contuinues to benefit brands that helped establish the trend in the first place.
“Patron has been leading the charge in tequila’s upward momentum and we’ve experienced the highest volume that we’ve ever seen as a brand to date,” says Chloe Lloyd-Jones, Patron Tequila VP of marketing. Patron Reposado took home a Fast Track award. “If tequila’s growth continues at this pace, it could surpass vodka — currently #1 in the spirits category — in the next few years.”
The New Normal
With vaccines and booster shots rolling out, and the potency of the virus declining, more consumers now feel comfortable leaving their homes. Thankfully, this spells welcome relief for pandemic-battered bars and restaurants.
“We’re also seeing that the on-premise segment had a great year in 2021 — up 73% vs 2020 — which we can surmise is likely due to people returning to bars and restaurants,” says Pfenning of Bacardi. “This shift in consumer behavior tells us that people are slowly but surely embracing the new normal, and are interested in going out to eat and drink again.”
“After more than a year of being constrained due to the pandemic, thoughtful experiential is re-emerging once again,” says Keller of Bombay Sapphire. “People have been craving community and connectivity, and brands that can inspire and connect with people through genuine experiences and connections will resonate the most.”
Still, it’s a tricky path forward.
“Since it was uncertain whether large-scale in-person experiences would be safe during the holiday season, we wanted to lean into an activation that would take place outdoors and allow consumers to experience at their own level of comfort,” says Keller. “Cue the Bombay Sapphire Holiday Storefront Series, which showcased the work of underrepresented artists, repurposing empty storefronts across the city for creative expression. The result was interactive 5th Avenue-esque window displays that were seen by over 35,000 people, allowing our footprint to be extended in a novel way.”
Many brands and consumers are eager for this “new normal,” living as safely as we can with the virus, working our ways back out into the world.
“As the lockdown restrictions begin to ease, we’re placing a heavy focus on helping our on-premise partners safely welcome consumers back inside,” says Azqueta. “Our data shows that consumers are thrilled to be back at their favorite bars and restaurants, with Grey Goose seeing triple-digit growth in on-premise sales, up 181% YOY, and about 30% higher than the growth of the vodka category as a whole.”
“Enjoying a cocktail at your favorite bar and restaurant feels like such a privilege these days,” Azqueta adds. “We want to encourage everyone to visit their local haunts as long as it’s safe to do so.”