Article By: Lew Bryson
IF YOU’RE UNDER 4O, “liqueur” might be an unfamiliar word. Chances are if you’ve ever had a liqueur, it was a slammed shot of Jagermeister. Americans tend to go for more straightforward drinks, like beer and wine. When we do drink spirits, we stick to full-proof stuff like vodka, rum, and whiskey, straight or in cocktails. Cordials are an afterthought, something you put in coffee, or something your great-aunt drinks. The few exceptions – Baileys, mostly – are just that: exceptions.
Liqueurs and cordials have been a hard sell in America for as long as most of us can remember. The idea of a post-dinner drink of sweetened, lower-proof spirit infused with flavors from herbs, spices, fruit, and/or nuts has had a small following, but despite the oft talked-about American sweet tooth, liqueurs have not enjoyed the same success as the ubiquitous flavored vodkas.
This was particularly true in the case of whiskey-based liqueurs. The standards, Drambuie and Irish Mist, stood practically alone, joined briefly by Wild Turkey Liqueur, mostly memorable for its unique octagonal bottle. Suddenly that’s all changed, and “suddenly” is not an exaggeration. The first of the new breed of American whiskey liqueurs was Wild Turkey’s American Honey, introduced in 2OO6. I remember my first taste of it at that year’s Kentucky Bourbon Festival: thick, sweet, and heavy on the honey flavor. I believe it was tweaked from that first iteration, though it may be that my expectations shifted; American Honey seems lighter, more enjoyable now.
Lots of people thought the same thing, apparently; after a slow, somewhat under the radar start, American Honey is selling strongly. Total US sales were 179,OOO cases in 2O1O, up 37.7% from the previous year, and growth was over 33% in the first ten months of 2O11 in the seventeen states tracked by the National Alcohol Beverage Control Association.
Success spawns competition, and other bourbon distillers soon followed with their own liqueurs. Heaven Hill rolled out Evan Williams Honey Reserve in late 2OO9, and the product quickly jumped to 55,OOO total cases in 2O1O; it continued to grow at 67% in that same ten month window of 2O11 in control states. Heaven Hill added Evan Williams Cherry Reserve in 2O1O, which is also growing, though at a slower rate.
But as Paul Scott, manager at Vinnin Liquors in Swampscott, put it, the real winner in this has been, “The big boys. Jack Daniel’s [Tennessee] Honey is the big seller; to a lesser degree the Evan Williams Honey, and to a lesser degree again, the Wild Turkey American Honey. But the Jack Daniel’s is what people go to.” Jack Daniel’s Tennessee Honey launched in March 2O11, and quickly took off: the solid control state sales figures show 38,OOO cases sold in those seventeen states for that year. Some of that is the Jack Daniel’s name; some of it is the solid distribution and sales network built by the success of Jack Daniel’s whiskey; but some of it also has to be the quality of the liqueur.
Another hot prospect in the category, although it isn’t technically a liqueur, is Jim Beam’s Red Stag. Red Stag appeared in June, 2OO9: “Kentucky straight bourbon whiskey infused with natural black cherry flavors,” according to the label. It is bottled at a full 4O% ABV: real whiskey proof. The company says that while they avoided infusing with actual fruit (to eliminate problems with fruit pectins, and presumably to maintain consistency of flavor), natural fruit essences were used. It shows: the cherry aroma is notably real, not smelling like cough drop flavorings.
Red Stag took off like a rocket; the endorsement by Kid Rock didn’t hurt, but again, the quality of the product had an impact. 2OO9 US sales were 85,OOO cases; in 2O1O, that jumped to 19O,OOO cases, and 2O11 sales were projected to hit 25O,OOO cases. Red Stag and Tennessee Honey together accounted for over one-third of the growth in the bourbon category in 2O11.
More and more are coming, too. Brown-Forman hopes to double-down on their Jack Daniel’s Honey success with the new Early Times Fire Eater cinnamon whiskey. Or maybe triple-down: Southern Comfort has a line of flavored bottlings: Lime, Fiery Pepper, and the new Bold Black Cherry. Diageo continued to expand the Jeremiah Weed blended bourbon line with a “Cherry Mash Flavored” version. Red Stag has added Honey Tea and Spiced versions. The Canadians are in the act as well, with Fireball cinnamon whisky (from Sazerac), the lusciously crème brûlée-like Spicebox, and maple whiskies – is anyone surprised?! – like Tap 357 Maple Rye and Sweet Sippin’ Canadian Maple.
“We’ve seen that the sweeter cinnamon whiskies, like Fireball, are selling well,” Scott noted. “Red Stag is doing well, the maple whiskeys are popular, and the honey whiskeys have really found a market in the last six to eight months.” Scott also mentioned a small local product that continues to do well in the Boston area: Infusion Diabolique. “Diabolique is a bourbon-based infused whiskey, one of our most popular products,” he said. “The customers who like it, love it. The infusion is done at M.S. Walker’s buildings. That is an excellent product.” Infused with fresh figs, cinnamon, and vanilla, Diabolique – like many of the flavored whiskeys – is quite popular with Boston’s imaginative mixologists.
Along with the local products, don’t forget the imports in all this. Irish Mist has been repackaged, and is seeing some success in the new bottle. Drambuie is getting a healthy dose of promotion and cocktail support, and there is a new expression out, made with 15-year-old Speyside malts that really lets the whisky sing. Bushmill s has just launched a honey flavor version also.
Clearly this is an idea whose time has come. But why now? One factor is probably the higher standards set by the mixology revolution. There is an emphasis on better, more natural flavors, and most of these liqueurs have a markedly more natural character to them than flavored spirits from American producers in past years. There is also more appreciation for subtlety and some complexity among today’s drinkers; they’ve been trained to expect more.
At the root, maybe it’s a wannabe issue. Whiskey’s cool again – or hot again, if you prefer – and folks want to get on that train. These liqueurs offer an easy step up to drinking whiskey. It’s an easy step to mixology, too. I have a black thumb when it comes to mixing cocktails – I can just about pull off a Beam and Coke – but Red Stag on the rocks with just a couple dashes of bitters can substitute for a Manhattan on a hot night at home.
That’s what has the whiskey folks interested: movement into their category (instead of yet another buy on flavored vodka). “You’re seeing people who were never bourbon enthusiasts . . This is their entry to bourbon,” says Jim Beam brand ambassador Fred Noe, “and once they get used to it, they start trying bourbon drinks. Once they get their foot in the door, they’ll kick it down and try bourbon!”
Fred might be a little optimistic (he can be, it’s his job), and it remains to be seen if these folks will ‘graduate’ to drinking straight whiskey. But in the meantime, they’re pretty happy with flavored whiskey, and the distillers large and small are happy to entice them with more choices. It’s all pointing towards more sudden success for this sweet and spicy little niche.