Massachusetts Beverage Business


Article By: Liza Weisstuch

George Saintsbury, an English literary critic, journalist and avid wine connoisseur, championed drinking for health long before any red wine study was released. Just after the turn of the twentieth century, he wrote,
“All alcoholic drinks, rightly used, are good for body and soul alike, but as a restorative of both there is nothing like brandy.”
Saintsbury, it must be noted, never specified where the fortifying elixir must come from, so presumably, for this icon, all brandy held equal status and effect in his keen eye.  Sure, the brandy category is dominated by Cognacs and, some would argue, sherries, but over the past few years, American brandies have slowly but surely been gaining visibility, even as vodkas, gins, rums, and bourbons have exponentially faster growth.  From the kingpin brands to smaller boutique products, domestic brandies are stepping up efforts to show the spirit’s classic – and classy – legacy.  

Given the increasingly crowded spirits market and the quickly shifting media landscape, advertising can seem like an exercise in strategic planning that would make an NFL football coach blanch.  Predictably, that results in divergent approaches when it comes to placing ads and implementing brand awareness programs.  “We’ve dialed back advertising spending significantly,” said Justin Ames, senior brand manager for Heaven Hill’s Christian Brothers Brandy.  “The competition is not advertising.  Margins in the brandy category are not as nice as other categories.  Domestic brandy is a cost-conscious category driven by price and merchandising at retail.  Where we have spent in the past, we’ve dialed back.  Part of that has to do with cost increases.  We’re taking some of those funds we traditionally spent on print ads because we’re not seeing effective return on those and putting more into grassroots marketing.”But it’s not only consumers’ cost awareness that’s having an impact on the effect of glossy magazine ads.  “Another real reason we dialed back is because we noticed we can more effectively get more for our money if we spend in other venues.  In any of our brands, consumer print ads just suck wind, we’re not seeing any returns.  We’ve moved that toward internet ads, off-premise tastings, and anything where we have more of a presence when you’re at a point-of-purchase or creating relationships with consumers.” Christian Brothers, he said, is the number one or number two called brandy in the US, depending on geography. 

Perhaps the trend over the past years has been for the competition to scale back or eliminate print ad campaigns, as Ames noted, but it appeared that the category was nearing an abrupt turning point – the week of August 4, Paul Masson launched a print ad campaign with eye-catching full-pagers appearing in jet, ebony, espn magazine, black enterprise, and king.  Lisa Smith, brand manager for Paul Masson, says that the ads will run in those five magazines through December, which, of course, includes the key holiday season.  The ads feature the VSOP, which is made of a blend that includes Cognac, with the tagline: “Aged longer.  Tastes smoother.”  Smith said that print ads are a good way to drive home this distinct aspect of the brand.

“Most business is focused off-premise.  The campaign features VSOP and really showcases its point of difference in Paul Masson Brandy.  It’s aged five years, which is longer than required and longer than the competitors.  And the VSOP contains French cognac,” she said, noting that there was some print advertising a few years ago, but this program ramps up the level of exposure of the past campaign.  And so that begs the question: Why now? “It just seemed to make sense for the brand.  The initiative was brought on to initiate more awareness for consumers.  There haven’t been major changes in the segment.  I don’t think we’re faced with the same thing vodkas are faced with,” she said, referring to the perpetual stream of new vodkas being introduced to the market.  “This is more of an established category with established brands.  Ads are one way to communicate point of difference versus the competitors.”

Ames, meanwhile, says another reason that Christian Brothers scaled back on ad spending has to do with the benefits of a more cross-cultural approach to the category.  He said they’ve had three target demographics in the past five years: African Americans, mainstream Caucasians and the Hispanic community.  There are different point of sale materials for each.  “The domestic brandy industry has spent considerable money against the African American demographic.  Because of other brands spending a lot of money, we’re down tons of cases, which happens when anyone puts all their eggs in one demographic.  Part had to do with people trading up – to Grey Goose or Patron.  A lot of people tried to sell to the African American community and did – to a certain point, then it dropped off.  We always tried to maintain our demographic and maintain volume, but we look for opportunities that exist in the marketplace.  One of those is with core consumers like the one in Massachusetts, which is traditionally older and evenly split between male and female.  We recognize that and spend more on off-premise tastings.  When we’ve allowed the sales team to do that, we saw that we picked up more volume.”

In addition to new on-pack promotions they’re unveiling this fall, like card-packs, Christian Brothers has directed efforts at a niche consumer based on an activity: ice fishing.  The focused initiative hasn’t branched out to Massachusetts – yet, said Ames.  Over the past year the brand has made an effort to be more visible to enthusiasts, who generally populate the swath of the US from the northeast to Montana.  “It has a huge following.  An ice-fisher is an outdoors person, an older consumer.  We had great success marketing to them.  It’s been fascinating.  We go around and do outdoor shows.”

Another one of the year’s successful partnering story comes from Paul Masson.  From April through June they implemented a tie-in with Unique Autosports, as featured on “Unique Whips”, a program on the Speed Channel that shows cars undergoing high-end custom makeovers.  “We ran a sweepstakes that included $15,OOO in customized auto parts and a car consultation with Will Castro, owner of Unique Autosports.  The winner went to Unique Autosports and would be there for a television taping.  It’s a nice tie-in with our target consumer – males 25 to 45, who have similar interests as our consumers.  A lot of it comes from understanding our target consumer and understanding the correlation between the two,” remarked Smith.  The sweepstakes, communicated on Paul Masson’s point-of-sale items, could be entered through the brand’s website, United Autosports’ website, or through mail-ins.  “It’s the first time we’ve done something like that.  It was something different for the brandy category.  We got a good response overall.”

Korbel Brandy, which is made from 1OO percent California grapes, is also opting for on-premise visibility and tie-ins over traditional ad spending.  “Most wineries always struggle with having smaller budgets than other producers.  We’re focusing on point-of-sale material and consumer promotions at retail,” said brand manager Kelly Harmon.  “In addition to consumer promotions and developing brandy cocktails, we’ve also focused on on-premise, which we haven’t done as much in the past.  This year we tied it in with a lot with music.”  A good deal of those efforts have been regional, though.  They worked in Hollywood with bars that promote live bands, and the brand sponsored bands at South-by-Southwest, the annual indie rock blitz in Austin.  As if to demonstrate the cross-cultural approach that Ames addressed, Korbel also put up sponsorship dollars at the Moondance Country Jam in Minnesota, where they did a co-promotion with Dr. Pepper.  Harmon noted that Korbel does do ads and billboards in regional markets, specifically the Midwest.  “Part of the upcoming ads in the fall will be in support of new packaging and raising visibility for that, since brandy is thought of as being more of a cold weather drink.”

Earlier this fall, Korbel launched its new design for all bottle sizes across the entire portfolio, which includes their classic brandy, a VSOP and XS, a vanilla-citrus infusion.  “The bottle and aesthetics for the classic and VSOP are intended to reinforce the brand’s artisan quality, to broaden consumer appeal and enhance on-shelf presence.  The new bottles are taller and more slender.  With the upgrade, the brand is positioned to deliver stronger sales,” Harmon said.  “Consumers have a strong preference for the package and really, part of the packaging is to help it stand out on the retail shelf, which is where lot of volume drives from.”  Based on a number of focus groups, she said their focus demographic is men over 25.  “Brandy struggles with trying to be placed on the back bar,” she added, but noted that Massachusetts has a rather high ranking for brandy consumption, as it holds steady in the thirteenth position among the states for top brandy and cognac consumption, according to the 2OO7 adams liquor handbook.  “For our brand it’s number 15,” she said, again according to adams.

In September, Paul Masson started shipping its VSOP with new packaging for an October unveiling.  “The bottle has pretty much stayed the same.  We changed the label and capsule, so there’s a whole new look for the bottle, a more premium look.  It used to be a paper label, now it’s a clear one and ‘VSOP’ takes on larger prominence.  Every few years most companies review labels and find out what enhancements they should make.  We saw a sizable opportunity to make design changes,” Lisa Smith said.  In tandem with that launch, they’ve introduced new 1OO milliliter bottles of the VSOP with the new label to capitalize on the “decent amount of growth in smaller sizes in the brandy category.”

Rare is the legacy brand among American brandies that hasn’t unveiled a redesign in the recent past.  Laird’s Applejack introduced a new package in 2OO5, the year of its 225th anniversary.  “It’s more upscale, contemporary and twentieth century,” said Lisa Laird, Vice President of Laird and Company, and ninth generation descendant of the founder.  “It’s new but it’s retained a historic look.  It used to be amber, but now the bottle is clear.  There’s a bulb neck and clear pressure sensitive label, where it used to have an old parchment-looking one.  The logo changed slightly, but we kept the eagle.  It’s definitely a much nicer package – classic looking.”

Laird’s Applejack, which makes its apple brandy with fruit from the Shenandoah Valley, is just one example of a boutique brand with small output that struggles with low to no advertising budget and relies almost totally on bartenders hand-selling and promoting the brand.  “I get a lot of inquiries from people about how they can get the 1OO-Proof Straight Apple Brandy, which is closest to what applejack was post and prior to Prohibition,” said Laird.  Laird is the oldest commercial distillery in the United States.  “The problem with that is we have smaller production, and for a long time haven’t had a demand.  But I’m also trying to get distributors to carry us.  The 12-year-old is well distributed, but the 1OO proof bond is difficult for distributors to take on.  It’s not a fast moving volume product.” The basic Laird’s Applejack is a lighter blended product that entered the market in the 197Os to ride the blended scotch wave.  “Prior to the ’7Os, it was straight apple brandy.  A lot of mixologists want the authentic, original product.  Bonded is the closest to that.”  They also produce an 8O-proof Old Apple Brandy aged seven and a half years.  (It cannot be referred to as applejack because law defines that spirit as a blend.)

Introducing new spirits can be especially challenging for small family-owned operations like Laird.  Such was the case with the 12-year-old Rare Apple Brandy, which was introduced in 1999.  It’s made with brandy from late fall or early November and is hand-bottled and labeled.  “It was hard to get word out – or to make sure people even know we exist.  And that’s why it’s so important that bartenders help tremendously with spreading the word.”

Bartender alliances continue to pay off.  In a wall street journal article on Italian sodas that ran on August 9, spirits columnist Eric Felten wrote about how he approached “cocktail Edison” Jackson Cannon, Eastern Standard’s bar manager, to see what he’d mix up with the artisanal fizzy stuff.  Jackson, he writes, “found that the chinotto was a natural with Laird’s Applejack apple brandy, with just a bit of Benedictine as an optional finishing touch.  He calls it a Della Mela, Italian for ‘of the apple’.”

Oregon-based Clear Creek is a relatively young distillery, starting up its stills in 1985, but distiller Steve McCarthy produces his brandies with heritage as his guide.  “It’s modeled on traditional village artisan distilleries from Switzerland, Germany and France,” he said.  “We get some of the raw materials from our own orchards.  The rest mostly comes from 5O or 6O miles from where we are.  Our mindset is very different from vodka people.  It’s doesn’t come in one end as a fruit and goes out other as a bottle of pear brandy.  Our objective – we don’t use a ‘mission statement’ – is like good winemakers’, we want to find stuff that grows here from which we make wonderful products.  It’s slower and less spectacularly successful than the vodka market.” McCarthy’s flavors range from apple to kirshwasser to Douglas Fir, and after years of pounding the pavement, he’s seen a groundswell in the past few years.  

“When you’re making handmade small scale eau de vie brandy and the like from raw materials from scratch, you go out in the marketplace and people look at you like you have two heads.  Every market there is a distributor interested in odd, expensive products.  At the beginning, we had to find distributors willing to make the investment in time and sales energy around stuff nobody had ever heard of.  It was a lot harder than I thought.  Looking back, I was extremely lucky to get any interest at all.”  The industry, he continued, had long been interested in products with enormous volume.  But in the mid-199Os, he started to see some traction.  By the early 2OOOs, distributors were calling him.  “For a long time, we saw restaurants as the top market.  Put it on a menu, put it on a bar, cook with it.  But I look at emails everyday and spend lot of time talking to people.  It’s clear that a big part of business is people of all drinking ages who prefer it in a traditional setting.  That shifted our marketing ten years ago from primarily restaurant to primarily retailers.”  Still, some bartenders have grasped onto the brand as an anchor in the mixology maelstrom and found, as with many spirits, a cocktail mixed with it is a fine way to introduce the brand to a customer.  

In August of last year, Rob Kraemer, bar manager at Chez Henri in Cambridge, introduced “The Shiver,” a clever drink made with Eau de Vie of Douglas Fir, Campari and grapefruit juice.  It’s remained on the cocktail list and from that, he’s gotten some customers hooked on Clear Creek’s products.  “Not many people have heard of it.

I hand-sell their pear brandy.

If a person likes belle de brillet, I’ll say, ‘try this’,” says Kraemer.  But with the exception of the Douglas Fir, he introduces people to the product straight in a snifter, which is pretty much how Steve McCarthy likes to see people drinking it.  “That pear, perfect on its own.  You’d be screwing it up to put anything else in it.”

“We support what’s going on in the cocktail world.  It’s good for everyone as far as I’m concerned.  We intersect from time to time.  When I’m working with sales people, I don’t urge them to walk into a bar and say ‘Here’s something for the latest new cocktail.’  I explain the history of eau de vie and how traditionally it’s served as a digestif after dinner, not with dessert, maybe with espresso.  Wonderful cocktails can be made with our pear eau de vie and the barrel-aged apple brandy.  We’re not a company that sees itself as engaged in making cocktails.  We’re engaged in making wonderful spirits from things grown in Oregon, most of which are better drunk straight.”

Indeed, cocktails always come up.  Whether you’re talking about the industry’s titan value brands or the artisanal labels, there has historically been some staunch opinions on brandy and cocktails.  Slowly, however, those attitudes are shifting.  About the mixology popularity, Heaven Hill’s Justin Ames commented, “I don’t think it’s yet translating to the masses.  In major metro centers, you have those culinary mixologists.  Based on research, when you go and look at them, the general market in the US isn’t as interested in the whole artisanal cocktail movement.  I remember when wines weren’t always approachable and attainable.  In the same way, those kinds of cocktails are not yet approachable and attainable for the general market.  Millions of cases are selling to the general populace.  They’re interested in a simple, straightforward, comfortable drink.” Maybe experimentation isn’t a big trend with American brandies, but as he spoke further, it was clear that Christian Brothers hasn’t entirely been left out of the mix.  “We don’t see a lot of Brandy Crustas as much, but maybe it’s eventually going to go there.  What happens is you go to some of these on-premise accounts outside of major metro areas where a lot of Christian Brothers is consumed, and see a Christian Brothers Manhattan on the menu.  That always surprises me.  And we’ll see a Christian Brothers Stinger with peppermint schnapps, Christian Brothers and Coke and hot toddies.  So we are seeing that type of resurgence, but not to the degree of Tony Abou-Ganim mixing complicated drinks,” he said, referring to the noted Las Vegas-based mixologist and drinks consultant.  

Korbel has amped up its focus on mixability in tandem with education, said Harmon.  “We see that as something that has opportunity for the category in general.

A lot of people don’t realize how mixable it is.  It’s not a called drink, but we’ve seen it become more of a recent push, something that we’re doing as well as Cognac,” she said.  “We recently hired a few mixologists in metro cities to develop signature cocktails to showcase the brandy.  Part of that is to help the new design.  We’ve seen old school drinks, like Brandy Alexanders and Old Fashioneds.  Bartenders are not being trained as much on using brandy, but it’s a wonderful product that’s versatile, so that’s one of our new objectives.  Now we’re developing them.”  When she spoke with us in August, she projected they’ll be featuring the drinks in the fall in support of the new packaging.  It’s an on- and off-premise push, as recipes will be printed on neckers as well as the on-pack coasters they’re planning.  

Harmon added that the XS – with a flavor profile of orange, Madagascar vanilla, pure sugar cane and spices – is meant for mixing.  It’s received attention with awards, like Best New World Spirit at the New World International Wine Competition, but positioning it is a little tricky.  “It’s shelved with brandies, but it’s a challenge because it’s unlike flavored brandies.  It’s not truly a flavored, it’s more like Captain Morgan Spiced Rum.”

Paul Masson has put less energy into promoting mixology.  “We know a lot of traditional consumption is straight,” said Lisa Smith.  “Consumers definitely mix and are interested in drinks, but really the focus is with the core consumer and traditional consumption in a snifter.”

Not surprisingly, old heritage brands are finding a more secure place behind the bar of the mixologists who are reviving the craft of the pre-Prohibition era cocktails.  “We want to tie in with the reemergence of retro cocktails.  Laird’s Applejack ties in with that.  The Jack Rose was enjoyed by Hemingway,” said Lisa Laird, who was at Tales of the Cocktail, the Super Bowl-caliber annual cocktail event in New Orleans in July.  Her product was involved in a seminar entitled “The History of the Tavern”.  Enough said.  She’s also teaming up with Chad Solomon and Christie Pope, who run Cuff & Buttons, a highly regarded New York-based cocktail catering service.  “We’re working together to develop this – looking at old drinks and seeing their evolution and seeing how creative you can be with applejack today.”

Sales off-premise have, in general, remained steady.  “I haven’t seen major changes in volume in our sales.  We have three major players and our share positions haven’t changed drastically.” said Lisa Smith of Paul Masson.  Mike Cimini, president of Yankee Spirits, which has stores in Attleboro, Swansea and Sturbridge, says brandy is typically not a huge category and they’ve been trimming down in brandy across the board.  “E&J, our top domestic performer, was down 3.5 points, which is about the same as Hennessy.  That held true on stock brandy from Italy.  Some smaller brands are showing a little growth.  Laird went from four and half cases to five cases, a ten percent growth.  Korbel went from seven and a half to eight cases.  They weren’t seeing the same downward trend as bigger brandies, but they’re definitely down.”  One wonders whether those numbers will change with the fall release of the new bottles and on-pack promotions.  

At Al’s Liquors, a small neighborhood liquor store in South Boston, assistant manager James Carney says he’s seen the effect of the cross-cultural and cross-generational marketing.  “They’ve had success with newer drinkers, whereas ten years ago, the only one who ever bought brandy was the little old lady who had a touch of the flu – and generally Irish – or some old guy.

I didn’t sell it except to old folks.  Whatever it is, it’s working.  As a small local store, I don’t have any difficulty buying 1O-case drops of E&J and 1O-case drops of Paul Masson and Christian Brothers.  Whereas before I’d be buying bottles, now cases aren’t that big a deal.”

And so we must turn back to scribes active around the turn of the last century, who apparently held all the marketing wisdom long before marketing was a high-stakes, make-it-or-break-it realm.  The perennial duke of Snark, Ambrose Bierce, penned arguably the most memorable – if not most technical – explanation of brandy when he defined it in “The Devil’s Dictionary” as, “A cordial composed of one part thunder-and-lightning, one part remorse, two parts bloody murder, one part death-hell-and-the-grave and four parts clarified Satan.” Some may have called him harsh (and he probably would have retorted that the spirit was harsher), but truth be told, he was on to something.  The devil, after all, is in the details and it could be argued that he truly grasped the art of selling.  American brandies today have their work cut out for them, to be sure, given the increasingly crowded marketplaces, a growth in interest in the super-premium in all categories, and big marketing dollars being spent on visibility-boosting efforts in other categories – but the longstanding and newer brandy brands seem to know how to stay detail-focused in a manner that keeps the consumers involved and engaged in the big picture.

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