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09.2009

Massachusetts Beverage Business

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American Straight Whiskey in 2OO9, reminds me of craft beer.
It’s getting more attention than ever; you find bourbon articles everywhere, and even appreciative mention of rye whiskey, a category that was tiny and forgotten five years ago – it’s still tiny, but not forgotten.

Like craft beer, more and more whiskey is showing up on shelves and backbars, often at the best bars in town.  Bartenders like it, chefs like it, and customers are more interested in it than they have been for years.  It’s not just the hardcore any more, either; young men and women, hipsters, and well-heeled professionals alike are getting the brown stuff. 

Most importantly, though, like craft beer, American straight whiskey is bucking the economy.  While other categories are slipping or taking a pounding, bourbon continues to grow, and rye is ridiculous.  The high end bottlings still sell as fast as they hit the shelf, and a lot of times turn right around and sell for more (in private transactions of questionable legality, but that’s “collectible whiskey” for you). 

“Bourbon’s sales are good, it’s okay,” said Joe Howell, at Federal Wine & Spirits in Boston.  “People are whacking on them.  I just wish I could get a little stock sometimes.  I mean, has anyone seen any Van Winkle?  This state, it’s incredible.  And rye whiskey?  I go through it like water, as much as I can get.”

“I’m selling more Pappy Van Winkle 23 Year Old than I’ve ever sold,” said Paul Souza, Manager at New England Wine & Spirits in Newburyport.  “Our next batch of Eagle Rare, our private bottling, is in and selling like wildfire.  The standard bourbons and high-end single barrels are still doing very well.  The guy from Jack Daniel’s is coming with a laser engraver to put people’s names on bottles of Gentleman Jack.  Buffalo Trace is having no trouble with the Antique Collection, but I’ve got a line waiting a mile long.  It hasn’t let up.”

Kurt Hainey, Night Manager at Gordon’s Fine Wines and Liquors in Waltham, said he hasn’t even seen any down-trading.  “Bourbon’s doing quite well,” he said.  “Our clientele’s actually been purchasing about 4% more.”

It’s not great everywhere.  Dave Luke, Owner/Manager of Luke’s Liquors in Rockland, was a little less enthusiastic.  “Bourbon?  It’s okay, but it’s definitely not lighting the world on fire,” he said.  “Jack Daniel’s is always strong, but with the price increases coming from Beam, they’re in for a big uphill climb.  That’s not good timing, with the recession.  There’s definitely some down-trading, too.  It’s hard to know where it’s coming from, but we see the economy brands all up, definitely higher.  Hard to tell if they’re from one rung up the ladder or two.”

Kris Comstock’s definitely got some stuff that’s two rungs up the ladder.  He’s got the high-end bourbons that no one can get – the Buffalo Trace Antique Collection and Experimental Collection, the Van Winkle whiskeys – and he knows that means the economy’s not going to hurt his brands as much.

“When you’ve got a 5 million case brand, a dip in the economy really affects you,” he said.  “But when you’ve got a niche brand, it’s someone buying it who really loves it.  Our super-high end stuff is so limited, and there’s enough people who appreciate it and want to get their hands on it, it gets snatched up –  Julian Van Winkle gets calls every day from people asking where they can get Pappy 2O.

“Some of those expensive bottles, part of it’s for show,” he admitted, with some chagrin.  “It’s probably great whiskey, but there’s some part of it is me wanting to show off that bottle on my shelf.  You know, we release the Experimental Collection bottlings [very limited and rare 375mls of experimental whiskeys].  We try to sell them for about $45, and then we see it up on eBay for $3OO.  We just want people to drink them!”

Whatever the reason, selling high-end bourbons finally makes sense, thanks to years of education, sampling and the connecting of enthusiasts through the internet.  Paul Souza is amazed that everyone’s not doing it.  “There are still accounts in town that are scared of high-end whiskey,” he said, “they don’t think they can do it.  Look, I sell one bottle of Buffalo Trace, I make as much as I do on five bottles of Early Times; less space, less work, and I’ve got my own margin to work with.  We go through the ritual, I show them the Trace barrel: everything in this bottle came out of that barrel.  Ooo! I had three customers in last Sunday; in 4O minutes they spent $7OO in whiskey.

“It took us a couple years to get to this level, but we’re here,” he said.  “This little shop has become a destination shop for whiskey.  But there are tons of guys who are scared of high-end whiskey!  Think about it.  The same guy who drinks high-end whiskey is the same individual who drinks Chateau Lafite and smokes high-end cigars.  We’re putting in a humidor, we’ve had so many requests, just a little one, eight brands of cigars.  And that’s another 5O point margin you’re adding.  Think!”

That’s the kind of guy that goes for the laser engraved Gentleman Jack bottles Souza talked about earlier, and there’s a lot of them.  According to Mark Grindstaff, the marketing director for the Jack Daniel’s family of brands, Gentleman Jack’s been on a tear since they changed the bottle in 2OO7.

“Gentleman Jack is up 2O.2% in Massachusetts over the last 12 months,” he said.  “We started from square one and re-designed the bottle.  It’s a revolutionary change – more flask-style bottle with a metallized label.  The old bottle kind of hid that; the new one has a big open space on it (very convenient for that engraving).”  The engraving was huge for Father’s Day; Grindstaff said.  June sales in Massachusetts were up 1O6.2% over 2OO8.

Premiums are doing well for Jack Daniel’s; the Single Barrel was up 1.7% in Massachusetts in the past 12 months.  “Considering there are some pretty big ultra-premium brands that aren’t doing so well,” said Grindstaff, “we’re happy with that.  Our consumer for the Single Barrel is generally a Jack Daniel’s guy who’s probably rewarding himself with a very fine Tennessee whiskey, on occasion; 8O% of our market comes from a past-3O day drinker of Jack Daniel’s.”
All that said, Jack Daniel’s sales are down “slightly” in Massachusetts, Grindstaff allowed.  (As Comstock earlier noted, dips in the economy are tougher on the bigger brands, because everyone’s affected.) He didn’t have hard numbers, but guessed that it was the dip in on-premise sales everyone’s been talking about.  “It’s such a strong on-premise brand,” he said, “and Massachusetts is an on-premise-driven market.  There’s no question off-premise is doing better, but the take-home business is not making up for on-premise.”

Brown-Forman’s also doing well on the bourbon side of super-premium whiskey.  Massachusetts is “a good market for Woodford Reserve,” according to brand manager Wayne Rose, “one we’re very interested in growing more aggressively for the brand.  The demographics and the on-premise excitement put it on the short list for opportunity markets.  It’s a good whiskey market; people know whiskey, they get it, and they ask good, challenging questions about what separates our brands from others.  We like that.”

Woodford Reserve continues to grow at double-digit rates, as it has every year since it was launched.  Don’t worry about the supply, Rose said, “We’re fine.  We spend quite a bit of time and energy and money making our projections, and built a safety stock on top of that.  We’re good for the foreseeable future.”

If you’ve got customers who are hankering for collectible bourbon, don’t forget Woodford’s rare Master’s Collections, the occasional releases of very special whiskeys like the Four Grain and the Sonoma-Cutrer Finish.  “The Master’s Collection is available in Massachusetts,” Rose said, although he admitted there was not enough to meet demand.  “We stretch it as far as we can; we do our best.  Having more demand than supply is not the worst problem from the producer’s point of view!”

Collectible bottles have worked out nicely for Old Forester.  The limited-release Old Forester Birthday Bourbon, which comes out every September, has had a real halo effect on the almost-forgotten Old Forester brand.  “We’re working hard to communicate that it’s not just the Birthday Bourbon,” said brand manager Joe Murray, “it’s the craftsmanship Old Forester has, then we deliver that as a contemporary story.  Our numbers have gone from high single digit [declines] to flat, and now to growth in the home market.”

Murray’s hoping to bring that growth here.  “Massachusetts is an Old Forester re-introduction market,” he said.  “We’ve over-invested a bit to create sometasting, local advertising – to jump-start some of the urban markets like Boston.  We see a lot of young, diverse consumers coming in; we’re seeing some African-Americans coming back into the category.  We’re calling them pre-connoisseurs, coming in out of Jack and Coke, Captain and Coke, and we’re positioning the brand for them to find.  And of course, we’re blessed with a great juice in the bottle.

“We are primarily an off-premise brand,” he noted.  “We’re not very strong outside the Bourbon Belt, but there’s opportunity with the economy, and it’s happening.  It’s a nice place to start for the customers who don’t want to jump right into the $3O bourbons: the Premium 86, the Signature 1OO proof, and the Birthday Bourbon every year.”

The folks at Beam Global see opportunities at every pricepoint in the category.  “There’s never been a time that our profile has so much run the gamut of prices and flavors,” said Kelly Doss, Beam Global Category Director of Bourbons and Whiskeys.  “We’re committed to the category.  Consumers are engaging in this category, and Red Stag and (ri)1 are bringing people into the category.  Expand the set! We’re very happy with what the future looks like.  We’re working on a lot of things – I’d say stay tuned.”

Red Stag and (ri)1are two recent products from Beam.  You can read about Red Stag, Beam’s black cherry-infused bourbon, in the sidebar.  And (ri)1?  Two years ago in these pages, Beam Global’s Keith Neumann declined to comment on the possibility of a premium rye from Beam beyond admitting that “It’s certainly a possibility, but at this point plans are not definitive enough to comment on it.”  Those plans were apparently leading to (ri)1, a premium-priced rye whiskey in a striking cylindrical bottle that’s clearly as marketing-driven as its singular name.
The whiskey has had a very successful launch, and given Beam’s long-standing commitment to rye – they have Beam Rye and Old Overholt in their portfolio, and have for years – it’s quite likely that supplies will hold up well.  Doss is ecstatic about it.  “(ri)1 has been terrific for Boston and the cocktail accounts, a tremendous product and a great response.  It is creating an ultra-premium rye category, and rye is helping to fuel the [overall straight whiskey] category.  It’s been a wonderful product launch for us, one we’re very proud of.  It jumps off the shelf and the backbar.”

Knob Creek, the star of Beam’s Small Batch Bourbon line, has done better than anyone expected, at least, better than the distillers at Beam expected: they’ve run out.  “We have no product left in the warehouses to ship,” said Doss.  “We’ll be back in October, but we won’t before that.  What people have to remember is that it’s aged nine years, a phenomenal point of difference.  It’s very difficult to predict consumer demand out nine years.  Think about it, nine years ago we had just survived Y2K!  [Master distiller] Booker Noe was still living, he laid that whiskey down.”

Doss believes that the brand will come out of this shortage stronger.  “We will not sacrifice the quality, will not bottle it one day short of nine years,” she said, “We hope that consumers will understand.  We believe we’ll come out of this very positively by keeping up the dialog with customers and the trade to let them know when it will be back.”

Dave Luke’s not so sure on that.  “The prices are going to climb really sharply, and I think they’re going to see a 5O% decline in their volume,” he said.  “With $1O to $18 more per liter bottle?  It’s a shame.  The Jim Beam Black seems to be heading that way as well.  We took a lot of pride in building those brands, but I don’t know how they’re going to make out setting them like that.”  Doss had said that prices would hold steady this year overall; we’ll see what happens. 

Of course, Maker’s Mark is in the Beam bailiwick now, but maintains its own direction, an astute case of not fixing what ain’t broke.  “We’re still seeing double-digit growth on Maker’s Mark, said Barry Younkie, Global Marketing Director for the brand.  “People are increasingly wanting a brand that is authentic, genuine, that they know the details about. 

“You’re seeing less conspicuous consumption of overpriced spirits that don’t have a story,” he said, “and more purchases of brands like Maker’s Mark that really do use wheat instead of rye – a genuine difference.  We are one of two distilleries that don’t buy or sell any stock on the open market.  Jack Daniel’s and Maker’s Mark are the only ones.”

Will there be enough Maker’s to meet double-digit demand?  “We’re ahead of the curve,” he said.  “As long as growth doesn’t go past 12%, we’re okay.  It has to be, you have to put it away six years ahead.  But there is no age claim on the Maker’s Mark label.  It’s not the calendar that decides Maker’s Mark is ready.  It’s ready when it’s tasted.”

He’s got some direct support for you, too.  First, the price, says Younkie, “is absolutely going to hold steady.” There is also a new display rack that is an exact replica of the stillhouse at the distillery, and “nice gift carton” for Christmas.  He’s also got some advice: educate your customers on how to make cocktails.  “One of the best tips I give out: take a bottle of Maker’s Mark and put it beside your red vermouth, then take a row of red vermouth and put it beside the bourbon section.  ‘Oh, that’s how you make a Manhattan!’  It works.”

Like Maker’s, Bulleit Bourbon only bottles one expression.  Brand manager Gene Song surprised me when he evoked Maker’s Mark to compare it to Bulleit.  “Bulleit is very spicy and bold,” he said, “Maker’s is milder and sweet.  They’re like the two bookends, and everything else falls in between.  There is a definite taste difference from the more common bourbons.”

Another definite difference for Bulleit is that it’s one of the few spirits where you can shake the hand of the man whose name is on the label.  Tom Bulleit is the key to Bulleit’s success.  “It’s a small batch, founded by Tom Bulleit, based on his great-great-grandfather’s recipe,” said Song.  “It doesn’t get realer than Tom Bulleit; seeing him everywhere, that’s how Bulleit markets itself.  We’re not a big brand, we grow through word of mouth because Tom is on the road 2OO+ days a year, talking bourbon.”

It’s working, according to Song.  “The trends continue to be positive,” he said.  “The news continues to be good for small batch bourbons.  Massachusetts is a good market for Bulleit, one of our strongholds in the northeast.  We’re seeing growth in the northeast, California and the northwest.”

Heaven Hill sees very positive trends.  They must, according to Director of Corporate Communications Larry Kass.  “Speaking for ourselves, a distillery expansion, a new dump room, and the introduction of new American whiskeys (Parker’s Heritage Collection, Rittenhouse Very Rare, the upcoming Evan Williams Honey Reserve) are all geared towards an unsatisfied domestic and global demand.  The brands are up across the board.  Bernheim is up 17%; ryes are up a collective 1O%; Elijah Craig 12 is up 7%; Elijah Craig Single Barrel is up 23%; Evan Williams Black is up 11%; Evan Williams Green is up 16%; and Evan Williams Single Barrel is selling out, along with the Parker’s Heritage Collection.”

Kass gave tribute to the return of the cocktail, something that has shone brightly on Rittenhouse Rye, a product that had been a tiny, unsung part of Heaven Hill’s portfolio for years.  “The return to classic cocktails pioneered by Gary Regan and Dave Wondrich, among others,” he said, “relies heavily on American whiskey.  Our Rittenhouse Rye has experienced a renaissance as the mixology world rediscovers vintage cocktails and techniques.  I think this highlights the many ways to enjoy American whiskey.”

The downside, of course, is supply.  “The ryes are doing well,” Kass said, “supply has been good.  But that is about to change.  We are headed for a short dry spell thanks to continuing demand.  It was not until recently that we had the capacity to produce more rye.  Now that we can, it’s a waiting game.”

Don’t expect “waiting” to equal “resting”, though.  “The category needs to continue its innovative course,” he said.  “Cask finishes, experimentation with recipes and grains and new flavors all represent a virtually untapped frontier of variety.  These are the more exciting angles on the category.” That’s the kind of thing the customers want to hear. 

And the other straight whiskey, Canadian?  Maybe that kind of thinking is what it needs.  Despite some strong efforts, new ad campaigns, and a few specialty bottlings that are quite tasty, Canadian continues to be a category that’s slowly sinking.  “That’s a part of the industry I really wish they’d look at,” said Joe Howell.  “They produce good quality, but no niche products.  It’s a shame.”

But American whiskeys continue to buck the economy, a strong point in the alcohol beverage market.  There are certainly players out there who think the category has legs, more opportunities for growth.  They’re still buying bourbon brands and bourbon distilleries. 
Gruppo Campari made a major move in April, buying Wild Turkey from Pernod Ricard; probably an astute move, since Wild Turkey has a solid reputation in Asia and Australia, and it gives Campari a premium brand to sell in the US market.  Don’t expect a lot of change, since Campari would hardly want to upset any applecarts.

Sazerac made one major buy and one minor one themselves.  In January, they bought the Tom Moore Distillery (formerly the Barton Distillery) from Constellation, along with a boatload of brands, most of them discount brands but not all: they got Tom Moore’s premium Ridgemont Reserve 1792 brand, and the underrated Very Old Barton brand. 

What’s going to happen there?  Might it mean more supply for Massachusetts? “We’re still getting our arms around that,” Comstock said.  “We bought a number of brands, not all whiskeys: Montezuma Tequila, 99 Bananas.  Mr. Boston alone is about two dozen brands.  We have to integrate them into our operation.  We have to figure all that out before working on strategy.”

He sounded a lot happier about the other purchase Sazerac made, buying Old Taylor from Beam Global.  “Old Taylor is fairly priced,” he said, “it’s not a super-premium.  But E.H. Taylor used to own this distillery.  He modernized it, and he probably spent too much money to stay in business, but he’s part of our history.  It’s really important to have that brand back, it’s part of our history.  It’s going to take some years, but we’re digging into the history, the mashbills he used, things like that, and we can add that to our lines.  That would be pretty cool.”

And that’s what nice about straight whiskey.  You get the sense that the people in this category really care about the history of their brands, that they’re almost forced to care because of the long aging that is part of every bottle on the shelf.  Whiskey passion.  That’s the best way to sell whiskey.


DRY AND KINDA SPICY   

“Boston embraces the classic cocktail,” Lauren Clark explained.  She’s the former bartender, former brewer, current writer and cocktail enthusiast behind the DrinkBoston blog that’s doing such a good job of tracking and chronicling the cocktail movement in Boston.  I had asked her why every bartender I talked to in town would not shut up about rye whiskey. 

“These people love their history,” she said, “and rye is a historic drink.  They’re really more about what were people were using in 19O1 in this kind of drink.  Most bartenders in Boston are still serving Manhattans made with bourbon.  You ask for rye, and they don’t know what it is.  Well, it’s not like bourbon.  It’s dry, it’s kinda spicy, I think it fits the Boston personality.”
That’s not to say Boston’s cocktail-savvy bartenders have abandoned bourbon.  Far from it, in fact.  Maker’s Mark’s Barry Younkie told me he had been talking to a bar manager at the Omni Parker House who’d been working hard on his backbar. 

“He’d just shrunk eight feet of vodkas on his backbar, and expanded the brown goods,” he said.  “Why?  Because vodka and flavored vodka brought back the cocktail, but that search for flavor has not stopped, and it’s led to the ultimate flavored spirit: bourbon.  I’m not saying vodka’s declining, but there are less and less vodka cocktails on drink lists and more and more bourbon drinks, and there are more facings of bourbon on backbars.”

I’ve been noticing that myself – just saw it last night at a new bar – but as Clark cautioned, don’t fall into the craft beer lover’s fallacy of seeing a lot of craft beer . . . in the places you go to because they have a lot of craft beer.  “People jump the gun on things like this,” she said.  “If you just go to places like Drink, you might think that.  But out in other places?  Okay, they may be putting a whiskey drink on the menu.  One.”

Still, rye is the buzzword at places like Drink (348 Congress Street in Boston’s Fort Point).  That’s the bar opened by Barbara Lynch and John Gertsen, nominated for Best New Bar at this year’s Tales of the Cocktail in New Orleans.  Gertsen is definitely mad for rye. 

“I’ve been watching the resurgence of rye, and it’s fascinating,” he said.  “We get in Old Overholt, Thomas Handy, Rittenhouse, and the Sazerac 6-year-old.” That’s four bottles of rye, out of a total of only 3O bottles behind the bar at Drink.

But Gertsen needs those different ryes.  “If I’m using a big, herbal vermouth,” he explained, “that leads me more towards Rittenhouse.  There’s the whole bitters thing as well.  If a guest wants a standard Manhattan, it’s Old Overholt and Martini & Rossi vermouth.  If someone’s more used to a strong-flavored rye, we’ll use Rittenhouse.  We use the Handy, kind of disgustingly, as a Blue Blazer base.  It is very easy to set alight.” At around 13O proof, it would be.

Drink’s house cocktail is the Fort Point, a Manhattan variant created by Gertsen for the opening.  “I wanted a drink that would speak to what the bar was, and our neighborhood,” he said, “and I love rye whiskey.  Anyone who loves Manhattans loves it, and the way the Punt e Mes and Benedictine work is great.” (See recipe.)

Max Toste loves Manhattans.  The partner at Deep Ellum (477 Cambridge Sreet in Allston) is working up variations on the drink for the menu, and not mad concoctions that are called Manhattans because they’re served in a cocktail glass with a cherry.  They’re all brown spirits, fortified wine and bitters . . . but different.  He’s tried to re-create different era’s Manhattans, because cocktails and tastes change. 

“A guy named Billy Rose taught me how to make Manhattans in 1994,” he said.  “His Manhattan was of the day: Maker’s Mark, sweet vermouth, a big cherry, Angostura, and a barspoon of cherry juice.  That’s what got me into it.

“Then I found this book, “Famous New Orleans Drinks and How to Mix Them,” he said, and it was a moment.  “Their Manhattan is a rye Manhattan, uses Peychaud bitters and vermouth at 2:1.  It opened my head up to the drink, and made me think about how different eras looked at cocktails.”

He’s got a ’5Os Manhattan – “Classic Dean Martin: bourbon, big old dash of bitters and a Luxardo cherry” – a ’7Os Manhattan – “My grand-dad’s Manhattan: Canadian Club, 2:1, a dash of house-made bitters, served over ice with a twist.” – and a host of others.  A dozen would be too many, and Toste will probably stop at 11.  “A Spinal Tap of Manhattans,” he laughed.  “That should be enough.”

If it isn’t clear by now that bartending has taken a radical turn, think about all the house-made bitters, fresh juices, house-cured olives, hand-chipped ice, and infused liquors I don’t have room to talk about.  It’s not just a radical turn, it’s a radical turn for the better. 

“When I go to a bar, and get one drink, I watch,” said Gertsen.  “Product selection is a big thing, but quality ingredients means a lot.  If they’re pouring from a jug marked “Sour Mix”, it’s not going to be a good bar.  But if they’ve squeezed the juice themselves, if they’re using house-made tinctures, house-cured olives or onions, that’s a good bar.”

This may seem like esoteric frippery.  Just keep in mind: on-premise drives off-premise.  You see it with beer, you saw it with vodka.  If this is what bartenders are using to make the drinks people are looking for . . . those people will be coming to you next.  Best to be ready.

THE FORT POINT COCKTAIL
from john gertsen at drink
“A cocktail recipe?  Of course.”

2 parts Old Overholt rye whiskey
½ part Punt e Mes
¼ part Benedictine (“I’m sure I don’t have to tell you, but not B&B!  Too much brandy, it would dominate the drink.”)
pour into a mixing pitcher with ice.
stir and strain into a pre-chilled cocktail glass, and garnish with the best cherry you can get; a Luxardo Marasca, or one you make yourself. 


THE CC MANHATTAN
from lauren clark at drinkboston.com
“When you’re somewhere that everyone is drinking Bahama Mamas, I do a CC Manhattan.”

3 parts Canadian Club
1 part red vermouth (“Something good, like Martini & Rossi or Noilly Prat.”)
a good dash of Angostura bitters
stir on ice, longer than you think is necessary, and stir on the rocks, garnished with a twist of lemon peel.


THE BLACK WATER COCKTAIL
from max toste at deep ellum
Deep Ellum bartender Dave Cagle calls this “the thinking man’s Jack and Coke”.

pour equal parts Old Overholt rye and Moxie on ice with a squeeze of lemon
on top. 
“It’s gentian soda!” says Toste.  “It doesn’t even need bitters!”



LIFE’S A BOTTLE OF CHERRIES

“I was in Boston with target consumers, men 25 to 34,” said Kelly Doss.  “We were doing ethnography, which is marketing talk for actually spending time with the customers; in bars, in restaurants, talking to them in their homes.  And we saw they were mixing Jim Beam with cherry Coke!”

To you and me, that might not mean anything past an idea to put some cherry Coke in with the Coca-Cola you stack by the Jim Beam.  But Kelly Doss is the Beam Global category director of bourbons and whiskeys; to her it meant “untapped marketing opportunity”, which is marketing talk for “put the cherry in the bourbon”.  And that’s how we got Red Stag, the cherry-infused bourbon. 

I grew up in Pennsylvania Dutch country, where some of the older bars have a jar full of whiskey and cherries, tucked away under the bar.  For a treat, the bartender will sometimes dole a few out, dropping a cherry in a double shotglass and topping it up with the booze.  It’s sweet and potent –  and a natural fit. 

It wasn’t just Dutchmen, either.  Bourbon and cherry is a natural fit.  In most bars, a cherry is the garnish for a Manhattan, and in older bars, a Manhattan is often mixed with a spoonful of syrup from the cherry jar.  Red Stag just sidesteps the intermediates.

Bourbon liqueurs have been a tiny niche for a long time.  I remember a friend of my father’s getting out a long-necked bottle of Wild Turkey Liqueur many years ago; I was fascinated by the octagonal bottle.  But the brands never went anywhere; bourbon was sweet enough for most folks.

They never met the sweet-tooth young adults of today.  Wild Turkey kicked off the current movement as well, with their American Honey launch in 2OO6.  Sales were good and the product met critical acclaim (my wife really likes it, too).  In an industry like this, success ensures imitation, so maybe Kelly Doss was looking for something Beam could do that was similar. 

Red Stag came as a complete surprise, so much so that Beam was very careful about the launch.  “We spent a lot of time before it launched,” said Doss, “reaching out to writers, bloggers, the trade, to educate people about what it was before it popped out on the shelves.”  I was one of those writers that got an early sample, and my first reaction was ‘They did what?’.
That was the first thing I wanted to know: what had Beam done to create Red Stag.  I got a detailed answer from Adam Graber, a senior brand manager with Beam Global.  “Red Stag is produced in a 3-step process,” he said.  “A bourbon intermediate is made by reducing barrel proof bourbon to approximately 81 proof.  This intermediate is then carbon treated and chill filtered to reach the same clarity and quality parameters of our standard Jim Beam Bourbon. 
“The cherry essence and other natural flavors are slowly infused in a small batch with standard 8O proof Jim Beam White Label,” he continued.  “When the master blender is satisfied that the infused flavors and Bourbon have been properly ‘married’, the infused bourbon is blended with the bourbon intermediate to achieve the perfect balance of infused cherry flavor and bourbon at 8O proof.”

Why cherry essence and not real fruit?  “The addition of whole fruit to Red Stag has been purposefully avoided,” Graber explained, “to eliminate the presence of any degradation by-products, such as the release of pectins and anthocyanins which would add an unappealing cloudiness and sedimentation to the product.”

Okay, but what do you do with a cherry-flavored – excuse me, cherry-infused bourbon?
I was pleased to see it at 8O proof, full-bore bourbon strength rather than pussy-footing liqueur strength.  That means it’s going to stand up in a drink. 

As it turns out, that’s what Beam was aiming for.  They’re looking at “new consumers who may not have previously considered the bourbon category,” according to Graber.  “As off-premise consumption grows, Red Stag provides the ultimate base for at-home mixability at an affordable value.  Additionally, American consumers continued to be very interested in flavor variety, perceived as modern and contemporary.”

That’s right.  Red Stag is going after the mix-it-up, fun-flavor customers who’ve been driving vodka sales.  That at-home mixability works, too.  I love cocktails, and I love bartenders even more, because I can’t make a good cocktail to save my life.  But give me Red Stag, bitters and vermouth, and I can stir up a drink that passes for a Manhattan (in a dim light).
Beam has partnered Red Stag with Kid Rock.  “He’s a very energetic entertainer, with strong support for the military,” said Doss, “and that’s important to Beam.  Red Stag is the sponsor for his 2OO9 Rock & Roll Rebels tour.  He’s a terrific spokesperson.”

It remains to be seen what Campari will do with American Honey, but the success has already started.  Heaven Hill will be jumping in with Evan Williams Honey Reserve, which will be launching soon in Massachusetts.  If sales continue to rise, you’re bound to see more distillers enter the niche.

Will Red Stag drinkers become bourbon drinkers? Maybe, as they mature and look for something with more solid bourbon flavor.  But maybe not, and if they keep drinking Red Stag, or American Honey, or Evan Williams Honey Reserve, well, they’re still in the category. 

THE BRASS BUCK
1½ parts Red Stag
1½ parts Cruzan Light Rum
4 parts orange juice. 
pour into a highball glass ¾ full of ice.
Give a good stir. 
I think even I can handle that!


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