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The Fervor for Flavor

Posted on  | April 24, 2013   Bookmark and Share
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The rainbow of flavored spirits continues to expand—on shelves and at bars.

Rob Floyd helms the cutting-edge cocktail program at The Bazaar by José Andres at SLS Hotel Beverly Hills photo: Amanda Rowan, RowanImagery.com

Flavor in spirits is nothing new. When Dr. Sylvius, of the University of Leyden, used juniper berries to create the original gin in 1608 and when Carthusian monks in France added 130 herbs to distilled alcohol to make Green Chartreuse in the 1740s, they were flavoring spirits.

Over the ensuing centuries flavored spirits were anchored by cordials/liqueurs, not surprisingly, since those products are flavored by definition. Then, in 1986, Absolut Peppar debuted. At the time, this pepper-infused vodka was seen more as a Bloody Mary helper than a standalone sipper or shooter, but the seed-notion of vodka being an ideal blank canvas for flavorization was planted. Taking advantage of modern food-science technology, creative marketers wasted little time populating the vodka category with a rainbow of fruit and spice expressions, giving birth to an entire category that has just kept growing.

Buoyed by the success of infused vodka, flavors are closing in on being the rule rather than the exception. According to the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States, over 40% of all spirit products in the U.S. feature a flavor component (cordials included). Flavors now extend effortlessly from vodka to rum, tequila and whiskey. We’re talking about much more than plain vanilla, too. DISCUS documents more than 220 different expressions, from wasabi to watermelon and PB&J to pickle. Perhaps most important of all, the flavor revolution has proven lucrative for both new and iconic brands. Could we be upon a Golden Age of Flavor?

VODKA: THE STARTING POINT

As the first flavored spirits category to take off in the U.S., and one whose neutrality lends itself to flavor extension, vodka reigns among flavor thrill seekers. It drives the diversity of flavors and the imagination of the people who love them, with options like buttered popcorn, bacon, key lime and fig. While the category is often teased by outsiders, the vodka flavor train just keeps chugging: in 2012, flavored vodka experienced a dollar sales increase of 17% over the previous year, according to Danny Brager, vice president group client director for Nielsen. This far exceeds the 3% increase of unflavored vodka sales and places a hefty 21% of total vodka sales in the flavored realm.

Brager suggests the diversity of vodka flavors acts as a fertile testing ground for flavors that may come to other spirits, and is typical of a more mature and accepted flavor market—one he compares to ice cream. “In those categories where flavors have taken hold, I believe there will continue to be new extensions and established flavors moving across spirits segments,” says Brager. “I think what drives flavors is initially the single flavors, as those are usually quickest to market, but then exotics and combinations are almost always soon to follow.”

Right now we’re watching as established flavors of cherry and honey begin the boom in flavored whiskey. With these on solid footing, there is certainly a potential to widen the flavors of whiskey as well. While flavored whiskey still represents only 5% of category sales, the ascent of this slice of flavor has been astounding, up 90% in value for the year ending 2012 according to Brager.

CREATING NEW FANS ON-PREMISE

While many top mixologists prefer to concoct their own flavors, Rob Floyd, who helms the cutting-edge cocktail program at The Bazaar by José Andrés at SLS Hotel Beverly Hills, says commercial flavors are too big for any serious bartender to ignore. Floyd is genuinely excited about what flavored spirits portend for cocktail creators like himself—welcoming spirits for previously underserved consumers. “It’s often a younger drinker looking for flavored spirits,” says Floyd, “and they have really reached out to the female demographic. There is nothing more sexy than that young female professional who comes in and wants to expand her taste and take a chance on a flavored whiskey like Jack Daniels Honey.”

Floyd sees a female consumer who orders a Beam Red Stag and Coke or a Jack Daniels Honey and ginger ale as a “golden opportunity” to grow a savvy spirits consumer. “You are introducing bourbon or whiskey to a person who did not consider it before. This is the opportunity to create a whole new following for spirits and cocktails. In a few years I think it will be amazing, just amazing,” he adds.

While men who already enjoy traditional whiskey are less likely to trade it in for the flavored variety, Floyd says he sees them adopting high-end flavored vodka on the rocks as their drink of choice, drawn by the diversity and purity of these flavors. “In the past six months, businessmen are sipping more flavored vodkas on the rocks, especially Grey Goose, Hangar One and Belvedere flavors,” says Floyd.

At Bond at The Cosmopolitan in Las Vegas, Jerry Vargas, general manager and mixologist, finds that spicy flavored spirits are the perfect fit for Bond’s steamy nightlife. While the kitchen creates a bevy of custom culinary infusions, Vargas also turns up the heat with cocktails that include branded spirits like Tanteo Jalapeño Tequila and Hangar One Chipotle Vodka. “This is a high energy lounge. I tend to gravitate toward spicier, like the chipotle vodka, where the aromas and bouquet really come through in the Nikita cocktail,” says Vargas, noting the drink includes lime ice cubes, cilantro simple syrup and Perfect Purée of Napa Valley caramelized pineapple concentrate.

While Vargas agrees that women are the first to reach for Jack Daniel’s Honey, they are often evangelizing to male drinkers. “Men see their wives and girlfriends stepping outside of the box and they tend to follow and enjoy it, too,” he says.
At the Cielo Bar at the Four Seasons Hotel St. Louis, Cory Cuff shakes up lots of creative flavors as the assistant manager of food and beverage, including Duck Fat–Infused Pinch Scotch and Jalapeño and Thyme–Infused Avión Reposado. However, commercial flavors appear as part of his long-term strategy to educate the existing bar crowd. “If I see a product that has established itself in the market, and it has a foothold, I’ll use that in the best application I see fit,” says Cuff.

His Elevated Long Island Iced Tea includes Three Olives Cherry alongside housemade sour mix and maraschino liqueur. “The guest is not necessarily going to buy more of that drink if I make my own cherry vodka, and the same thing is true of drinks with Captain Morgan Spiced Rum. In some applications, a well-loved flavored spirit will get the drink sold,” he says.

WHATÍS THE NEXT WHIPPED?

While the rise of flavor has the makings of a long-term, category-shifting trend in vodka, and possibly other spirits, on a more micro level, it comes with a catch. Steve Malloy, vice president, of Malloy’s Finest Wine & Spirits, a family-owned retailer with three stores in the Chicago area says the proliferation of flavored spirits can seem so great, he often jokes, “Does that come with shelf space?” For many smaller stores, taking on yet another flavor is a challenge.

While quality is paramount for Malloy, and he makes it a point to taste every new product, he notes that the success or failure of flavors is difficult for anyone to predict. “I don’t think 10 years ago anyone could have guessed whipped cream would be a dominant vodka flavor. But with everyone adding it to their arsenal, especially with the big conglomerates now jumping on board with advertising, I believe it’s a flavor that is here to stay,” he says.

According to Malloy, many of the 40 flavors of Pinnacle vodka remain niche players, but Whipped is widely successful because it walks the line of innovation and mixability. “With the crowd buying entry-level vodka, you find them mixing it with Coke, keeping it simple. They are happy there is so much flavor already in the bottle,” he says.

Malloy feels that flavors of honey and maple will show good staying power among the American and Canadian whiskies they complement so well. “The appeal for consumers in their twenties and thirties is: this is whiskey they can call their own. It’s not their grandfather’s whiskey,” he says.

AS THE FLAVORS CHURN

That’s not to say that seemingly off-the-wall flavors aren’t worth a gamble. Malloy’s has been doing brisk sales in both Three Olives Loopy, unofficially based on Kellogg’s Fruit Loops cereal, and RumChata, based on the Mexican creamy rice refresher horchata. (Interestingly, older consumers will say RumChata reminds them of rice pudding; for those under 40, it is reminiscent of Cinnamon Toast Crunch cereal.)

Shelves at Northwest Wine and Spirits in Columbus, OH, are brimming with flavored vodkas

Sunny Patel, owner of Northwest Wine and Spirits with four locations in the Columbus, OH, area, says people are always attracted to the new and offbeat, but only time will tell whether a flavor joins the shelf indefinitely. “Whipped cream was a big thing when it came out and now is a regular item. People expect to see it. Now customers are coming in and they want Naked Jay Dill Pickle and OYO Stone Fruit Vodka. They are really popular and doing well here in Ohio,” says Patel.

Patel says the newest flavor boom is neither vodka nor whiskey, but lies somewhere in between, combining the Moonshine and flavor trends. “I think it came as a huge surprise, but Ole Smokey Moonshine is one of our biggest sellers overall. Flavors of apple pie, cherry and blackberry. They all sell out,” says Patel.

There may be little chance of predicting the next breakout flavor, or even in which category it will occur, but as long as producers keep the quality high and the creativity coming, it appears younger consumers, and imaginative bartenders alike, are open-minded enough to give any flavor its fair shot.  


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