Posted on | August 22, 2013
Written by | Robert Haynes-Peterson
Seems as if it’s becoming harder each year to innovate in the spirits category: absinthe, mezcal, moonshine, vodkas flavored like children’s dessert fantasies. What’s a brand extension-er to do? Apparently one answer is to mash up two spirits (or a spirit and a wine) and bottle them.
Over the past year, an increasing number of labels—including the likes of widely distributed Malibu Red (rum and tequila), Kahlua Midnight (rum and Kahlua) and Absolut Tune (vodka and sparkling wine) have appeared on bar and store shelves, introducing what appears to be a new category of “hybrid” liquids for adults.
One could argue that this category (particularly blends of spirit and wine) is simply an extrapolation of existing vermouths, liqueurs and ready-to-drink cocktails. Unlike liqueurs and vermouths, however, these blended libations aren’t for preservation or to serve as botanical suspensions, and the liquid bases are intended to be roughly equal in their perception (unlike, say, vermouth where the primary component is wine). Unlike RTD cocktails (though many of the hybrids are designed to stand alone), most of these newbies have no mixers: no citrus, juice or extra sugar components.
“The original thinking was to bring the best of the Champagne world—glamour and sophistication—and the vodka world—fun and energy— together,” says Laurent Cutier, senior brand manager at Pernod Ricard for Absolut Tune. The 14% ABV blend of vodka and Sauvignon Blanc tastes like a tart sparkling wine with a slightly astringent aftertaste. Cutler called it a “breakthrough innovation” when it launched in late 2012. “You have a lot of fusion bottles on the market, but most fall in the liqueur category, and there’s a tendency to add sugar,” he says.
The current wave seems to be more straightforward: Rum + Kahlua in the case of Kahlua Midnight; vodka + Cognac in the case of 20 Grand. Cognac + French Moscato = Courvoisier Gold. While Vodkila and VodQuila are, obviously enough, vodka-tequila mash-ups, Phillips Gin-Ka, a revived product from the early 1970s, combines gin and vodka. In a more traditional club liqueur mold, LeSutra, backed by music producer Timbaland, is a brightly colored series of flavored liqueurs made with vodka and sparkling white wine.
Genesis of a Genre
To some degree, the new wave of products seem borne more from marketing meetings than from a distiller’s twisted dream. Like Korean tacos or bacon-and-anything, the goal appears to be finding what’s already hot and throwing it together in a pot. Smoke, a blend of vodka, Moscato, coconut and pineapple which launched this June in New York, seems to have taken this philosophy to heart. Co-founder Zev Norotsky, who has worked all facets of the hospitality business, including opening several nightclubs, says, “I’ve become sort of a pop culture anthropologist, and we were noticing certain trends. We noticed the coconut-pineapple profile in creative waves on-premise, and Moscato was making new waves all on its own.”
Cutier, meanwhile, notes a demand for multi-function products among what he calls “the iPad generation.” They seek more from a single product, like a hi-tech Swiss army knife—or a beverage that delivers on multiple levels.
But were people actually imagining—if not clamoring for—a glass of rum-and-tequila before Malibu Red arrived on the scene? Or a Vodka Moscato? Well, maybe so. Exclusiv Vodka creator Serge Chistov says he got the idea for Exclusiv Rosé Vodka—raspberry-flavored vodka infused with Moscato wine—from the Baltimore market, where he saw people mixing Moscato and Cîroc.
Perhaps a more obscure precedent: On the British TV comedy Absolutely Fabulous, the stars drank “Stoli Bollis,” a blend of Stolichnaya vodka and Bollinger Champagne (later in the series moving on to “Veuve and Bourbs”). Cutier says he’s found the same blend in Italy served up with Prosecco. And of course there are classic cocktails—the Negroni, the Manhattan, the Long Island Iced Tea—that are all-spirits. Most of the new products seem to be positioned as ready to serve neat or over ice, though they all offer up cocktail recipes on their websites and promotional materials (generally mixed with juice, or elderflower liqueur or even Red Bull).
Many of these new products target the nightclub crowd, and bartenders are seeing them find an audience. At Pure Ultra Lounge in Columbia, SC, Matthias “Mickey” Copeland Copeland is able to introduce guests to new concepts, including 20 Grand, Malibu Red and Absolut Tune. “I am an introducer, a social mixologist,” he explains. “With Malibu Red, I tend to push it more to tequila drinkers than rum drinkers, since people unfamiliar with the Malibu label will tend to assume it’s another tropical flavored rum. I love the agave notes.”
Megan Mayhem, head bartender at Jersey City’s Powerhouse Lounge, says, “With Courvosier Gold, it seems to be mostly corporate guys ordering it on ice. They know what they want, and ask what brands of whiskey or Cognac we carry. Malibu Red, I notice, is mostly ordered by a younger, hip-hop crowd. They see it promoted somewhere and will ask for it. Men mostly, but lately the girls have been asking for it in cocktails.”
Of course, the question with any trend is staying power. Too early to say with hybrids in general, and it may well be that some soar and some sink. But the products keep coming. Earlier this year saw another big player enter the hybrid arena—Skyy Moscato, a vodka-Moscato fusion. And the young genre shows signs of flexing in new ways. Coco Mambú is the first tropically inspired spirit made from rum, tropical fruit juices and 20% coconut water; the two flavors, Orange Mango and Watermelon Lime, are both 18% ABV and promoted to be enjoyed over ice or mixed. Yes, Coco Mambú is not an all-spirits or spirit-wine combo, but it wears its hybrid identity front and center.
And in a current marketplace that has grown accustomed to mash-ups and crossovers in all sorts of consumer goods, and with a food scene that has made fusion of cuisines common, at the very least it would seem that beverage-alcohol hybrids will not shock Americans and may even have an edge of novelty in terms of attracting attention.
When it comes to wine, the hybridization situation is all about fruit, fruit and more fruit. Soleil Mimosa, a RTD blend of premium wine and fresh-squeezed orange juice (8% ABV), has shown explosive growth, and steady expansion into new markets. It is available in both bottles and cans—plus flavor extensions (pineapple, mango, pomegranate).
Moscato, not surprisingly, is at the core of several bubbly hybrids. The successful 2012 debut of MoscaMango led Bedford International to launch two more variations, MoscaBerri (strawberry) and MoscaPesca (peach). Myx Fusions—a line of single-serve Moscatos, powered by rapper Nicki Minaj and released this summer—includes coconut and peach. Even newer: having tested Riunite Peach Moscato in five markets, Banfi plans to roll out this iteration nationally by the holidays.
Allure Peach—made with Symphony grapes—shows that not every bubbly needs to be Moscato to satisfy fruit-fusion lovers. And for those wondering how far the fruit flavors can be stretched, consider the Amore Frutti line, a frizzante Moscato line infused with banana, mango, raspberry, strawberry, cherry and pomegranate.
Perhaps the best indication of all that wine hybrids are taking off: DFV, after launching Charonge, an orange-accented Chardonnay, in 2012, has evolved the brand in a major way. This fall will see the release of a trio of fruit-infused wines under the new Frusions label, featuring peach and pear as well as orange.