Kentucky’s Liquor Barn is one of the go-to retail chains for whisk(e)y. In the epicenter of Bourbon country, the stores carry a vast range of whiskies—many allocated and revered by critics—from Kentucky and all over the world. The selection attracts local and regional whisk(e)y aficionados—consumers who are well-versed in the nuances of brands and styles. Yet alongside that massive selection is a growing range of flavored whiskies that are appealing to die-hard whisk(e)y connoisseurs as well as more casual drinkers.
“Demand has been very high for flavored whiskies and even higher during the pandemic,” says Jonathan Blue, chairman and managing director of Blue Equity LLC, which owns the Liquor Barn, DEP’s Fine Wine & Spirits, and Party Mart chains in Kentucky. “You’d think that whisk(e)y drinkers from Kentucky and the surrounding area are purists who wouldn’t want to deviate from the standard products, but they’ve absolutely taken to flavors. The highest demand we see is for the flavored whiskeys made in Kentucky, except for Skrewball. If it’s Kentucky-made, even if it’s an extreme, exotic flavor, it resonates with customers. But Skrewball is such a phenomenon that it’s in a category all by itself.”
The enthusiasm surrounding flavored whiskies has brought volume numbers to new heights. Depletions reached an estimated 16.18 million 9-liter cases in 2020, according to Impact Databank. A decade ago, volume was under 2 million cases. Blue says the flavored options appeal to devoted whisk(e)y drinkers but also have expanded the audience with more young consumers and more women.
The enthusiasm for flavors isn’t limited to Bourbon country. West Coast retail chain BevMo, which has stores in California, Arizona, and Washington and a robust online presence, is experiencing strong demand for flavored whiskies as well, according to Jeff Feist, the chain’s category lead for spirits. He says dollar sales of flavored whiskies were up 22.6% in 2020, led by Skrewball ($25 a 750-ml.), Fireball ($15), and the Crown Royal range of flavors ($26). “We still see a lot of new and curious drinkers coming into this category,” Feist says. “The good news is that even though they might be brand loyal, that does not mean they are flavor loyal. We see customers experimenting with different flavor profiles constantly.”
For Infinium Spirits’ Skrewball Peanut Butter whiskey, which was named the Market Watch Leaders Best New Spirits product in 2020, flavors are bringing new people into the fold. “The flavored whisk(e)y category attracts new consumers and accelerates greater acceptance in demographics like women, millennials, and the Hispanic multi-cultural community,” says Skrewball president Carl Carlson. While he acknowledges some exhaustion regarding certain flavors, he says consumers are deciding which flavors they want around for the long haul. “The innovation has certainly provided a spark that was needed,” he adds.
Some of the new and curious drinkers are younger consumers and women—both groups show more favorably in flavored whisk(e)y demographics than in non-flavored. “The flavored whisk(e)y drinker tends to be younger and made up of a more diverse set of consumers,” says Jack Daniel’s flavor brand director Lisa Hunter. “As such we do look at this category as a recruitment vehicle for the trademark.”
The pandemic and resulting shift to at-home consumption could be one reason for the success of flavored whiskies. While bartenders and mixologists have a range of ingredients on hand to create a cocktail experience, duplicating that at home can be challenging. Flavored spirits can streamline the ingredient list. “Flavored whiskies are almost like a cocktail that you don’t have to mix,” Liquor Barn’s Blue notes. “If you just put ice on it, you’re already there.”
Larger, established brands have embraced the pivot away from the on-premise. “At-home consumption has exploded,” says Jack Daniel’s Hunter. “We’re actively promoting responsible ways to enjoy these products at home with simple plusone cocktail solutions that even the most apprehensive at-home bartender can master.”
Katie Funk, Jim Beam marketing director at Beam Suntory, notes that flavored Bourbon lends itself to easy creation of Highballs. “Jim Beam Peach and Jim Beam Apple are both fantastic in a Highball and provide consumers with additional flavor and the refreshing experience they have come to expect from hard seltzers,” she says.
These whiskey brands brought some excitement to consumers in a year that was fraught with challenges. With restaurants and bars either closed or open with limitations, consumers were forced to be more creative at home. “There are a lot of legacy brands in all categories that thrived in 2020 but there was also a lot of room—and success, frankly—for innovative brands offering versatility like Skrewball,” notes Carlson. “They provide a wide range of opportunities and possibilities for the end consumer.”
While new flavors are shifting the competitive landscape, nothing thus far has been able to dent consumer enthusiasm for Sazerac’s Fireball. A cinnamon-flavored whisky popular as a shooter, the single-SKU brand continued to dominate the sector in 2020, accounting for more than a third of volume at an estimated 6.3 million cases, a 12% gain. And though brand director Amanda McLeod notes the challenge of on-premise closures over the last year, growth continued for Fireball, and many other flavored brands.
Diageo-backed Crown Royal flavors also had a strong showing in 2020, especially the Peach flavor, which has customers scrambling for a limited supply. “If Diageo could produce more I’d sell it all,” says Mat Dinsmore, managing partner at Wilbur’s Total Beverage in Fort Collins, Colorado. “They have created a huge demand by limiting supply of Crown Peach. I don’t know if it behooves them to make more, because in term of the demand curve, they’ve created the perfect storm for that product.”
Crown Royal Peach depleted an estimated 585,000 cases in 2020, a 30% increase over the prior year. And the popular expression is getting a push from Diageo this year. “We’re excited to continue to support Crown Royal Peach as it’s back on shelves for the warmer months,” says Crown Royal vice president Nicky Heckles. The brand’s Regal Apple expression also had a strong showing in 2020, gaining 10.5% to an estimated 1.9 million cases. At about half that volume, Sazerac-owned Southern Comfort ranked third among flavored whiskies at an estimated 970,000 cases, a 1% increase. Jack Daniel’s Tennessee Honey from Brown-Forman came in at an estimated 870,000 cases, a 13.5% advance.
Some of the year’s most dynamic performances came from smaller-volume brands such as Skrewball, which jumped to 581,000 cases in its second year of full distribution. The peanut butter-flavored whiskey was launched in San Diego a few years back and had a cult following in the local restaurant scene before bursting onto the national stage in 2019. “People have fallen in love with the product and helped move the brand forward,” says Carlson. “It’s not like people refer to peanut butter whiskey. It’s Skrewball whiskey, and now it’s almost just Skrewball—that’s rarified air when it happens.”
Charles Sonnenberg, owner of the three-store Frugal MacDoogal chain in Nashville, Tennessee and Columbia and Fort Mill, South Carolina, says Skrewball created the peanut butter whiskey category and remains a brand phenomenon despite significant competition. “Skrewball is not at an entry-level price,” he says, noting that the brand retails for $25 in his stores. “But even though others are entering the market at a cheaper price, they’re not having similar success. We have at minimum half a dozen peanut butter whiskey brands out there and the dominant brand remains Skrewball.”
Another vibrant brand among flavored whiskies is Ole Smoky, which includes many flavored moonshines in its vast portfolio. The entire line gained 53% to 497,000 cases in 2020, according to Impact Databank. The Tennessee brand is somewhat unusual among whiskies in that it carries a multitude of flavors from the standards like Salty Caramel and Cinnamon to offbeat selections like Snickerdoodle, Root Beer, and Salty Watermelon. Blue says the brand is hugely popular in his stores, even the Old Smoky Pickles moonshine ($22 a 750-ml.). “Ole Smoky is pretty much drive and thrive,” he notes.
Similarly, Bird Dog whiskey has a broad range of flavors, from fruits like Apple and Black Cherry to rich profiles like Praline and Chocolate. “We continue to sell out of a lot of those flavors,” says Wilbur’s Dinsmore, though he notes that the broad range isn’t typical among whiskey producers. “They’re a little more thoughtful of what they’re putting in the bottle and how it’s going to be received.”
Consumer enthusiasm for new brands and flavors has prompted experimentation from producers both large and small. One example is Virgil Kaine Ginger Infused Bourbon ($30 a 750-ml.) from South Carolina’s Virgil Kaine Lowcountry Whiskey Co. Ginger-flavored Bourbon isn’t commonplace, but brand owner David Szlam hopes it will be soon. “It’s very versatile and appeals to people that have never even considered drinking whiskey,” he says. “It’s also great as an enhancer to the typical classics such as Old Fashioneds or Manhattans.”