How about an Elvis-inspired peanut butter, jelly, and banana sandwich? Or perhaps a cocktail that tastes like one? At Buster’s Liquors & Wines in Memphis—a city that’s the former home of “the king of rock and roll,” Elvis Presley—some customers are embracing a unique mix of spirits. According to company president Josh Hammond, a drink with two parts Skrewball Peanut Butter whiskey and one part Chambord liqueur is gaining appeal, and some add in Blue Chair Bay Banana rum to give the drink the Elvis edge.
The core of that unique cocktail is Skrewball, a peanut butter-flavored whiskey that launched in San Diego in 2018 and gained national distribution through Infinium Spirits a year later, reaching 162,000 cases in 2019, according to Impact Databank. Hammond says it’s “incredible” how well the brand is doing in his market, where it retails at $26 a 750-ml. “It’s not just the young drinkers—all age groups are buying Skrewball,” he says.
Skrewball has gained national attention because of its unique flavor component, but it’s hardly the only flavored whisk(e)y that’s been gaining traction in recent years. The category is on fire in the U.S. market. In 2019, 17 top brands combined for a 12% increase in volume to just over 13 million cases, according to Impact Databank. Five years ago, volume for those same flavored whiskies in the U.S. stood at 7.5 million cases.
Fireball Continues To Burn
Skrewball is on the rise, but its 162,000 cases are dwarfed by some of the largest flavored whisk(e)y brands in the industry. Most formidable among them is Fireball, a cinnamon-flavored whisky that has garnered mass appeal as a shooter and cocktail component. Fireball continued its rise in 2019, with volume jumping 8% to 5.21 million cases, according to Impact Databank.
Amanda McLeod, marketing director for Sazerac-owned Fireball, references the “Fireball nation,” an enthusiastic fan base that has pushed the brand into the limelight. It’s by far the largest flavored whisky in the U.S. at more than three times the volume of its nearest competitor, Crown Royal Regal Apple. While Regal Apple and several others performed very well in 2019, they’re not yet approaching Fireball’s level of momentum. “It seems like there are always other brands trying to slay this dragon, but we’re up for any challenge,” McLeod says. “We can’t speak for the category, but we’re happy to be the trendsetter and plan to continue igniting the night.”
In fact, Fireball has “created a market of its own,” according to Jack Farrell, chairman and CEO of Haskell’s, which sells the brand for $14 a 750-ml. “Some of the flavored whiskies are doing better than others, but no one is on fire like Fireball,” Farrell says. “Though customers may be willing to try some of the others, if they like that cinnamon flavor, they go back to Fireball.”
The consumer enthusiasm for new and different product offerings has prompted several of the leading distillers in North America to launch various flavored line extensions in recent years. Thus far, flavored whiskies have largely been a North American phenomenon, although there are some exceptions. Crown Royal Canadian whisky, Jack Daniel’s Tennessee whiskey, and Jim Beam Bourbon have been among the most prolific—and successful—on the flavor front.
Among the leading 15 flavored whiskies in 2019, Crown Royal occupied three spots. Crown Royal Regal Apple was the second-largest flavored whisky brand last year at 1.72 million cases, an 11.5% gain, according to Impact Databank. Crown Royal Vanilla gained 16% to reach 470,000 cases, and Crown Royal Peach, a limited-edition seasonal entrant, reached 415,000 cases in its launch last year. “Limited-edition offerings can create a great opportunity for us to play with on-trend seasonal flavors, using exceptionally high-quality ingredients,” says Crown Royal brand director Nicola Heckles. Peach returned this year with a re-release in late February. And another seasonal label, Crown Royal Salted Caramel, is on shelves in autumn and winter, while Texas Mesquite is on shelves only in Texas.
Peach has also been a successful flavor for Jim Beam. Matt Plumb, senior director of marketing for Jim Beam North America, says that Jim Beam Peach is “on track to become Jim Beam’s largest innovation to date.” The new Peach offering from industry powerhouses will likely accelerate growth for the flavor overall, predicts Susan Wahl, group product director at Heaven Hill Brands. Heaven Hill launched its Evan Williams Peach variant in 2015, but the recent attention surrounding the flavor has helped boost sales. “If you have three distillers with peach, it becomes a pretty big segment of the flavored category and starts to move into strong projected growth,” Wahl says. “I anticipate that peach will start to have a nice increase year-over-year over the next couple of years, thanks to the number of brands now in the marketplace.” For Evan Williams, peach will be a focus flavor this year, along with apple and honey. “I think you’ll see that from most distillers over the next year,” Wahl adds.
Brown-Forman Corp. currently has the largest honey-flavored whiskey in the market—Jack Daniel’s Tennessee Honey. The variant grew 2.5% to 766,000 cases in 2019. And even stronger honey growth came from smaller brands; Wild Turkey American Honey advanced 9.7% to 440,000 cases, while Jim Beam Honey grew 10.5% to 322,000 cases, according to Impact Databank.
The major whisk(e)y players have been fairly cautious with their line extensions, especially compared to the vodka sector, where flavors seemed to multiply exponentially at their height of popularity a decade or so ago. “We all agree that it’s a far narrower band of flavors than for vodka,” says Wahl, noting that whiskies are typically traditional brands with traditional values. “There’s a reluctance to innovate too far. We all fervently want to protect what’s really important to us, which is our mainstay Bourbon brand.”
Flavored whiskies have received a mixed reaction in the on-premise. Brands with a strong bent toward shooters are always going to make their way onto the backbar at most establishments, but others have a harder time getting noticed. Many bar professionals prefer to create the flavors they desire in-house. Weng Lee, who serves as beverage director at Hoboken, New Jersey restaurant Halifax, is an exception, embracing flavored whiskies for use in cocktails. “One of the benefits of using a flavored product rather than a house-infused flavor is consistency,” he says. “Even though creating house-infused flavors gives us a sense of uniqueness, using a flavored product helps keep the taste of the cocktail uniform and consistent.”
Lee likes to capitalize on seasonal flavors. For summertime at Halifax, the Apricot Cobbler ($14) is a combination of equal parts Misunderstood Ginger Spiced whiskey and Bärenjäger honey liqueur, served over ice and topped with a ripe apricot slice. Another drink, A Geisha’s Smile ($14), has plum-infused Akashi Ume Japanese whisky along with Japanese dashi broth and house-made plum simple syrup. There’s definitely demand for flavored whiskies in the restaurant, Lee adds. In addition to the specialty cocktails, patrons are requesting flavored whiskies in traditional cocktails like the Old Fashioned.
The off-premise is generally more welcoming to a wide range of flavored whiskies. Marketers like the expanded shelf facings that flavor extensions often bring, and retailers like that they can offer something new to consumers. Flavored whiskies are “certainly clicking with consumers these days,” says Hammond. “They tend to drink them straight without mixing. The flavors can mask the heat of the alcohol so it’s easier to consume.”
Marketers also see an opportunity to expand the appeal of their core brands. Lisa Hunter, U.S. brand director for Jack Daniel’s, stresses that the core Jack Daniel’s Tennessee whiskey is “still strong and growing.” But she notes that consumers are enjoying the new offerings, giving the brand the impetus for innovation. “Flavored whisk(e)y drinkers tend to be younger and made up of a more diverse consumer base, which gives this portfolio high strategic importance for Jack Daniel’s,” Hunter says.
Traditional whisk(e)y consumers aren’t the only targets. “Whisk(e)y drinkers are interested in trying new offerings,” Heckles says. “As a result, Crown Royal is offering liquids that fuel our consumers’ desire to experiment.” But she adds that the flavors appeal beyond existing whisk(e)y drinkers. “Our flavor drinkers are connoisseurs who are very discerning with their choices,” she says. “Flavors deliver against the trend of exploration and curiosity, allowing consumers to try innovative new cocktails.”
For Jim Beam, the flavors offer a connection to a whole new audience. “Flavored whisk(e)y drinkers tend to be traditionally non-whisk(e)y drinkers who prefer a specific flavor profile,” says Plumb. “Through its flavored offerings, Jim Beam has been able to introduce consumers to the brand who otherwise may never have considered us through standard Bourbon offerings.”
“It’s a different audience altogether,” agrees Heaven Hill’s Wahl. “We’re really sourcing the volume from other places in the industry, via flavored vodkas or vodkas in general, and even in the beer and seltzer categories.” A broad slate of new flavors isn’t likely to emerge in the near future, marketers say, with some noting that only select flavors complement whisk(e)y’s powerful taste. But with double-digit growth in the category, there are bound to be new flavors as well as new brands latching on to existing flavors.
Old Elk Distillery in Fort Collins, Colorado, launched PB&W, a peanut butter-flavored whiskey, last fall to take on Skrewball. “With the peanut butter-flavored whisk(e)y category growing, we couldn’t think of a better brand than PB&W that allows for the liquid to be whiskey-forward with a true peanut butter flavor and finish,” CEO Luis Gonzalez said in the launch announcement. “With our ability to scale, and the flavor profile of PB&W, we are excited about the twists consumers and mixologists will explore.”
Other non-mainstream flavors on the market include chocolate, coffee, root beer, and ginger, among others. Plumb says that the broad range of available flavors and the ongoing pace of innovation should keep consumers interested. “We’ve found that consumers enjoy flavored whisk(e)y, not necessarily instead of unflavored whiskey, but so they can explore something a little different,” Plumb adds, noting that flavored whisk(e)y growth is currently outpacing that of overall whisk(e)y. “The category is only going to grow over the next few years.”