Last year during the winter holidays, Bellevue, Kentucky retailer The Party Source was facing a conundrum. It had access to a range of allocated and hard-to-find Bourbons, but with the pandemic raging and social distancing practices in place, there wasn’t an easy way to alert customers without risking a crowd at the store.
Party Source president Jon Stiles and his team came up with a new offering: allocated Bourbon baskets featuring Bourbons and other items in custom-made baskets. One basket included a 750-ml. of Eagle Rare Bourbon, a 750-ml. of W.L. Weller Wheated Bourbon, a bar towel, and a Bourbon-themed ceramic coaster, packaged in a bottle tote made from used Bourbon barrel staves and priced at $130. Other similar baskets were also available.
“We sold hundreds of them last year,” Stiles says, noting that his store initially ordered 200 of the custom-made baskets. Once loaded with Bourbon and other goodies, the baskets sold out in three days. “We had to scramble,” he says. “[The basket maker] ended up giving us as many as they could, but it certainly wasn’t as many as we wanted.”
At press time, Stiles and his team were planning to have even more available for immediate sale during this year’s holiday season. Baskets will likely include Blanton’s, Weller Antique, and Weller Full Proof, among other brands. “We’re looking to include anything we feel we can get good quantities on,” says Stiles.
The allocated Bourbon baskets are just one of several holiday-themed offerings in The Party Source’s holiday catalogue, which offer holiday-centric selections along with favorites from The Party Source staff.
“These are our selections—it’s not vendor driven,” says Stiles, noting that holiday sales are crucial to any retailer’s business. “We want to present the best things we have for our customers. We try to feature as many of our private barrels as possible. The Very Olde St. Nick Bourbons were extremely popular last year and this year we managed to acquire a good size inventory, even more than we had last year.”
The enthusiasm for the holidays as well as the eagerness to spotlight own labels and staff favorites is commonplace among beverage alcohol retailers who look to the winter holidays to drive a third or more of their annual sales. At Seattle’s Metropolitan Market, wine, beer, spirits, and beverage specialist Mark Takagi is looking forward to the upcoming holiday season. “Champagne is a big deal and we bring in a container of our own label of Brut, Vintage, and rosé and merchandise along with all of the other notable houses like Louis Roederer, Veuve Clicquot, and others,” he says. “We also have a selection of about 20 wines we call ‘holiday picks’ that have become a go-to favorite for our customers to shop from as they know all of these wines have been selectively curated by our wine staff for holiday fare and gatherings.” Those wines are typically priced anywhere from $15-$80 per bottle.
Whisk(e)y is also a big favorite at Metropolitan Market. “We commit to a lot of exclusive barrels,” Takagi says. “We also have an exclusive spirit from a local distillery that is a blend of rum, brandy, and whiskey that is recommended for eggnog—our dairy department secures an incredible, all natural eggnog—and works well in a number of other cocktails. That has become a tradition and customer favorite.”
Gift baskets around the holidays and all year long are a staple at Wines & More locations in Massachusetts. Sara Walsh, director of merchandising and giftware for Wine & Spirits Retail Marketing, which franchises the stores, says she typically steers clear of holiday-centric or holiday-specific brands in her offerings, preferring instead to dress up baskets with packaging to match the season. But some baskets have an undeniable seasonal bent, such as the Winter Warmer ($40), which contains a 750-ml. of Smirnoff Vanilla vodka, two nips each of 99 Peppermint and 99 Whipped vodka, an assortment of cocoas, and a mug.
Retailer France 44 in Minneapolis also makes its own gift packs. “We’ll assemble cocktail kits or mix-and-match beer baskets, focusing on local producers,” says owner Rick Anderson. “People love it.” But unlike some other retailers, Anderson isn’t too keen on the seasonal flavors that swarm the shelves during the holidays. “We’ll buy a case or two of whatever flavor they’ve come up with for that season,” he says, using Baileys as an example. “But we stick to the basics. We just do not see any real pull-through on the seasonal variations.”
Anderson also isn’t a big fan of the value-added packaging (VAP) that many suppliers use to add some excitement around their brand. “A lot of places like the VAPs; we don’t,” he says. “What we’ve found is that our customers don’t really react to it.”
In fact, the France 44 staff goes so far as to disassemble some of the packages that come through the door. “For certain liquor products, we can only get it in a VAP at certain times of the year,” Anderson notes. “We actually take the effort to rip all the packages apart, we put the bottles on the shelves and then we have a section in the store where people can have the glassware for free.”
Of course, other retailers desire such packaging as it creates enthusiasm among their customers. “Appropriate value-added packaging works any time,” says Charles Sonnenberg, owner of Nashville-based Frugal MacDoogal, noting that the items must be “perceived as useful” and sold at no or nominal additional charge.
At Wine & Spirits Retail Marketing, Walsh is a big fan of VAPs, and she laments the fact that many brands have scaled back their efforts in recent years. “It’s very pickand-choose now, where it used to be that every brand under the sun had a gift set for the holidays,” she says. “People love those because they pay the same retail. We try to get them when we can.”
Stiles and his team also embrace VAPs around the holidays. “Our buyer is essentially buying as much as she can get her hands on because consumers really look for that,” Stiles says. “They’re very popular and a very big part of our business.”
Those kinds of sentiments are music to the ears for suppliers, who each year try to figure out how to position and package their brands for maximum holiday sales. Many view the holidays as a key time to influence a broader set of potential customers. “Holiday products, particularly VAPs, often provide additional retail visibility at a time when store traffic is at its peak,” notes Erin Schlader, senior vice president and marketing director for the USA and Canada at Brown-Forman Corp. “These special branded packages present an opportunity to reach new consumers when purchased as a gift and to educate existing friends on creative ways to enjoy our premium brands.”
Julie Cole, senior brand manager at Heaven Hill, shares a similar view. “The holiday season is an opportunity to showcase the personality of a brand through a seasonal flavor or engaging, interactive gift sets,” she says. “It also gives consumers a simple, easy way to gift their favorite brands to friends and family, therefore expanding the recognition of the brand by both word of mouth and trial.”
Pernod Ricard USA contends that more than 60% of adults have given alcohol as a gift during the holidays. That, and the fact that the winter holidays are the biggest selling season, is an impetus to position brands for maximum exposure. “Having unique and holiday specific gifting items gives consumers a straightforward easy solution when at the point of purchase,” says vice president of channel and shopper marketing Chris Hurley. “As we continue to see consumers looking to connect with their friends and family over special moments and holidays, these solutions and packages really help.”
The Covid-19 pandemic, of course, upended holiday celebrations in 2020 but the overall sales for beverage alcohol retail improved in most venues as bars and restaurants remained shuttered. This year, the pandemic is still impacting the country and retail offerings are expected to resonate.
“While we saw a tremendous surge in the off-premise during Covid-19, we are still seeing strong sales in this channel even with our on-premise partners opening back up,” says Hurley. “We feel that there is not a one size fits all approach to this year’s holiday season. There is a high level of anticipation that consumers will be spending even more this season,” he adds, noting a Bain Consulting report predicting holiday spending overall will rise 7% this year.
In fact, the pandemic could have spurred new consumer attitudes about home consumption. “It’s a safe bet that much of the at-home toasting and celebrating will continue into the 2021 holiday season as, not only some uncertainty continues, but people continue to enjoy the moments they’ve gotten used to creating and sharing at home,” says Guinness brand director Nikhil Shah.
Holiday flavors and packaging run the gamut as brands of all sizes seek buy-in during the important winter holiday selling season. Diageo’s Baileys brand has always capitalized on the holiday season. Brand director Stacey Cunningham says the Baileys trademark “is almost synonymous with the holidays, when treats and desserts are particularly important to celebrations at home with family and friends.” This year, the brand is partnering with Dominique Ansel Bakery to create the Baileys Swirl Holiday Hot Chocolate Kit, which features a mix of milk, dark, and white chocolate ganache infused with the flavor of Baileys Original Irish Cream. Diageo is also relaunching Baileys Apple Pie Irish Cream Liqueur for a limited time, and offers a variety of other flavors seasonally or year-round.
Elsewhere in Diageo’s portfolio, Cîroc recently released its Pomegranate expression as a limited-edition offering to bring a bit of luxury to festive occasions, such as Friendsgiving. Crown Royal is bringing back its limited-time package that includes a bottle of Crown Royal De Luxe and two premium rocks glasses. On the beer side, Guinness is bringing back its Guinness Gives Back pack for the second season.
The holiday offering has a charity component. “In addition to unique cans and imagery for eight cities, states, and regions, including a national version for the country, we’re donating a dollar (up to $1 million) to organizations like the United Way, Pat Tillman Foundation, and several food banks across the country for each of these special Guinness Draught 8-packs we produce,” says Shah.
Heaven Hill is strong in the VAP arena, with several brands packaged with add-ons. Elijah Craig Bourbon’s gift set features a full 750-ml. Elijah Craig Small Batch and an Old Fashioned cocktail kit featuring Elijah Craig Old Fashioned Syrup. Larceny Bourbon is packaged a premium gift set of a 750-ml. Small Batch with an etched, branded rocks glass and a branded flask.
For Deep Eddy vodka, a gift set includes a 750-ml. Deep Eddy Original with one 50-ml. of each: Ruby Red, Lemon, and Lime. “The premium packaging features seasonal décor and the tagline ‘Pick Something Real’ highlighting the real fruit juice used in Deep Eddy flavors,” notes Cole. Finally, Carolans Irish Cream is featuring a full 750-ml. bottle packaged with a branded ceramic mug for the holidays.
Among the many gift offerings within the Pernod Ricard portfolio are a Kahlúa with Absolut 50-ml. & Glass Gift; a Martell Blue Swift Glassware Set ($46), which includes Martell Blue Swift, a spirit drink made with VSOP Cognac matured in French oak casks and finished in Kentucky Bourbon barrels, and two limited-edition glasses with gold etching; an Absolut vodka gift pack that includes a 750-ml. bottle of Absolut and 50-ml. bottles of Citron, Lime & Grapefruit; and Limited Edition Mischer Traxler and Perrier-Jouët Gift Boxes for Belle Epoque Brut 2013 ($165) and Belle Epoque Rosé 2013 ($305), among others.
Pernod Ricard is also bringing a personal touch to The Glenlivet during the holidays. The initiative allows consumers to create their own custom message that is printed on the front. “We know that approximately 60% of super premium spirits are actually for gifts, so it’s imperative we stand out from our competitors during key gifting occasions,” says Johnson. “We also know that personalization continues to trend and has become a key driver of choice when selecting a gift.”
Limited-release whiskies are prevalent among many suppliers to take advantage of the gift-giving and indulgence season. That includes Brown-Forman. This month, the company is releasing its Jack Daniel’s Single Barrel Coy Hill High Proof. Coy Hill is the highest hill on the Jack Daniel’s Lynchburg, Tennessee property, where the barrel house re-exposes the whiskey to the most extreme elements. For those that collect high-abv offerings, this barrel proof offering won’t disappoint at a range of 67.5%-75% abv.
In addition, Brown-Forman will release some extremely limited batch and cask releases from both the Glendronach and Benriach, along with its annual release of the Woodfood Reserve Master’s Collection. The company will also feature three expressions (1897, 1920, and 1920) of its Old Forester Whiskey Row Series in a 375-ml. pack, among other releases and value-added packs. “Whiskey enthusiasts are now looking for these unique expressions each year, so it’s been a lot of fun to observe the anticipation and dialogue about these releases on social media,” Schlader says.
Customer interest isn’t the only benefit. “Limited releases are often excellent opportunities to tell authentic brand stories, generate excitement, and showcase our production and innovation capabilities,” Schlader says. “Overall, holiday offerings provide our premium portfolio visibility at a time when consumers are more actively shopping our category.”