For retailer Kent Starr, owner of Liquor World in Fayetteville, Arkansas, the final four months of the year are a blur of activity. Located just down the road from the University of Arkansas, Liquor World does a booming business on Razorback football Saturdays, then transitions into holiday mode with a big focus on celebrations and gift-giving.
“Our last home game is close to Thanksgiving, then we just roll right into the holidays,” says Starr. “It’s pretty amazing that we can just rock along all year, then all of the sudden run into the kind of [fourth-quarter] volume we’ve been having lately.” He adds that the escalated sales the store experienced during the Covid-19 pandemic are continuing today.
Starr isn’t unusual, of course. While many beverage alcohol retailers may not have the early autumn university bump, nearly all generate a disproportionate amount of their revenue during the winter holiday season. And this year—as they have for past years and decades—suppliers are releasing special flavors, products, and packaging to help spur those sales further.
“Holidays bring people together and offering holiday-centric expressions, flavors, and packaging allow our iconic brands to become an integral part of our consumers’ holiday traditions,” says Pernod Ricard USA chief commercial officer John Barrett. The company is “deeply committed to creating memorable moments of conviviality for our customers,” he says, noting the special resonance of the holiday season.
Gift options can take some of the mystery out of spirits, says Andrea Sengara, head of marketing for Campari America. “I believe that a lot of hesitation around gifting spirits is driven by a worry that the recipient may not have the confidence or understanding of how to enjoy it during a gathering,” she says. “That’s why holiday-driven packaging is great—it allows a brand to educate about the exciting ways recipients can enjoy products with friends.”
Suppliers take various approaches to holiday products, ranging from value-added packaging (VAP) to inspire gift-giving, to special winter- or holiday-centric flavors such as eggnog, peppermint, maple, and others, to limited holiday releases, and more. “Holiday products, particularly value-added packaging, help brands stand out in a crowded environment during one of the most important selling seasons,” says Brown-Forman director of customer and trade marketing for the U.S. and Canada Loren Catrambone. “Having a great looking gift display that resonates with the consumers helps ensure premium floor space from the retailer and increased attention from consumers.”
Limited holiday releases often offer the opportunity to tell authentic brand stories with great imagery, Catrambone adds. “This generates excitement with new and existing consumers and provides us an opportunity to showcase our production and innovation capabilities,” she says. “Finally, we use the holidays as a way to educate about the many festive ways to make a cocktail.”
VAPs are one of the most prominent ways suppliers create a gifting opportunity in the holiday season, but many have scaled back their efforts on that front. “Holiday packaging is not as popular as it once was, and suppliers are not putting out many new products at the pace they did in years past,” says Ron Vaughn, owner of Denver’s Argonaut Wine & Liquor. “I think brands are focusing more of their money on the actual product and advertising than a seasonal package.”
Adithya Bathena, owner and president of Super Buy-Rite Wine & Liquor in Jersey City, New Jersey, and CEO of the Buy-Rite Corp., misses the days when VAPs—such as liquor and glassware pairings—were the focal point of most suppliers’ holiday efforts. “I think every year I see a little bit less of the specialty packaging” such as a whiskey with rocks glasses or a winter-focused liqueur with coffee mugs,” he says. “We would create this beautiful pyramid, stacking all of these things so people could shop these specific products. It used to be a really nice feature in the store. Now it seems like companies are deciding not to spend the extra money for those packages.”
Austin Keith, president of East Texas retail chain Pinkie’s Inc., is also enthusiastic on VAPs. “They’re important to the bottom line,” he says, noting that most VAPs carry no cocktails including the Grand Margarita; a Frangelico gift pack ($30) that includes a 750-ml. bottle of Frangelico, a coupe cocktail glass and a recipe for the Frangelico Hazelnut Espresso Martini; and a Longbranch gift package ($42) that includes a 750-ml. bottle of Longbranch and a rocks glass.
“All of our gift packs include a special piece of glassware that complements the spirit in the package,” Sengara says. “Glassware helps create a unique and well-rounded gift, and it is one of the biggest motivators for purchase in a gift pack. But beyond that, we love that it allows us to teach consumers about our signature cocktails and show them our idea of the perfect way to enjoy.”
For Brown-Forman, the focus is on premium gift-giving, according to Catrambone. She points to a Gentleman Jack with sour mix pack ($32) and a similar offering for 1.75-ml. with an added glass ($56) among those getting the company’s attention this year. Meanwhile, Pernod Ricard USA is capitalizing on the ongoing popularity of Espresso Martinis by offering a VAP featuring Absolut and Rise cold brew ($19), and has made a gift set “celebrating loved ones who are multidimensional and living their truth,” that includes rocks glasses and a limited-edition bottle of Martell Blue Swift ($65), the VSOP Cognac, finished in Bourbon casks. A QR code also links to a Martell Holiday Hub experience, prompting shoppers to engage with a vibe check quiz that recommends bespoke seasonal cocktails, hosting tips, and music playlists. Barrett says the additions will enhance the holiday experience for customers, and he adds that several brands will have limited edition holiday hosting kits available as e-commerce exclusives.
Taking a bit of a different approach, Beam Suntory’s Knob Creek Bourbon is partnering with craft cookware designer Smithey Ironware to curate a limited-edition product line with an extra-seasoned cast iron skillet in honor of Knob Creek’s limited edition 18-year-old Bourbon. The skillet is seasoned 18 times, and a VAP including the skillet and Knob Creek 18-year-old sells for $300.
It’s not just spirits that are showcasing their brands in unique packaging for the holidays. Wine and beer are also in the mix with various offerings. One of the many packs coming to market this year is from Kopke Port Wine, and it includes a 750-ml. bottle of Kopke 10-year-old Tawny Port with two glasses ($49).
Products And Flavors
Specialty flavors can also spur excitement and trial during the holiday season. Depending on the flavor and the brand, these limited-edition products can require a balancing act from suppliers and retailers. Keith, for example, says special holiday flavors add excitement but require precision ordering. “We’ve pretty much pinpointed [how much we need] to last us until the end of December or even sooner,” he says, speaking of eggnog products in particular. “And then once we’re out, we’re out. We don’t want carry over.”
Bathena agrees, but notes that for some of the hotter brands, it’s difficult to get enough product to see through the holidays. Misunderstood Whiskey’s Oatnog ($24)—a dairy-free eggnog-like product make with oatmilk—is an example because of its “cult following,” he says. “Last year we bought ten 6-bottle cases and we sold out by late November,” he says, noting that people were requesting it throughout the holiday season and into January. This year, his stores ordered more of the limited-supply product in hopes of better meeting the demand.
Starr is intrigued this year by the Skrewball Eggnog hitting the shelves during the holiday season. “We bought 20 six-bottle cases—I think it’s going to be big,” he says. Liquor World does well with a broad range of products, ranging from eggnogs to RumChata Pumpkin and Peppermint Bark to seasonal beers. Skrewball owner Pernod Ricard describes Skrewball Eggnog ($22 a 750-ml.) as “a combination of the smooth and nutty peanut butter whiskey and eggnog made with 100% real, premium dairy cream.”
Pernod Ricard is also offering Monkey 47 Distiller’s Cut Edition 13, featuring a rare 48th botanical: acer saccharum, more commonly known as maple syrup. “Each holiday season, our cult-favorite, ultra-premium dry gin from Germany’s Black Forrest, Monkey 47, releases a new edition of the highly collectible Distiller’s Cut,” Barrett says. “With the addition of acer saccharum, this year’s limited release of Distiller’s Cut features a delicate, sweet note with a hint of caramel against a backdrop of exceptional complexity and density and a refined aroma of maple syrup.” The product retails for $80 a 375-ml.
Other major producers are also in the mix, including Brown Forman with Jack Daniel’s Winter Jack Spiced Apple Punch ($27 a 750-ml.) and Diageo with Crown Royal Salted Caramel ($30), among many others. And smaller producers are also getting in on the winter and holiday flavor craze, as many boutique players are branching out with unique offerings that spur excitement among their clientele. Philip Brandes, founder of non-alcoholic brewer Bravus Brewing, says his company’s two holiday-centric offerings are part of a limited-time-offer program that allows the producer to “to either do something crazy or fun or something that works.”
The Winter Warmer ($13 a 6-pack of 12-ounce cans) is made with spices including nutmeg, ginger, and cinnamon. “It’s one of our most popular brews—people love it,” he says. Barvus’ limited-time Thanksgiving release Gravitas is also very popular. “It seems like every other brewery releases their boozy, barrel aged stouts around the holidays, so I thought it’d be crazy one year to release a barrel-aged non-alcoholic beer, which is a paradox on a lot of levels,” says Brandes. “It’s sort of this labor of love for us. We only make a thousand bottles.” Now in its sixth year, 16-ounce bottles of Gravitas sells online only for $40 each.
Brooklyn’s Widow Jane Distillery marries whiskey and maple syrup in its holiday offering called Decadence ($90 a 750-ml.), and New York’s Crown Maple Syrup uses Widow Jane Bourbon barrels to age syrup for its own special offering. Widow Jane marketing director Chris Dunn says the distillery took back the barrels, along with additional syrup, which “rolled around for a bit of time” before being discarded and the whiskey returned to the barrels. “It really provides a great extra element and expression for the brand family,” Dunn says. “Widow Jane is always about intensity and Decadence just takes it one step further.”
Limited And Luxury Offerings
The broader category of whiskey is always ripe for gift-giving, especially around the holidays. While all beverage alcohol has a gifting component, in recent years suppliers have upped the focus on whiskey and consumers have responded. Bathena says customers are keen to find something unique. Using Diageo’s Classic Malts ranges as an example, he says customers are willing to pay more “because it’s not a bottle they pick up on the shelf every day.” Single barrel offerings have the same appeal, offering consumers “a little deviation” from the standard brand.
Diageo is taking a personal touch with Johnnie Walker, offering Johnnie Walker Blue Label Personalized Bottles ($249 a 750-ml.) with custom engraving, which the company says adds “a personal touch and transforms this already special bottle into a truly one-of-a-kind gift for whisky connoisseurs and enthusiasts alike.”
Luxury offerings also gain traction during the holiday season. Among the unique luxury products on the market this year is the Dewar’s Double Double 37-year-old Scotch, at $1,799 a 750-ml. bottle. Double Double 37 is made from single malt whiskies aged for 37 years and then joined to create a blended malt. This blend is further matured with Double Double 36-year-old in Madeira casks, followed by a finishing period in Oloroso Sherry casks previously holding Aultmore Single Malt Scotch. To make the Double Double 37 drinking experience even more special, Dewar’s has partnered with the iconic luxury French crystal manufacturer Baccarat to release a limited-edition set of Double Double 37 and cut crystal glassware ($1,799 for the holiday gift pack).
The holiday sales bump is not solely limited to unique flavors offerings, VAPs, or limited-edition releases—sometimes a simple packaging change can spur an impulse purchase. Such is the case of Woodford Reserve’s holiday bottle ($50 a 750-ml.), featuring a textured label that “elevates the holiday cues and showcases our distinctive assets in a premium way,” Catrambone says. “A large portion of Woodford Reserve’s ‘one time buyer’ consumers purchase spirits during the holiday season, so our in-store communications are meant to deliver against that consumer’s mindset at this time. Gifting messages are a powerful purchase trigger, especially during the holiday time period.”
With all these products, the goal is incremental business during a buying season that’s already bustling. “Customers come in for whatever they planned to buy, then because they’re in the holiday mood they go for an impulse item,” says Bathena. “It breaks the average ticket, sending sales even higher.”