Flavored Liquor Accounts for More Than a Quarter of Spirit Sales
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Flavored whiskey takes the cake for the most popular of liquors in 2013
Do you reach for flavored liquor when you hit up the the liquor store? You’re not the only one. Restaurant Sciences LLC reported that the sales of flavored spirits are on the rise; as of this year, flavored liquors make up 27.5 percent of all “on-premise sport sales.”
The firm, which tracks product sales in the food and beverage industry in, analyzed more than four million guest checks, and concluded that although the sales of flavored cordials and liqueurs declined, flavored blended whiskey doubled in sales this year. Flavored vodkas, on the other hand, hit their peak in 2012, and then declined from 8.8 percent to 8.1 percent of on-premise sales by the second quarter of 2013.
Restaurant Sciences study coincides with the overall trend of consumers looking for fruity flavor in their alcohol. Flavored liquor is making its mark around the world, from Brazil to Thailand; spirits, low-alcohol drinks, and wine are all incorporating fruity flavors into their character. So before you know it, Fireball may just be the most popular whiskey at the bar.
The 15 Best Alcohol Subscription Boxes for Trying New Things&mdashAnd Stocking Up on Old Favorites
Explore distilleries, wineries, and breweries (many of them independently owned) all through a cardboard box.
There was once a plethora of ways to get alcohol. And we don't use a (maybe-a-little-pretentious) word like "plethora" lightly. There were liquor stores. Grocery stores. Drive-through liquor stores that also sold groceries. Gifts from your boss, gifts because you were the boss, gifts among family, and gifts among friends. There were restaurants and bars, and bars at restaurants. But the alcohol landscape was abruptly disrupted when we plunged into international crisis, and we learned other ways to get a drink. Even as we emerge into a brighter, more vaccinated summer, the hermit-like habits we acquired might stick with us. One entails getting bottles of alcohol delivered to our front doors, whether from neighborhood stores or online liquor shops. Another is what you're looking at right now: alcohol subscription boxes.
For those of you who jumped on board when the subscription box craze took off, you won't be shocked to learn that those boxes can come bearing a selection of spirits, wine, and beer, too. It's only smart to sign up for one in addition to the sock subscription, the meal subscription, and the shaving supply subscription you already have coming to your front door. A subscription box can be a more reliable means of stocking up on whatever you want than your usual method, and you're guaranteed a specially curated drinking experience, oftentimes with membership exclusives.
Speaking of curation, the following alcohol subscription boxes cover vast territory, offering premium bottles to fit many preferences, be they vague or idiosyncratic or basic. So decide what you want&mdashhard liquor, wine, or craft beer&mdashand sign up for one of the following. For those who can't keep their home bars stocked with syrups, liqueurs, and garnishes for the life of them, we have three cocktail-making subscription box options, too. Go to a bar when it's safe, but drink with style at home when it's not.
From $25 per month, flaviar.com
Flaviar's model is simple: It sends you samples of rare, unsung spirits, in addition to one full bottle, per quarter. If you enjoy what you try, you can purchase bottles. It's a tool for spirit discovery as much as it is a tool for drinking, and it's for this reason that Flaviar can get away with saying it models itself after a speakeasy. If you can find the speakeasy&mdasha.k.a. get a subscription&mdashthen you're rewarded with an exclusive drinking experience.
From $69 per month, mashandgrape.com
At its core, Mash & Grape is an online liquor store with very deep shelves. You'll stumble on something you've never tried&mdashlet alone heard of&mdashhere, whether that's lemongrass shochu or rare mezcal. But it also offers monthly clubs for six main spirit categories: whiskey in general, scotch, bourbon, tequila, gin, and rum. With a club, each month you'll receive a curated bottle that you'd never discover on your own. (The club is marketed as a gifting option, but don't let that throw you this is a gift for yourself.)
From $147 per quarter, caskers.com
Caskers is for whiskey drinkers. Specifically, for whiskey drinkers who know&mdashknow the up and coming distilleries, know the rarest age statements everyone's hunting, know the innovations from the gimmicks. It offers two whiskey subscriptions, one that sticks to American whiskey and the other that focuses on world whiskey, and both of which send out two bottles per shipment plus grant access to member exclusives. Drink where the wind takes you.
From $59 per month, tastersclub.com
Taster's Club is ideal for anyone who's only a bourbon guy. Or only a tequila guy. Or only a rum guy. It offers 11 different club options, each specializing in a different spirit, and each giving you background information like distillery history and tasting notes with every bottle. You'll learn a lot about the stuff you love to drink. There's also a Stock the Bar club, which gets you a monthly mix of everything.
$90 per shipment, firstleaf.com
If you can't pass up a personality quiz, you'll like First Leaf. It susses out your wine tastes through a series of questions and then sends you a curated selection of six bottles from vineyards around the world, many of them award winners. After each box, you rate the wines, which ensures the next box will be even more suited to your tastes.
Prices vary, nakedwines.com
You've invested in mutual funds. You've got your Robinhood account attuned to the hottest stocks. With Naked Wines, you can pour money into independent winemakers, too&mdashfor a healthy, diversified portfolio, of course. Naked's goal is to connect wine drinkers directly with winemakers, getting you good prices on exceptional varietals for wine box shipments and ensuring your money acts like that on an angel investor for the indie brands making a go of it.
From $39 per month, winc.com
Winc wines are all about the packaging. The bottles you select from its catalog&mdashyou can get three or more per month in every box&mdashfeature new-age, art-heavy, trendy labels. That doesn't mean they're bad you get what you pay for, and here you're paying less. It just means your wine collection is going to look hip as hell.
From $79 per quarter, getvinebox.com
VineBox is another alcohol subscription that values taste testing. Its wines are shipped to you in single-serve vials there are nine samples in each shipment, along with literature on each. You'll also get credits towards purchasing full bottles. VineBox stays away from the biggest wineries to focus on the so-called little guys, and it curates each box for the season, almost like a sommelier urging you to expand your palate.
$45 per shipment, craftbeerclub.com
The Craft Beer Club isn't stingy. Each month, it will send you 12 new craft beers from around the county. Emphasis is put on variety (i.e. styles of beer you've never been able to order at the bar) and quality (i.e. breweries that use innovative brewing practices). Each shipment of 12 will include either four varieties of beer with three bottles of each from two distilleries, so you can pass 'em around.
From $39 per month, beerdrop.com
Fill your fridge with art from Beer Drop. And by art, we mean the ridiculous creativity employed to package craft beer cans these days. Beer Drop sources from independent American breweries&mdashthe list on its website goes on for days&mdashto ship you two cans of five different beers a month. There's a level of customization as well, as you can preselect your preferred styles (hoppy, Belgian, malty, etc.) or simply stick with the cans with the highest ratings.
From $21 per month, cratejoy.com
First Sip's take on the beer subscription box mimics a brewery tour: Each month, it features a different brewery's story with gear from that brewery (but no beer). You'll get goodies, like T-shirts and drinkware, that you'd normally pick up in that brewery's gift shop. Upgrade to an even bigger box, and you'll get food in addition to all that beer and swag.
From $32 per month, beermonthclub.com
Not only does the Beer of the Month Club cull through thousands of microbrews to find the best, but it also lets you tailor your subscription. A hops-only kind of drinker? Then get the Hop-Heads Beer Club. Looking to drink beyond the 50 states? Sign up for the International Beer Club. There are also clubs for American microbrews, a mix of American and international beers, and rare beers.
From $33 per month, cratejoy.com
Every month, American Cocktail Club sends you a box with all the ingredients you'll need to craft four servings of a featured cocktail&mdashwith or without the alcohol, depending on if you want it. Whether you choose to make one drink per week, really perfecting the build over time, or down all four with your partner on a Friday night is up to you. Just know you won't be stuck drinking tequila with flat club soda and a squirt of months-old lemon juice.
From $40 per month, cratejoy.com
Each of Shaker & Spoon's cocktail boxes centers on a theme: Negronis, for example, or vermouth. Then, you're sent all the cocktail ingredients (except booze) you'll need to make four cocktails from three recipes&mdash12 drinks total. You'll familiarize yourself with ingredients through the variety, and get comfortable with all those bar tools your rarely touch now.
From $29 per month, curiouselixirs.com
Ending on a paradoxical note, we're suggesting a subscription to Curious Elixirs, which makes non-alcoholic cocktails. Not exactly what you were looking for, but you'd be forgiven for being intrigued. The elixirs come in four bottled flavors inspired by classic cocktails&mdashyou'll get a variety in each shipment&mdashand are all exceedingly delicious (Curious No. 2, a cross between a pineapple margarita and Dark 'n Stormy, in particular). And if you happened to add a little alcohol to yours, well, no one's the wiser.
Simplifying the Solution
Becky Harris knows DTC can work. The founder of Catoctin Creek distillery in Purcellville, Virginia, saw a robust uptick in sales within days of her state’s implementation of temporary DTC shipping laws on April 6, and sales have been routinely surpassing pre-pandemic numbers on a weekly basis.
It’s knowledge that Harris has applied in her concurrent role as the president of the American Craft Spirits Association (ASCA), as she has led the charge for common-sense DTC legislation to be passed in each state. The mission involves the creation of nationwide model legislation that can be adapted to account for state-specific concerns, such as the three-tier system and ABC laws regarding shipping spirits across state lines.
It also calls for delivering clarity to the concept, which is not an easy task. “The language isn’t always clear when it comes to existing DTC laws,” says Harris. “There are a lot of gray areas to consider.”
This is a vast understatement. Trying to extrapolate precise legal understanding from the half-dozen or so states that held pre-pandemic DTC spirits shipping laws is a complex task. The mandates issued in states such as Arizona and Nebraska were saddled with such tight restrictions and byzantine legal details that they organically discouraged most distillers from bothering to try. In 2018, Kentucky passed a state law approving in-state DTC, but it languished in limbo until earlier this year as the state squabbled over how to regulate the process.
In some cases, a lack of clarity prevents laws from getting formed in the first place. Texas, one of more than 30 states prohibiting DTC shipping of spirits, currently takes the stance that DTC shipping is illegal for distilleries because nothing has ever been written to accept or prohibit the practice. Plenty of work remains to be done to cut through so much fog.
Fortunately, ASCA isn’t alone in its efforts. With survival on the line, many craft distilleries have made increased efforts to get their voices heard. This is particularly the case with labels new to the scene, who are fighting hard for recognition at a time when forging customer connections is hard to come by.
“One thing that the startups have learned is that if they don’t get involved with government regulation quickly, the government’s going to get involved in their business,” says Mark Shilling, a partner in marketing company Big Thirst Consulting and the founder of Revolution Spirits, a small craft distiller, both based in Austin, Texas. “That’s an important lesson to understand, especially at a time when the distilleries in Texas are losing 35% to 40% of their revenue.”
10 Things You Didn’t Know About Fireball Whisky, Every College Student’s Favorite Shot
They say you always remember your first. My first fireball shot was in 2011, when I ponyed up to my favorite watering hole in the East Village, Doc Holidays, and my roommate — a bartender there — poured us a Fireball shot. The Cinnamon-flavored whisky truly burnt like hell, but damn if it wasn’t pleasent . Fireball was new to New York City at the time, just starting to take America’s young, 20-something drinking population by storm as the most memorable shot craze in at least a decade. Flash forward two years: College students are buying it by the case for parties, liquor stores and college bars can’t keep the 66 proof whisky on the shelves because it’s selling out so fast, and Florida Georgia Line has even incorporated it into their hit ode to boozing, “Round Here.” While no one had heard of it two years ago, I can honestly say that I don’t know anyone under the age of 30 who hasn’t done a Fireball shot in the last month.
Fireball Whisky is the subject of a fantastic business profile by Bloomberg BusinessWeek. The shot every 20-something can’t get enough of is making oodles of money for it’s mysterious parent company, New Orleans-based Sazerac. Below are seven things you didn’t know about Fireball and the brand’s bizarre orgins , via the BusinessWeek profile.
Is Fireball a trend — one of those “things of the moment” that will be an afterthought in a couple of years — or is it here to stay?
It’s minting money:
It’s also one of the most successful liquor brands in decades. In 2011, Fireball accounted for a mere $1.9 million in sales in U.S. gas stations, convenience stores, and supermarkets, according to IRI, a Chicago-based market research firm. Last year, sales leapt to $61 million, passing Jameson Irish whiskey and Patrón tequila. And that number doesn’t include bars, where most people commune with the drink.
Bars are making SERIOUS, SERIOUS cash on Fireball shots:
The liqueur retails for about $16 a bottle, so if a bar sells $5 shots, it’s in the money after three servings. Many places charge more. “We sell our shots for $8,” says Scott Godino Jr., owner of Born & Raised, a bar in Las Vegas. “I know some places on the Strip that are selling them for $16 to $18.”
The company that owns Fireball is notorious for making knock off, bottom shelf booze :
Sazerac is known in the liquor business as a “cats and dogs company.” It owns the Buffalo Trace Distillery in Frankfort, Ky., which makes Pappy Van Winkle, the hard-to-find bourbon with a devoted following. But most of Sazerac’s products are more along the lines of Czarina Vodka and a whiskey called Lord Baltimore Blend. “They have a tendency to piggyback or clone ,” says Charles Cowdery, author ofBourbon , Straight: The Uncut and Unfiltered Story of American Whiskey. “They’ll find a product that’s successful and basically create a knockoff of it and try to price it $2 less.”
Fireball is a lot older than you think. Also: It’s CANADIAN.
Fireball was introduced in the mid-1980s in Canada as Dr. McGillicuddy’s Fireball Cinnamon Whisky, and it was part of Seagram’s line of flavored schnapps, which were briefly in vogue. This was a family of products with a gaudy mythology. The face of the brand was the fictitious Aloysius Percival McGillicuddy, a “world famous” physician with a handlebar mustache who lived in the 19th century and designed vaguely pharmaceutical beverages such as Methomint and Black Licorice schnapps. He was sometimes referred to perhaps more accurately as “the Shot Doctor.”
Dr. McGillicuddy’s Fireball Cinnamon Whisky caught on in Canada. Hockey players and ice fishermen liked to warm themselves up with a shot when the weather got cold. They still do. “It’s a great fit for the cool climate up here,” says Chris Mabie, a district manager for Diamond Estates Wine & Spirits, which distributes Fireball in the eastern part of the country. He estimates that Fireball accounts for more than a third of all domestic liqueur sales in his region.
It’s become “the anti-Jager” for college students thanks to a little redneck appeal. Also, because guys AND girls both like it:
“Fireball is pretty much the go-to shot,” says Dion Henderson, a bartender at Chupacabra Cantina in Austin, Tex. “Jäger is dead.” STORY: What to Expect From Starbucks’s New Booze Menu This is worth dwelling on. Jägermeister is an 80-year-old brand that glories in its German heritage Fireball makes no such claims about its past. Its slogan is comfortably down-market: “Tastes like Heaven, Burns like Hell.” This makes Fireball sound like something for a hard-drinking renegade it’s just the opposite. The beauty of Fireball from a commercial standpoint is that it’s a whiskey, but it’s easy to take. Men like it well enough. Women seem even more enthralled by Fireball, which is rare for a shots brand. Some bartenders in upscale establishments will tell you they carry Fireball, but they keep it out of sight. They cringe at the thought of being overrun by selfie-taking Fireball drinkers.
In 2010, after enlisting the help of a social media campaign team, Fireball started naturally catching on amongst college kids in Nashville. The company’s brand ambassadors started buying shots for entire bars :
Fireball was already starting to get traction in Nashville. Pomes needed to figure out what was going on there and replicate it in other parts of the country. Using social networks such as Twitter, he introduced himself to Fireball’s more avid fans in Nashville. One was Caroline Wallace, a bartender at the Buck Wild Saloon. It was a lively place. She and her peers, all young and female, performed their duties in bikini tops and booty shorts. They climbed onto the bar and poured shots directly into the mouths of their customers.
Not long after, Wallace picked Pomes up at a Nashville hotel in her Infiniti and took him out to a number of bars with her friends. At every stop, the charming, well-spoken Pomes produced a credit card and bought Fireball shots for everybody.
It stuck and it now part of Nashvegas’s drinking culture:
Now you can find people drinking Fireball in almost every bar in Nashville. “It just kind of swept over Nashville like the plague,” says Rose Blankenship, a Fireball enthusiast in the city. “Now it’s just kind of synonymous with our culture. Everybody drinks Fireball.”
The next city it gained traction in was Austin, where it also gained traction from buying entire bars shots:
Pomes applied the lessons he’d learned in Nashville to create the same thirst for Fireball elsewhere. He targeted college towns with thriving bar scenes and sold Fireball as the anti-Jägermeister to young drinkers in search of a new alcohol-drenched fad. It was a call that bartenders heeded, too. After Nashville, Pomes set out to conquer Austin. He faced an obstacle: Local bartenders were loyal consumers of Rumple Minze, a 100-proof peppermint liqueur. So Pomes started traveling frequently to the city and proselytizing to them. “Richard came to Austin quite a few times,” says Paula Spencer, a bartender at TenOak Bourbon House & Lounge. “He wasn’t pushing us to sell something. It was more like: ‘Here’s something I think you’re going to like.’ ”
The world record for the most Fireball shots ever done at once is 4,750 shots:
On St. Patrick’s Day in 2012, the Greenhouse Bar in Nashville served prepoured shots in plastic vials to 4,750 revelers in an attempt to set a world record. Josiah Corbin, a local promoter who orchestrated the event with Fireball, says the fete was more nettlesome than he’d expected. “It took us a week to pour all the shots,” he says. “People were really into it. They felt like they were making history. Well, drinking history.”
Now everyone is making cinnamon-flavored Fireball knockoffs:
This might be a good way to describe Sazerac’s overarching strategy for Fireball. The company known for fielding me-too products now faces a wave of Fireball imitations from its more famous rivals. Jägermeister has introduced a cinnamon-and-vanilla-spiced version of the German digestif . Jose Cuervo has created Cinge, a cinnamon-laden tequila. In April, the Jack Daniel Distillery began selling Jack Daniel’s Tennessee Fire, a 70-proof cinnamon variant of the world’s best-selling whiskey. But it’s not clear any of these spicy contenders will inspire the same mania that Fireball has.
Her friend behind the bar at Tootsie’s pours Wallace a shot of Tennessee Fire. She takes a sip and declares that it isn’t bad. But Wallace says Sazerac has nothing to fear. “It will never replace Fireball.”
Why RTD Cocktail Sales Are Soaring
There are few winners in a Covid-19-era beverage purchasing landscape, but ready-to-drink (RTD) cocktails are certainly coming out on top. Though demand was already growing for pre-mixed, canned, or bottled cocktails, the category exploded after the U.S. began to feel the pandemic’s effect, seeing 90.4 percent year-over-year growth in Nielsen-measured off-premise channels for the pandemic-impacted period ending June 27. Before Covid hit, year-over-year growth was just 21.5 percent for the 52-week period ending Feb. 29.
While many beverage categories have seen retail growth amidst the impact of Covid due to the cannibalization of sales from closed on-premise establishments, the majority of RTD cocktail sales have historically already come from off-premise. Even as states have begun to reopen restaurants and bars, RTD cocktails lead growth across all spirits categories, with Nielsen reporting 91.8 percent growth from May 31 to June 27. So if the growth of RTD cocktails isn’t driven by transfer from on-premise, what is prompting consumers to favor these drinks?
Due to a combination of factors — including the rise of at-home cocktail culture, convenience, concerns for health and safety, and the improved quality and variety of RTDs — consumers increasingly view prepackaged cocktails as the answer for today’s consumption needs and desires, ensuring that this beverage category isn’t going anywhere anytime soon.
Cocktails at Home, Without the Fuss
In the first few weeks after Covid forced statewide shutdowns and upended consumer purchasing habits, media outlets were quick to proclaim that alcohol sales were soaring as Americans drank more than ever. In reality, few beverage categories saw an increase in overall sales due to the near-obliteration of any on-premise dollars. Categories that were booming off-premise were lucky to achieve single-digit increases in overall sales.
However, RTD cocktails have largely been geared toward off-premise sales, with attractive packaging and portability making these canned or bottled products easy additions to retail shelves. “Off-premise has accounted for the vast majority of RTD sales,” says Ross Graham, the CEO of Miami Cocktail Company, which makes a number of organic, wine-based cocktails and spritzes.
While outdoor events and festivals had been strong outlets for RTD sales, most restaurants and bars crafted their cocktails in-house. But the shuttering of restaurants and bars across the country has indirectly affected the RTD cocktail category as a whole. As reflected in soaring sales of premium spirits, liqueurs, and mixers, the on-premise sector’s closure has prompted consumers to attempt to recreate their favorite restaurant cocktails at home.
“With the closure of bars and restaurants nationwide, consumers have naturally gravitated to at-home consumption,” says Graham. In the second quarter of 2020, Miami Cocktail Company’s online sales spiked, growing some 20 times over the same quarter last year.
Even though consumer demand for high-quality cocktails has prompted more people to turn to at-home bartending, RTD cocktails offer an easier, more accessible alternative — particularly for those who may not have much cocktailing experience or confidence. “At-home bartending is definitely on the rise, but there’s something to be said for bartender-quality cocktails without the added work,” Graham says. “RTD beverages, if executed well, bridge the gap between a premium experience and convenience, so they’re a preferred choice for many consumers.”
Eliminating the cocktail preparation process offers consumers ease and speed, but it also requires less financial and time investment. “The RTD format of cocktails allows us to get as close to [the bartender] experience as possible without having to source so many ingredients,” says Shawn Peterka, the experiential project manager for retailer Molly’s Spirits in Denver. Consumers need not buy an entire bottle of Campari (which produces its own bottled cocktail) to make a Negroni or make their own simple syrup for a Margarita or Old Fashioned.
With more time at home, consumers are also looking to go outside their comfort zones by trying new beverages, and RTD cocktails can facilitate that desire for exploration. “Canned cocktails are pretty easy to add to your cart,” says Nathan Arnone, the brand manager for Southern Tier Distilling in Lakewood, N.Y., which makes canned cocktails like the Gin and Tonic and Bourbon Smash. “It’s an indulgence but not a big risk.”
Consumers can try a new cocktail without worrying about potentially wasting a specialty liqueur or ingredient, which anyone who has a dusty, open bottle of hazelnut liqueur or flavored vodka in their cabinet can appreciate. “The cocktail-culture-come-home really gives consumers the opportunity to experiment without having to commit,” Peterka says.
Convenience and Quality
Consumers who weren’t traditionally cocktail drinkers may also be dipping a toe into the category through the approachability of RTDs. Arnone says he believes that the onset of Covid-19 has driven new consumers to the cocktail category in general.
“There’s something about drinking a cocktail that makes one feel civilized and I think that’s a particularly reassuring feeling during the time of a global pandemic,” he says. The company has seen a lot of crossover from beer drinkers looking for something new in a similar format and ABV range.
While convenience has always been a driver of interest in RTD cocktails, in a time where the simple act of going to the grocery store has become a tricky feat, consumers appreciate convenience now more than ever. “It’s just so convenient, and not just because we miss that on-premise experience,” says Peterka, adding that RTD cocktails offer a grab-and-go cocktail option at any moment. “Regardless of the application, the ability to simply reach for that perfectly mixed, already chilled can is refreshing.”
The pre-packaged format is also attractive for those who are looking to socialize while maintaining health and safety standards, such as minimizing contact and staying outdoors. “RTDs are mainly in a can format, so they are portable and single-serve,” says Brandy Rand, the COO of the Americas at the IWSR Drinks Market Analysis. “It’s perfect for social distancing and drinking: no touching of glassware or having to make a drink with ingredients other people are using.” Because many RTD cocktails are canned, these glass-free products are also good choices for outdoor gatherings.
Despite all these advantages offered by RTD cocktails, consumer demand likely wouldn’t be as strong if the category hadn’t seen a quality revolution in recent years. After all, the RTD cocktail category isn’t new wine coolers, sangria, and malt-based beverages like Smirnoff Ice and Mike’s Hard Lemonade have been around for decades.
“RTDs have come a long way from what they once were,” says Graham. “Previously, most ready-to-serves were sugary, syrupy concoctions, canned Daiquiris, and hard lemonades loaded with artificial colors and sweeteners. That’s not the case anymore, as consumers have started to demand lower-calorie, lower-sugar options.”
Large and small brands alike are creating new and higher-quality RTD cocktail options. “There’s a changed consumer perception on the quality of RTD cocktails as more premium brands enter the market,” says Rand. “The format does not necessarily dictate the quality of the liquid inside.”
Rand adds that the industry has also gotten better at delivering excellent canned products. While big brands like Jack Daniels and Absolut have recently debuted canned cocktails, it’s been craft brewers and distillers or upstart businesses that have driven much of the premium RTD surge. Even individual bartenders and sommeliers are launching RTD products. “Now consumers have a range of better, more thoughtful, and more drinkable options, made mostly by craft distillers like us,” says Arnone.
New RTD cocktail options also resonate with consumer trends for healthier, low-ABV beverages. “In recent years, the industry has started to shift and we’re proud to be a part of the ‘better for you’ movement,” says Graham. “Brands are starting to pay attention to the call for ‘healthier’ options.” Many are low-alcohol, low-carb, gluten-free, and contain natural or organic ingredients.
The wider selection of RTD cocktails has also helped the category appeal to more consumers. “With each week, it seems, we are seeing more diverse offerings in the category,” says Peterka. While low-alcohol, low-calorie Vodka Sodas and Gin and Tonics have become popular, classic cocktails like Mai Tais and Bloody Marys and riffs like smoky Margaritas have also emerged onto the scene.
“There’s much more selection today, and the drinks are good,” says Kevin Fitzsimmons, the general manager of Dockside Brewery in Milford, Conn. “They’re totally consistent, and people love them.” The price point works well, too the RTD selections at Dockside are between $8 and $10 depending on can size.
Poised to Support On-Premise Reopenings
While RTD cocktail sales did dip down to 75.1 percent growth for the week ending June 27, according to Nielsen, the category is poised to remain strong as the summer season sets in and consumers venture out. “With sheltering-in-place restrictions being lifted, consumers are outside much more and acting less formally in their purchasing and drinking habits,” says Peterka. “Grab-and-go solutions of convenience go hand in hand with summer.”
Even as restaurants and bars reopen to once again offer high-quality cocktails to guests, the category holds potential. “Even as restaurants reopen, we expect RTD cocktail sales to continue to grow,” says Graham. “With the category heading towards premiumization, we feel there is still a lot of opportunity to expand and reach new consumers.”
In fact, RTD cocktails have the potential to expand within the on-premise sector, particularly as restaurants and bars adapt to new restrictions and dining habits. “All indicators point to trends that suggest as the category expands socially, so, too, will it flourish in restaurants,” says Peterka.
Takeaway and delivery orders are expected to be important revenue drivers for restaurants for the foreseeable future, and in states where to-go alcohol sales continue to be legal, RTD cocktails can increase sales without requiring the investment of packaging portable cocktails in-house. “The to-go model is absolutely perfect for canned cocktails since, unlike plastic-lidded containers, they won’t spill or leak on the way home,” says Arnone.
The category also works well for restaurants and bars that are attempting to minimize or eliminate the use of reusable glassware and dinnerware due to health and safety precautions, or for venues that are forced to reduce labor costs. “As on-premise establishments operate at lower capacity and with less staff, they have to scale back food and drink offerings to make the most profit margin,” says Rand. “In some cases, RTD cocktails may offer the most viable option to deliver on experience while minimizing cost.”
Fitzsimmons has already noticed this benefit at Dockside, realizing that canned cocktails offer speed and efficiency with limited staff. “The labor required is cut in half,” he says. “It’s more than twice as fast. You’ll see two bartenders ring what four bartenders normally would.” Dockside has been selling 50 to 60 cases of RTD cocktails each week.
While RTD sales have not overtaken beer sales just yet, Fitzsimmons thinks that they will by next summer — an ironic future for a brewery business. Though Covid-19 may have prompted the RTD cocktail boom, the category’s success is poised to outlast even a pandemic.
This story is a part of VP Pro, our free content platform and newsletter for the drinks industry, covering wine, beer, and liquor — and beyond. Sign up for VP Pro now!
11 Things You Should Know About Fireball Whisky
It’s likely that just the cinnamony aroma of Fireball elicits memories of your younger years and reckless adventures. Fireball’s telltale smell is instantly recognizable just one whiff can remind imbibers of that burning feeling. No one says it better than Fireball itself: “Takes like Heaven, burns like Hell.”
But given the meteoric rise of Fireball Cinnamon Whisky, which grew like a wildfire from $1.9 million in sales in 2011 to $863.5 million in 2014, Fireball warrants a little more respect than just the passing nostalgic nod to your past. Even now, the Canadian whisky remains on fire, with 5.65 million 9-liter cases sold in 2019. Here are 11 things you should know about Fireball.
It’s not technically “whiskey.”
Whiskey is defined as a spirit that’s at least 40 percent alcohol by volume. Clocking in at a lower 33 percent ABV, Fireball is more of a flavored whiskey, or, to get technical, a “specialty” distilled spirit. This is also why Fireball shots are just so easy to knock back. Some mornings, we might even say too easy.
You can thank Canada for Fireball.
Insofar as Fireball mythology exists, at least one origin story points to a Canadian bartender trying to warm up on one of those typical frigid Canadian nights. Apparently, booze alone wouldn’t suffice, so this mystery bartender added cinnamon and sugar. Regardless of whether or not this story is true, we still owe those Canadians some kudos, since Fireball is made with Canadian whisky.
Fireball was recalled due to concerns it contained an ingredient used in antifreeze. This ingredient is propylene glycol, otherwise known as part of the mixture used to de-ice airplanes. In 2014, Fireball was recalled in European countries because propylene glycol levels were deemed too high. But don’t worry, both the FDA and CDC have deemed propylene glycol safe at low levels of consumption.. Fireball replaced its European bottles immediately and has not recalled any products in the U.S. Plus, you’ve probably been consuming propylene glycol for a while now it’s used in everything from cosmetics to ice cream.
People cook with it. On purpose.
Some home cooks incorporate Fireball into a wide, weird variety of recipes ranging from marshmallows to meatballs. Of course, there are the trillion different Fireball shots recipes, but the food is where it gets really interesting.
Fireball was a late bloomer.
Fireball’s been around since 1984, but America only fell in love with it in the late 2000s. Part of the delay in popularity might have to do with the fact that it was only available in Canada until 2001 with the less-than-sexy name “Dr. McGillicudy’s Fireball Whisky.” But Sazerac bought it, gave it a makeover, and — most impressively — took to the streets to market the stuff face-to-face grassroots style. Soon enough, America fell head over heels.
There was a brief, ill-fated attempt at boxing Fireball.
Take all the classiness of Fireball and add all the classiness of box wine, and you have the failed 2016 experiment known as the “Firebox.” While Franzia and Fireball might occupy a similar space in your brain, perhaps it’s best they don’t get married.
There’s a Fireball app.
There’s an app for the official Fireball drinking game, “Dragons, Dice & Dares.” Unfortunately there are very few dragon-related challenges in the game. Instead, players encounter things like forced confessions of embarrassing personal history and toilet paper-related dares.
Country musicians love it.
Country music’s a pretty polarizing genre, and Fireball’s the same: you either hate it or love it (but hopefully if you’re here, you love it.) Though Fireball’s behind virtually every bar in the United States, some people have a vendetta against it. Luckily, country band Florida Georgia Line is on Fireball’s side — in their song Round Here, they give it a shoutout. Blake Shelton’s a fan, too.
Fireball’s inspired a bunch of imposters.
While the brand might have haters galore, it also inspired a bunch of copycats. Not only did Fireball sue the small brand Stout Brewing Company for creating an almost laughable carbon copy of their liquor (down to the devil-centric packaging), they also sued whiskey giant Jack Daniels in the same year. Jack Daniels and Jim Beam both created cinnamon-flavored whiskeys after seeing Fireball’s success, but Fireball’s beef with Jack came from its use of the word “fireball” in its Google advertisements. Looks like 2015 was a busy year for Fireball in court.
It’s setting world records.
The current world record for most Fireball shots taken at once was set on St. Patrick’s Day in 2012 in Nashville. That day, 4,750 shots were taken at once. As it turns out, Nashville is deemed the Fireball mecca for good reason.
It’s Pappy’s cousin.
Yes, Fireball is related to Pappy Van Winkle, the legendary, uber-expensive unicorn whiskey that goes for thousands of dollars a bottle. Sazerac, the company that owns Fireball, also owns Buffalo Trace Distillery. So next time you think Fireball belongs on the bottom shelf, look at its kin.
Vodka Makes a Comeback
It came without warning during the hottest years of the Cold War, a surprise incursion from the Soviet bloc. But rather than ICBMs dropping from the skies over Washington or Red Army tanks flooding into Western Europe, this engagement came in the form of booze&mdashspecifically, vodka, the colorless spirit as synonymous with Russia as balalaikas and borscht that, in the 1950s and &rsquo60s, was suddenly everywhere.
The invasion was swift and stunning: in 1950, only 40,000 cases of vodka were sold in the United States by 1955, that number was up to 4 million. As William Grimes noted in Straight Up or On the Rocks, a history of drinks in America, sales of vodka exceeded those of the once-mighty gin in 1967, and in 1976, vodka surpassed whiskey to become the country&rsquos biggest-selling spirit. Today, while sales of super-premium brands have been slugged by the economic downturn, vodka still reigns supreme, and according to the Distilled Spirits Council, it regularly accounts for around a quarter of all spirits sales in the United States.
For the last half-century, vodka has been an unstoppable force behind the bar, but in some corners of the drinks world, resentment has been building in recent years. Many mixology blogs and online forums dismiss vodka as flavorless some sneeringly disdain the crystal-clear spirit, placing its epicurean value on par with that of a Hostess cupcake and its cultural contribution on the same level as a Jonas Brothers CD. Last April, these grumblings came to a head when the Wall Street Journal proclaimed in its spirits column, &ldquoVodka is passé.&rdquo
Wait &hellip really? As eager as some might be to see the spirit fall from prominence, vodka&rsquos obituary, as the saying goes, was premature. Today some craft bartenders are taking a calm, measured look at vodka and determining how it can fit into the world of creative cocktails. &ldquoFor me it started as devil&rsquos advocacy,&rdquo says Jeremy J F Thompson, former head bartender at The Raines Law Room in New York who now works as a brand ambassador for Russian Standard Vodka. &ldquoI used to be of the school of thought that vodka was only good for cleaning your apron or disinfecting a wound,&rdquo he says. &ldquoBut my wife and in-laws are Russian, and I&rsquove spent a good deal of time drinking vodka in Russia and the Ukraine. That experience opened up vodka in a cultural way for me.&rdquo
A Muddled Reputation
A simple combination of ethyl alcohol and water, vodka is largely defined by what it doesn&rsquot have&mdashcolor and, technically, aroma and flavor. But just as nature abhors a vacuum, vodka resists total anonymity, and minute differences in texture, viscosity and flavor among brands make the spirit more diverse than it might appear at first glance.
Consumed for at least 600 years in Eastern and Northern Europe, vodka can be made from anything that can be fermented and distilled. Classically made from rye, wheat or potatoes, vodka is flexible, and today it is made from ingredients ranging from grapes and oranges to milk and honey. Distilled to a very high proof, which eliminates virtually all of the properties that contribute flavor to other styles of spirit, vodka is then filtered, diluted with water to a drinkable strength and bottled.
A relative novelty in the U.S. until the 1950s, vodka quickly became popular when served in drinks such as the Moscow Mule, a mixture of vodka and ginger beer served in special copper mugs, as well as the Bloody Mary and the Kangaroo&mdasha drink now more commonly known as the vodka martini. Embraced by the Hollywood set and memorably imbibed by James Bond, vodka was initially seen as exotic, suave and stylish. But if timing is everything, vodka&rsquos ascendance in some ways couldn&rsquot have happened at a worse time. Rising to prominence during an era that marked a culinary low point in America, vodka had the misfortune of taking command of the spirits world during the decades that were also culturally defined by roller disco, Def Leppard and unironic mullets.
Easily masked by other ingredients, vodka became the virtually flavorless fuel in massively popular drinks such as the White Russian, the Kamikaze and, more recently, the Sour Apple Martini&mdashdrinks that became especially popular among younger, inexperienced drinkers, who could consume feloniously large quantities of Mind Erasers without tasting anything more than sweet liqueurs or juice.
Not surprisingly, these party-hearty drinks receive a chilly reception among many contemporary craft bartenders, and Thompson says they&rsquore the biggest reason many hold a grudge against vodka. In his opinion, the anti-vodka bias has little to do with the spirit itself, arguing that while vodka has taken some wrong turns, it&rsquos still possible to appreciate the spirit and to use it creatively. &ldquoWe don&rsquot want to throw out the baby with the bathwater,&rdquo he says. &ldquoThese drinks are the bathwater&mdashthe baby is the spirit, and that is what we should hold onto.&rdquo
Gateway to Craft Cocktails
As a quick glance at any liquor store&rsquos lineup will prove, vodka is not only the biggest selling spirit in the country, but is also represented by dozens of brands, with many of the more expensive vodkas packaged in elaborate designer-crafted bottles. Unfortunately, a vodka&rsquos package may have little relation to the product inside, and in the rush to promote new vodkas, some marketers make misleading or nonsensical claims about brands, boasting about the number of times they&rsquove been distilled&mdasha figure of questionable relevance that&rsquos open to creative interpretation&mdashor the imaginative ways in which the vodka has been filtered.
Perhaps more than any other spirit, vodka&rsquos identity has been shaped by marketing, and while that&rsquos led to some spectacular success stories in the spirits industry, it&rsquos also contributed to the sense of ill-will among many craft bartenders. At Employees Only, a New York bar that&rsquos popular among the city&rsquos bar and restaurant workers, bar manager Robert Krueger says that vodka may not be the most exciting spirit to work with for some bartenders, but he describes the backlash against vodka as an overreaction and says the spirit can play an integral role in creative bars&mdashfor example, it can help first-time customers become more comfortable with the whole craft-cocktail experience. &ldquoYou can open up the world of cocktails to a customer who&rsquos prepared to drink only vodka.&rdquo
In Austin, Texas, bartender and &ldquoTipsy Texan&rdquo blogger David Alan agrees. &ldquoTaking an antagonistic attitude to something people drink a lot of is not a good way to further the movement,&rdquo says Alan, noting that at Annie&rsquos, the craft-cocktail bar he recently managed, most customers were vodka drinkers and would have felt out of place in a bar that didn&rsquot stock the spirit. &ldquoHaving a good vodka cocktail [on the menu] is kind of a gateway to get people to trust you, and then you can introduce them to other things.&rdquo
Vodka&rsquos cocktail history&mdashor, more appropriately, its relative lack of one&mdashhas also worked against it among bartenders who prize drinks that have a heritage stretching back a century or more. While Thompson has found a handful of vodka cocktail recipes from the early 20th century&mdashthe earliest known reference to a vodka cocktail is from a 1905 newspaper article about the visit of a Russian diplomatic delegation (unfortunately the drink&rsquos name and recipe are lost to time)&mdashvodka didn&rsquot really hit its stride as a cocktail ingredient until the last half of the 20th century.
Some of the earliest&mdashand, to some bartenders, most appealing&mdashvodka cocktails use the spirit&rsquos neutrality as a stage for strong-flavored ingredients, such as bitter Italian amari or French herbal liqueurs. &ldquoVodka is spreading out the flavors and adding neutrality in a very functional way, giving the rest of the flavors a broader surface to play on,&rdquo Thompson says. &ldquoThe neutrality opens it up, like putting a tincture into water.&rdquo Examples include the Gypsy, a drink dating to the 1930s in which vodka helps soften the full flavor of Bénédictine the Drink Without a Name, a Cointreau- and Chartreuse-laden contemporary classic sometimes also called the Harrington the Carnaval Room, a 1940s drink of vodka accented with dry vermouth and tangerine liqueur and the Staraya Modnaya, a drink created by Thompson that features the savory flavors of fresh dill and Bénédictine or kummel, a caraway liqueur that&rsquos popular in Russia. Krueger says the Vesper&mdashthe James Bond martini variation introduced by Ian Fleming in Casino Royale&mdashworks in the same way, with the vodka giving the flavors of gin and Lillet room to breathe.
Another type of drink that puts vodka to good use is that in which vodka is used to magnify flavors, especially those of delicate herbal or floral ingredients that might be obscured by fuller-flavored spirits. &ldquoAlcohol and sugar are both flavor amplifiers,&rdquo says H. Joseph Ehrmann, owner of Elixir in San Francisco and ambassador for Square One Vodka. Ehrmann points out that much of the contemporary cocktail culture, especially in California, uses fresh fruit and other produce, and that vodka is a natural fit for these types of drinks. &ldquoSay you&rsquore combining three fruits, an herb and a syrup,&rdquo he says. &ldquoIf you&rsquove diversified your ingredients and play them off each other, then throw a well-made vodka on top of that, the flavor just explodes.&rdquo
These bartenders also challenge the notion that vodka loses all of its character the moment it encounters another cocktail ingredient. &ldquoWhen you&rsquore serving something like a vodka martini and you throw some Lillet or French vermouth and a dash of orange bitters in there, the quality of that vodka is important,&rdquo Thompson says. &ldquoThree things are relevant: the mouthfeel, the burn (this can be a positive thing, such as with a rye vodka) and the aftertaste&mdashthat&rsquos really where a vodka comes out, in the finish.&rdquo
Ultimately vodka&rsquos future in craft cocktails depends not only on what distillers can do in terms of creating interesting, well-made spirits, but on what bartenders do in terms of setting aside their preconceived notions and approaching vodka for what it has to offer. &ldquoWe know vodka is there,&rdquo says Thompson. &ldquoBut at the end of the day there has to be a more constructive and creative approach than just ignoring it.&rdquo
ALCOHOL – Tax Rates for Calendar Years 2018 to Present (view Historic Tax Rates)
BEER – Reduced Tax Rates on Domestic Removals or Imports (2018 to Present)
Barrels per Calendar Year
Beer produced and removed by a domestic brewer who produces 2,000,000 barrels or less per calendar year
(Rate per Barrel)
Over 60,000 up to 2,000,000
(Rate per Barrel)
A domestic brewer who produces over 2,000,000 barrels per calendar year and who produced the beer
An electing U.S. importer with a reduced rate appropriately assigned to them by a foreign brewer
(Rate per Barrel)
BEER – General Tax Rate on Domestic Removals or Imports
A domestic brewer who did not produce the beer
A U.S. importer who is not assigned a reduced rate by a foreign brewer
A brewer who exhausted its own reduced rate entitlement for the calendar year or an importer who has already taken advantage of assigned reduced rates
(Rate per Barrel)
WINE – Tax Rates and Tax Credits on Domestic Removals or Imports (2018 to Present)
Tax Rate per Wine Gallon
Tax Credits per Calendar Year
(and Effective Tax Rates per Wine Gallon After Applicable Credits)
- Domestic wine producers are entitled to tax credits on wine they produce and may transfer their tax credits to other wineries or to bonded wine cellars that receive their wine in bond
- Electing U.S. importers may take advantage of tax credits appropriately assigned to them by a foreign winery
Over 30,000 up to 130,000
Over 130,000 up to 750,000
16% and under alcohol by volume
(0.392g CO2/100mL or less)
Over 16 - 21% alcohol by volume
(0.392g CO2/100mL or less
Over 21 - 24% alcohol by volume
(0.392g CO2/100mL or less)
No more than 0.64g CO2/100mL derived solely from honey and water containing no fruit product or fruit flavoring and containing less than (not equal to) 8.5% alcohol by volume
Low alcohol by volume wine
No more than 0.64g CO2/100mL derived primarily from grapes or from grape juice concentrate and water containing no fruit product or fruit flavoring other than grape and containing less than (not equal to) 8.5% alcohol by volume
Artificially Carbonated Wine
Over 0.392g CO2/100mL - injected or otherwise added
Over 0.392g CO2/100mL - naturally occurring
No more than 0.64g CO2/100mL derived primarily from apples/pears or apple/pear juice concentrate and water containing no other fruit product or fruit flavoring other than apple/pear and containing at least 0.5% and less than (not equal to) 8.5% alcohol by volume
DISTILLED SPIRITS – Reduced Tax Rates on Domestic Removals or Imports (2018 to Present)
- Proprietors of domestic distilled spirits plants (DSPs) may take advantage of reduced rates when they remove limited quantities of distilled spirits that they distilled or processed (beginning in 2022, processors must meet minimum processing requirements)
- Electing U.S. importers may take advantage of reduced rates appropriately assigned to them by a foreign distilled spirits operation
Proof Gallons per Calendar Year
First 100,000 Proof Gallons
(Rate per Proof Gallon)
Over 100,000 up to 22,230,000 Proof Gallons
(Rate per Proof Gallon)
DISTILLED SPIRITS – General Tax Rate on Domestic Removals or Imports
How Vodka, America’s Favorite Spirit, Lost Its Luster
The U.S. launch of Danish vodka brand Denaka says much about the state of vodka in America in 1988. Imported brands like Stolichnaya, Absolut, and Finlandia were searing hot at the time, while the domestic Smirnoff brand had been the best-selling spirit in the country for at least a decade.
To stand out in the field, Denaka’s importer ran a $40 million advertising campaign simply promoting it as “the world’s most expensive vodka.” It was a bold move, not least because this was an unheard-of brand in a congested, competitive category. But also because Denaka was a vodka — a flavorless, odorless spirit whose quality is determined by its lack of imperfections, otherwise known as “smoothness.”
That a brand would draw attention to, let alone celebrate, being the most expensive supplier of one such neutral spirit speaks to the bullet-proof, Teflon nature of vodka at the time. That such a campaign now seems so remarkably misguided signals how far things have shifted in the intervening 30 years.
For, although it has continuously led spirits sales (by volume) in the U.S. since the mid-1970s, vodka has lost its luster. Its position in popular and cocktail culture has drifted, and its cachet has all but disappeared.
Where vodka once played a starring on-screen role in the Cosmopolitans of “Sex and the City,” the Old Fashioneds of “Mad Men” and “Crazy, Stupid, Love” now come quicker to mind when talking cocktails on camera.
The celebrity endorsements, too, have all but dried up. When Sean “Diddy” Combs teamed up with Cîroc in the glory days of 2007, the Diageo-owned brand was shifting around 50,000 cases a year. Within a decade, sales had grown to more than 2 million cases annually.
Nowadays, celebrities and alcohol conglomerates instead cast their gazes elsewhere. The tequila business is a common first port of call, with many attempting to capture the same lightning as George Clooney’s Casamigos. For those who feel the agave space is too crowded, there’s always gin, with the recent sale of Ryan Reynolds’ Aviation Gin brand showing it, too, can be just as lucrative.
To borrow the phrasing from one of vodka’s most famous on-screen proponents, you can’t help but wonder: How did the world’s most lucrative spirit lose its star appeal, and when did vodka stop being cool?
The Rise of Vodka in the U.S.
Vodka’s history in the U.S. is surprisingly short, officially beginning in 1934 when Smirnoff was launched in Connecticut. The Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau, which rules on such things as the labeling and taxation of alcohol, didn’t come up with its own definition for identifying vodka until 1949, by which point the spirit was already quickly gaining popularity.
Victorino Matus, an Arlington, Va.-based writer and author of “Vodka: How a Colorless, Odorless, Flavorless Spirit Conquered America,” lists multiple factors that helped vodka become the country’s most popular spirit.
The first — Prohibition — is also regularly cited as being a huge drawback for America’s drinking culture. In this sense, it seems only natural that the great, failed experiment would also have a hand in raising the stock of an odorless, flavorless spirit.
“People couldn’t drink for so many years, so they want to get drunk. What is the fastest, easiest way to get there?” Matus says. “Vodka. Plus, you can mix it with anything.”
Vodka’s versatility (read: neutral profile) is no doubt a quality that has led it to become most folks’ first foray onto the path of hard liquor. But over time, specific combinations have proved more successful than others.
First came the Screwdriver and Bloody Mary, followed by the Moscow Mule in the early 1940s. Things then began to really ramp up in the 1960s, when vodka overtook gin as the most popular clear spirit in America.
This may or may not have had something to do with British special agent 007, James Bond, but the metaphorical usurping of this particular throne is captured in the most famous big-screen cocktail order of all time, with Sean Connery’s James Bond receiving a vodka Martini, shaken, not stirred, in the 1962 classic “Dr. No.”
Cocktail historian and writer David Wondrich says the forces that brought vodka to the forefront transcended drinks trends. These were cultural shifts with deep, post-World War II roots. “The postwar world moved toward this idea that everything had to be modern, sleek, and space-age,” he says. “What could possibly fit the bill better than vodka? It’s clear and tastes a bit like jet fuel — works in much the same way, too.”
It surely helped that vodka didn’t resemble what that generation’s parents drank — nor did it really resemble anything in terms of taste, which happened to be a good thing at the time. By the 1960s, flavor was becoming increasingly less important, and everything from light beer to blended whiskey seemed to be trying to imitate vodka. None could beat it at its own game.
The ‘Vodka Wars’
No trends are permanent, though, and even if vodka did enjoy 40-odd years in the sun, its reputation would eventually sour. Wondrich notes that there was no one spirit that robbed vodka of its place in popular and cocktail culture, but instead, an attitude of exploration and open-mindedness.
In the mid-2000s, there began a culinary and cocktail revolution in America. People no longer cared for clean and modern, they wanted flavor and authenticity — products with substance, heritage, and history. With a reputation built on forward-thinking modernity, vodka checked none of these boxes.
Meanwhile, the very individuals shaping the cocktail renaissance had their sights firmly fixed on the past. The likes of Dale Degroff, Julie Reiner, and Audrey Saunders found guidance in influential pre-Prohibition cocktail tomes, such as Jerry Thomas’s “The Bar-Tenders Guide, or How To Mix Drinks” and Harry Craddock’s “The Savoy Cocktail Book.”
Given that vodka didn’t appear commercially in the U.S. until after repeal, the original editions of these books paid little attention to the spirit, focusing more on base liquors like gin, whiskey, and rum. Even books authored in later years, such as David Embury’s “The Fine Art of Mixing Drinks,” first published in 1948, were none too kind to vodka.
And so the stage was set for vodka’s cultural demise.
“For people to coalesce around an idea, sometimes you do have to have your enemies,” says Derek Brown, owner of Washington D.C.’s Columbia Room and author of “Spirits, Sugar, Water, Bitters: How the Cocktail Conquered the World.”
“Vodka became that fitting enemy to the craft cocktail movement, to the point where bartenders thumbed their nose at it,” he adds. “We would refuse to make drinks with it we thought people were simple because they ordered it and we thought we could do better.”
Greg Boehm, who owns the barware company Cocktail Kingdom as well as a handful of notable cocktail bars in Manhattan, recalls similar sentiments from the time. “There was a war on vodka and a lot of the people that were at the forefront of the cocktail renaissance were definitely — to a fault — anti-vodka,” he says.
Looking back, Brown acknowledges that such actions were probably over the top — “We were being a bunch of dicks,” he says — but on the other hand, vodka had gotten away with too much for too long. Between the ubiquitous notion of “smooth” and the incredible sums brands were charging for their unremarkable ultra-premium offerings, there was guilt on both sides.
By all accounts, the aim of this fight was not to kill vodka sales, nor was it an effort to erase it from back bars entirely. Instead, the leaders of the revolution wished only to help drinkers expand their horizons, and carve out more space on menus for amari and vermouth, and everything in between.
Within a few years, this would start to play out. As the owner of the influential San Francisco bar, Elixir, and the then-brand ambassador for the vodka brand Square One Organic Spirits, H. Joseph Ehrmann sheds light on what it was like for both those buying and selling spirits at the time.
During the mid-2000s, Ehrmann says, his main challenge as a brand ambassador was selling Square One amid “a sea of vodka.” The market was huge, he says, but with so many brands to compete with, it was hard to make any noise.
Fast-forward a few years and the challenge came from the fact that bartenders, especially those who fell into the “craft” movement, were much more interested in the latest liqueurs and vermouths, and rediscovered hard-to-come-by bottlings. “That market went on for a good five to 10 years until finally everybody’s back bar was full,” Ehrmann says. “During all that time, no one had room for vodka.”
Past craft cocktails, there are other factors to consider when tracking the demise of vodka in popular culture. Perhaps fueled by drinkers’ newfound desire to experiment, vodka brands answered with their very own revolution during the 2000s. It would ultimately do more harm to vodka’s reputation than good.
“There was a flavor explosion,” says Danny Brager, a beverage alcohol consultant and former senior vice president at Nielsen. “And it really was an explosion.” While the influx of new flavors initially acted as a “tailwind” for the overall vodka category, their influence soon slowed, Brager explains.
At some point, one has to question whether the choice between chipotle, hibiscus, and wasabi — all vodka flavors recorded by Brager in a running list he was keeping in 2013 — was a good or bad thing for the vodka category. In a landscape where drinkers started taking alcohol more seriously and placing importance on factors such as authenticity, most signs almost certainly point to this trend having a negative impact.
This happened to be the moment when whiskey overtook vodka as the most valuable spirit in the U.S. Since 2013, the value of the “Super Premium” price category of vodkas has shrunk almost $200 million, while the “Value” and “Premium” categories have remained steady, according to the Distilled Spirits Council. This bucks the current trend of premiumization that we’re seeing across the board in spirits, with almost every style of liquor other than vodka growing fastest in the highest price tier.
And it makes sense that drinkers would be willing to spend more on styles like bourbon and Scotch than plain old vodka. From storied producers to special aging techniques, there’s more to entice engaged drinkers. “You don’t have customers at your bar trying to show off how much they know about vodka,” Boehm says. “Which used to happen all the time, by the way.”
Nearly two decades since the beginning of the craft cocktail renaissance, all seem to agree that the war on vodka is now over. But to whom the spoils of this particular battle went is less certain. “If our goal was to transform people into loving amaro and whiskey and gin, we lost,” Brown says. “Vodka is still No. 1.”
Yet, Brown also notes that bartenders no longer fight against vodka cocktails nor look down on those ordering them. If anything, you’re more likely to see bartenders celebrating vodka, with T-shirts declaring “Vodka Pays Bills” among the more popular apparel on sale via Boehm’s Cocktail Kingdom.
“The times have changed,” Wondrich says. “Vodka’s not a danger anymore.”
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2020 Spirits Trends – Insights
Spurred by popular culture and the availability of educational resources like the Stave & Thief Society, consumers are becoming more educated about distilled spirits. With that comes an increased demand for more transparency and authenticity from brands and their products. We see consumers looking for innovative expressions delivering unique, flavorful experiences but there are some key challenges spirits brands should consider as we move into 2020.
Sober Curious & Low ABV
Following national health trends is the rise of the “Sober Curious” movement. Not only are consumers picking up “better-for-you” drink products emphasizing flavor over sweetness, they’re also going for Ready-to-Drink Cocktails (RTDs) and other beverage choices with a lower alcohol content.
There’s also been a rise in products that allow consumers to opt out of alcohol altogether. That’s right, more and more beverages are emerging that mimic the taste of traditional spirits but without some of the negative side effects. So far, the industry has responded by offering alcohol-free versions of gins, whiskeys, and other spirits. In 2020, we’re likely to see more of these types of products entering the market accompanied by new, creative mocktail recipes.
While it’s still illegal to combine CBD with alcohol in the US and other countries, there is a rising market for CBD mocktails and functional beverages of all kinds. Even as lawmakers scramble to establish regulatory guidelines, we see a spike in CBD beverages that is likely to continue into the new year.
As the beverage and spirits industries continue grappling with how to share the market with this trending ingredient, it remains to be seen what effects the projected 22-billion-dollar CBD market will have on spirits consumption. There may be an opportunity for spirits brands to expand their portfolios by offering tasty products that accommodate trending ingredients, like CBD.
With so many flavorful and adventurous spirits in the pipeline, it’s an exciting time for distilled spirits. As the industry continues to innovate, consumers are sure to have lots of exciting options to taste in 2020.
Interested in learning more about the distilling process and the spirits industry? Check out Moonshine University’s 2020 courses to learn from the best in the business.