In the first four months of this year, sales of domestic whiskey are up 4 percent, with bourbon and Tennessee whiskey the dominant story, according to analysts at
The trend in flavored vodka might have peaked, but flavored whiskey is just getting started.
"The phenomenon of flavored whiskies in the U.S. appears to be in its infancy but it's already driving the most explosive growth seen in spirits in years," said
For the year, the company reported sales were up 6 percent. But sales of Tennessee Honey, it's
Leading the way: Sazerac's stealthily marketed Fireball cinnamon whiskey.
Almost exclusively through social media, Fireball, once a fairly obscure brand, has achieved a fierce domination of the "shot occasion," when groups of friends -- or strangers, frankly -- down shots together, often in bars.
And that's the way they like it: Fireball is like an 800-pound gorilla in the whiskey-soaked mist.
Other whiskey brands have taken notice. In 2001, Jim Beam added a spiced cinnamon version to its popular Red Stag line of flavored whiskies; in 2013,
"Fireball is such a phenomenon. I don't know that its an issue of catching Fireball," said
The cinnamon wars follow the sweet success of honey-flavored extensions of drink brands.
But can this go on forever?
"Flavored line extensions present a dilemma for whiskey brand owners," Rannekleiv said. "American whiskey brands are having great success attracting new consumers by using sweeter, more approachable flavor variations; however, if not managed correctly, they could risk deteriorating the prestige of their brand in the long run, similar to what happened with the Blue Nun wine brand in the 1970s," he said, referencing a German wine brand that was phenomenally popular in the mid-20th century but fell out of favor.
"Scotch players are currently avoiding that danger by not venturing into flavor variations, but the lack of innovation -- which might draw new consumers -- carries its own risks," he said.
Flavored whiskies go after a different consumer, at the opposite end of the spectrum, from the other big trend in whiskey: super-premium brands.
"The nice thing about some of these flavored whiskies is it brings in new consumers in other markets. That's the upside," Rannekleiv said. "There are discussions in the industry of whether or not whiskey should go down the same road as vodka and chase after a new flavor every month. What does that mean for the brand in the long run? ...
"You don't see the flavors being added and expanded across some of the really super-premium brands -- you don't see it with Maker's Mark or Woodford Reserve, for instance. I think there's an understanding there are different consumers and they don't want to position brands in that way."
To whiskey purists, flavored whiskies like Fireball aren't worth the little plastic bottles they come in.
But few spirits companies can afford to ignore what they see as a new breed of consumer, provided they can avoid depreciating their brand or cannibalizing premium sales.
"Flavored whiskey is a larger segment than cognac, than Irish whiskey,"
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