Flavored Whiskey, Big Money and the Toilet Bowl

Like many great stories, this adventure begins on a plane ride to Las Vegas, where porn-flickers and timeshare salesmen awaited my 15-second attention span.

Jaclyn and I were reading the in-flight magazine, imagining how much money we’d win (correction: lose), when the lovely flight attendant slipped me a liquor bottle. The words “finely crafted” and “original recipe” made me chuckle. It was Jack Daniel’s Tennessee Honey. What the heck, we thought, we poured the container in our clear plastic cups, swirled it around, smelled it and tasted. Sadly, my tongue will never get back those 45 seconds of pure gross and vile flavors ripping my taste buds apart. It tasted chemically unbalanced.

That was the first and last time I knowingly tasted Tennessee Honey. I say knowingly because at the San Francisco World Spirits Competition I receive the flavored whiskey panel. It’s on this panel that my opinion of flavored whiskey gets worse every year.

My theory: Flavored whiskeys don’t work. The barrel chemically alters whiskey, giving it color and flavor. The charred wood filters out the moonshine-type sulfuric nose and replaces the whiskey with beautiful hemicellulose-laden properties (wood sugars). Flavored vodkas chemically work because they’ve not touched wood. Vodka needs flavoring for flavor. Whiskeys do not.

Why my theory is wrong: Flavored whiskey is the hottest category in all of spirits. According to the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States, flavored whiskey accounts for 45% of whiskey’s growth. In business, money doesn’t lie. People are buying flavored whiskey.

Why my theory is right: The true bourbon brands slapping their names on the flavored products risk the loyalty of their product. Can you see a 21-year-old Evan Williams Honey fan drinking Evan Williams Black when he turns 35 and has some money? Maybe. But in 1994, the Harvard Business Review studied the logic of product-line extensions and determined the costs are “dangerously high. The strategic role of each product, for example, becomes muddled when a line is over segmented. Furthermore, a company that extends its line risks undermining brand loyalty. Line extensions rarely expand category demand, and retailers can’t provide more shelf space to a category just because there are more products. Most important, the costs of overextension can remain hidden.” I imagine new consumers will remember the toilet bowl when they see the brand name associated with their flavored whiskey adventure.

Things You Should Know(section updated from original post): According to Pierre Ferrand Cognac owner Alexandre Gabriel, if a producer attempted a “Grand Champagne” flavored Cognac, they would receive harsh sanctions from the French government, maybe even jail. The Scotch Whisky Association objected to Dewar’s Highlander Honey. But several brands use “Kentucky Straight Bourbon” whiskey on the label and there was even a bottled-and-bond flavored whiskey approved by the U.S. TTB. Why hasn’t anybody in Kentucky threatened a distiller for flavored products?  Perhaps the strong history is the reason why.

This Robertson's Genuine Bourbon Cordial label was found in the Library of Congress' photo collection. While the label says 1847, the Library says it was printed in 1857.
This Robertson’s Genuine Bourbon Cordial label was found in the Library of Congress’ photo collection. While the label says 1847, the Library says it was printed in 1857.

In his book, Kentucky Bourbon Whiskey: An American Heritage, bourbon historian Mike Veach gives an 1810s-era recipe for “cherry bounce” whiskey. In my research, I’ve found several recipes for sprucing up bourbons with peaches and a few other choice fruits. But there was also a market for actual bourbon cordials. They fell out of fashion before Prohibition and never made a come back. Until now.

The difference between the bourbon cordials of the 1800s and today: Back then, the whiskey was horrid. Today, it’s pretty damn good.



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6 Replies to “Flavored Whiskey, Big Money and the Toilet Bowl”

  1. Would this theory – which I heartily agree with – apply to whisky infusions like Orangerie, or other whisky liqueurs like Glayva or Drambuie, or are they considered to be a different market entirely? Also, could we extend it to capture the NAS trend, which are essentially product line extensions at the (possible) expense of brand loyalty?

  2. I don’t know…”horrid” is a very broad brush. I’ve had whiskey from the late 1800s that was better than anything available today.

    Doesn’t change the fact that otherwise, you’re absolutely right.

    1. Sam, you’re holding out on me. I need to taste this whiskey. All the 1800s whiskey I’ve tasted has been horrible. I’ll admit I’ve never had an 1800s-era Pennsylvania rye, which is my guess is what you’re keeping around in your bar.

  3. Am I wrong, or did anyone else notice that the first flavored whiskey seems to have come out of Tennessee, not Kentucky? Still, if flavored whiskey makes oodles of money, the “if you can’t beat ’em join ’em” philosophy is liable to kick in.

    What I’m hoping will happen is like what happened to me. As tastes mature, so do palates. Back in the day, my college choice was Boone’s Farm Strawberry Hill. Then, I “moved up” to Bartles & James, which I learned carried the same caloric load as chocolate cake. Given a choice of the two, I knew I’d rather eat the cake. Now, I can appreciate bourbon straight or on the rocks.

  4. Fred. I have to respectfully disagree. While flavored whiskey isn’t my go to spirit, I do think a number of brands have done a good job of delivering flavored products with balance and solid flavor. On that list is:

    Knob Creek Smoked Maple
    Pow Wow Botanical Rye
    Bärenjäger Bourbon and Honey
    Catskill Provisions New York Honey Flavored Whiskey

    Also quite palatable are:
    Jim Beam Maple
    Jim Beam Kentucky Fire
    Jim Beam Devil’s Cut (which in many ways is oak flavored)

    Of course whiskey isn’t as easy to flavor as vodka, as vodka is more neutral, but there are a number of flavors which fit within the spectrum of whiskey which do work. Namely: Honey, Vanilla, Caramel, Cinnamon, Oak and arguably apple/apple cider.

    One of the tough thing to a whiskey purist, especially for Bourbon which is so tightly controlled that you can’t add anything to it, except water, a barrel and time is that many flavored whiskies have sugar added to them, or honey (or even corn syrup).

    Many flavored whiskies are aimed at the 21-25 year old crowd who are looking for sweeter and easier options for their glass. It’s the same progression in wine where younger drinkers go for big jammy and fruity sweet wines before they move on to more complex and less sweet options.

    But I’d argue that barrel finishing whiskey is just a savvy way of flavoring whiskey. When you consider how much port wine can still be in a port barrel, the impact on finishing a whiskey in that barrel is pretty amazing. Great things can come out of that, including Angel Envy’s Port Finish and Big Bottom Whiskey. These barrel finished spirits are again a nice stepping stone.

    I’d also argue that the folks at SF Spirits have a preconceived negative notion about flavored spirits. When the flavored whiskey and vodka flights come around you’ll always hear groans, but that’s ultimately a disservice to an important segment of the whiskey category. Also I’d argue that these flavored whiskies are being totally upfront about the fact that they are using sugar and flavorings, I can’t tell you how many rums I’ve had that have clearly added a ton of sugar, vanilla and other flavorings and try to pass those off as a result of maturation.

    For the record, there ARE flavored Cognacs. Look up Courvoisier Rosé and Gold. Both are horrid, but they are out there.

    1. Thanks for commenting, Geoff. One point I didn’t make in the post that I think you’ll appreciate. I very much respect the flavored whiskey liqueurs and have found they reach a respectable demographic. Brands like Bärenjäger Bourbon and Honey don’t have a Straight Bourbon line and thus, do not threaten consumer confusion between liqueur and bourbon. As you stated, 21- to 25-year-olds are the market. Research indicates that introducing a line extension “brand” to that age will not benefit the core brand 10 years later. So, my two biggest beefs on the flavored category: Use of Straight Bourbon on the label; and muddying strong bourbon names like Jim Beam, Evan Williams and Knob Creek. As for the flavored cognac, I updated the text. I do admire how you continue to taste these things, but I’ve only found a couple that warrant much love. I enjoyed the Bird Dog Peach, of all things, but for the most part, I don’t find the flavorings work. Perhaps they will, but right now, not so much.

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