Flavored Whiskey, Big Money and the Toilet Bowl


August 15, 2014

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.