Allied Domecq, Seagram power up extreme drinks

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Young partygoers and extreme-sports athletes are blending alcohol and caffeine for an all-night buzz. Now mainstream liquor companies want to get in on the action.

Allied Domecq Spirits USA and Seagram Spirits & Wine Group are exploring the marketing potential of premixed energy drinks that blend alcohol with caffeine or herbal ingredients. But they may run up against U.S. regulators.

Allied Domecq has conducted focus groups of 25-to-35-year-olds to test liquor-based drinks that incorporate ingredients such as guarana, ginkgo biloba and ginseng. Domecq might have these new brands on shelves within two years, according to one executive familiar with the company. Seagram, meanwhile, recently introduced a ginseng addition to its Gin & Juice drink line.

BUZZED BUT AWAKE

The practice of mixing energy drinks, such as caffeine-laced European import Red Bull, with alcohol is already widespread in Europe and the U.S. among rave partiers and the extreme sports set, particularly skiers and snow-boarders. An article in the Nov-ember Details noted that "night owls are dropping a shot glass full of vodka into their Red Bull energy drinks to keep themselves buzzed but wide awake." The article said the beverage is informally called "Ecstasy in a can," a reference to an illegal drug popular among club crowds.

But U.S. regulatory agencies restrict what types of ingredients may be blended with alcohol, as well as what kind of claims may be made. That will make marketing premixed drinks tricky.

"Juices and teas can make claims about being good for memory," said the executive familiar with Domecq. "[Spirits] can't. All [Domecq] can do is say that it contains ginseng. Consumers have to make the leap."

In addition, "Distilled spirits advertising and marketing materials should not contain any curative or therapeutic claim except as permitted by law," according to the code of the nongovernmental Distilled Spirits Council of the U.S.

A GLASS OF TESTOSTERONE

In addition to caffeine, Red Bull contains the amino acid taurine, said to purge body toxins; B-complex vitamins; and glucuronolactone, a carbohydrate derived from glucose. In London, a popular bar mix called TVR -- a blend of vodka, tequila and Red Bull -- has been likened by devotees to drinking a glass of testosterone.

Guarana and ginseng are reputed to enhance the sex drive, while ginkgo biloba is an energy herb.

Schieffelin & Somerset Co., based in New York and owned by United Distillers & Vitners and Louis Vuitton-Moet Hennessey, has experimented with energy-ingredient-fortified brands. The company sold a product called Acumare more than 12 years ago that combined Venezuluan rum and guarana, which was marketed by word of mouth as an aphrodisiac.

AHEAD OF ITS TIME

`The idea was to create a drink that could get you through a long evening. It was way ahead of its time," said Ted Farthing, the former new-brand manager at Schieffelin who helped market the product in a limited test in southern Florida and California. Acumare was pulled from the U.S. market after a year.

Schieffelin also had a "shooter" product in development at the time incorporating ginseng, but it never made it to market, said Ken Leiter, a former marketing executive at Schieffelin.

Mr. Leiter said spirits companies at the time generally stayed away from what then were called "New Age drink" ingredients "because of government regulations about what you could talk about [in advertising.]." Mr. Leiter explained: "If you have too much ingredients, you get into trouble. In the case of Acumare, the ingredients were limited enough. But there were some issues about whether or not this could be called a rum. We were walking a fine line."

The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco & Firearms determines how much of certain herbs may be added to alcoholic beverages, based on regulations the Food & Drug Administration has set for non-alcoholic beverage products. An alcoholic beverage may contain caffeine as long as it has been added in extract form, not directly, and the final product has no more than 0.0002% caffeine, according to ATF regulations.

Adrian Walker, VP-brand development Americas at UDV, refused to comment regarding Schieffelin or UDV.

Seagram Spirits & Wine Group, the country's No. 2 spirits company and an aggressive marketer, hopes the energy-boosting brands will pump sales in a category plagued by a decade of anemic receipts. Seagram last year began national distribution of its first herb-enhanced product, extentions of its Gin & Juice products. Although the premixed Hunch Punch and Blue Beast both say they contain the herb, they make no health claims. TBWA Worldwide, New York, handles.

Seagram spirits and wine sales increased 19% for fiscal 1999, far in excess of the spirit industry's 1.5% increase in last year and 1% boost one year earlier.

TARGETING YOUNG PEOPLE

Critics predict a new breed of energy-fortified spirits mixers will aim for the pre-21 crowd.

"Most people in their 40s and 50s aren't looking for contrived drinks," said Hilary Abramson, media specialist at the Marin Institute for the Prevention of Alcohol & Other Drug Problems in San Rafael, Calif.

Jean Kilbourne, creator of the 1982 documentary "Calling the Shots: Advertising Alcohol," agreed. "Even if they're not [targeting young people], obviously these messages affect kids."

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