Born in Kentucky and first sold in 1795, Jim Beam has survived wars, depressions and plagues and, guided by seven generations of Beams, risen to the top of the bourbon sales charts. Along the way, the formula has remained pretty much the same -- a decades-old strain of yeast mixed with a mash of corn, rye and barley malt.
So when the brand decided to come out with a new version called Red Stag in 2009 by adding a touch of black cherry flavoring, it was a pretty damn big deal. "There were a significant number of naysayers out there who were worried about what this was going to do for the broader category," said Rob Mason, director of U.S. bourbons for parent company Beam Global Spirits & Wine. But "the reality is , Red Stag as a launch has really opened up the category."
Indeed it has. Brown spirits brands across the spectrum are coming out with flavored versions, following the longer-term success of flavored vodkas, and opening up the category to new drinkers such as women and millennials who like a little sweetness in their shot. Newer offerings include Evan Williams Cherry Reserve Kentucky Liqueur, Jack Daniel's Tennessee Honey, 7 Crown Dark Honey and 7 Crown Stone Cherry.
And in October, Jack Daniels maker Brown Forman is hoping that there's as much appetite for spicy as sweet with the debut of Southern Comfort Fiery Pepper, co-branded with Tabasco, which follows the launch of Southern Comfort Lime last summer. In Brown Forman's case, the test kitchen was bars, where the company noticed drinkers ordering shots of "Cajun thunder," -- regular SoCo with drops of Tabasco.
SoCo isn't technically a whiskey, but rather a fruity and spicy whiskey liqueur invented in the late 1800s in New Orleans by bartender Martin Wilkes Heron, who "wanted to make brown spirits taste better -- and literally that is what we are continuing today," said Mark Bacon, senior VP-managing director for the brand.
While growing, the flavored varieties still only make up 4% of the total bourbon/straight whiskey category, according to Nielsen (Nielsen counts SoCo in this category). By contrast, flavored vodkas command some 20% of the vodka market. But companies see big growth potential in flavored brown spirits, which have helped grow the overall bourbon/straight whiskey category by 6.5% in the past year, according to Nielsen. New offerings are "accompanied by significant advertising which has created a lot of buzz and clearer positioning to the consumer and retailer," Danny Brager, Nielsen VP-group client director for beverage/alcohol, said in an email.
Millennials "are really open to trying things that are softer in flavor, a little more palatable," said Yvonne Briese, VP-whisky, Diageo North America, which launched 7 Crown Dark Honey in the fall of 2009 and 7 Crown Stone Cherry earlier this year. Also, younger drinkers tend to socialize in mixed- gender occasions, so "they are looking for something they can all drink together," she added.
But marketers are still treading lightly, careful not to turn off core whiskey drinkers as they woo new fans. For example, while the newer varieties appeal to women, most ads target men, who are still seen as the gateway. "In the world of spirits, if you're marketing to men it doesn't turn off or alienate women," Mr. Mason said. But if you're marketing is "a bit more female-oriented, men begin to think that it's not something that they want to drink." And that explains why 7 Crown has partnered with Playboy to push its flavored varieties, including hosting parties featuring a couple of Playmates.
Meantime, one of the taglines for Southern Comfort Fiery Pepper, is "Sometimes a burning sensation is good news." Although it sounds like an STD reference, Mr. Bacon, the brand's senior VP-managing director, said the message was broader: "Experiencing something that is a little uncomfortable can also come with pleasure."