Cherry-flavored whiskey, anyone?

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A midwestern distiller is betting drinkers whose palates are conditioned by flavored vodkas are ready for new tastes in whiskey-including vanilla and cherry.

Phillips Distilling this month rolls out Phillips Union whiskey, a blend of bourbon and Canadian whiskeys billed as smoother than other American whiskeys, along with cherry and vanilla flavor extensions.

Phillips is trying to carve out a niche distinct from the rest of the American whiskey category, dominated by venerable labels often named for founders and rich in tradition, image and heritage-Brown-Forman's Jack Daniels Tennessee whiskey and Jim Beam Brands' bourbon being the two biggest.

The distiller is positioning Phillips Union-which will be priced at superpremium level above Jack Daniels, Jim Beam and Makers Mark-as more urban, more female and more sophisticated. It's trying to attract new drinkers to the category by chasing young professionals who are almost wholly dedicated to vodka right now, distiller CEO Dean Phillips said.

With spirits growing and taking share from beer, industry observers agree that there could be room for a product like Phillips Union. The challenge will be to execute and persuade consumers there's a reason to try it.


While sales-drivers in the vodka aisle, flavors haven't really seeped into brown spirits. But there are signs that's changing. Tequila distillers, for instance, are eyeing flavors.

"There's definitely room" for the product, said Heather Dupre, managing director of the brand consultancy Kindred Keziah and a one-time VP-global brand innovation at Diageo. Success depends on "if the flavors are done right."

The bourbon and Tennessee whiskey category grew by 3.5% in 2004, driven by growth of high-end and super-premium brands, according to figures from the Distilled Spirits Council of the U.S. Overall, spirits grew by just over 3%.

Phillips is backing the launch with $2 million to $5 million in print advertising support from independent Olson & Co., Minneapolis. The ads take a confrontational attitude toward the traditional image of whiskey and position the brand as revolutionary. Ads run in April issues of Wenner Media's Rolling Stone, Conde Nast's Details and Fairchild's W. One, showing a cabin within what appears to be a stylized orange flame, declares the "collapse of hillbillyism."

Asked if he thought that ad could trigger blowback, Mr. Phillips quipped, "Bring it on," and described it as "good-natured" ribbing. Said Brian Kroening, exec creative director at Olson: "Revolutions are confrontational."

Phillips is also supporting the brand with a Web site that plays underground music and will also hold events.

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