Is Whisky The New Vodka?

by Oliver Klimek on February 5, 2013

One of the major recent trends in the spirits industry certainly is flavoured vodka. Countless vodka brands seem to be in a fierce competition to win the ‘most silly flavour’ award. Bacon, smoked salmon, cucumber, mashmallows; the list is endless. I guess only SPAM has not been tried as a vodka flavour yet.

Now it looks as if the flavouring virus has also hit the whisky producers. Like with so many other innovations in the food industry, America sets the pace here. Global leaders are without a doubt Jim Beam and Jack Daniel’s. Jim Beam releases Jim Beam Honey, Jack Daniel’s follows with Jack Daniel’s Tennessee Honey. Or was it the other way round? Doesn’t really matter anyway. This winter, Jim Beam launched Hot Punch while Jack Daniel’s had Winter Jack, both in strikingly similar bottles. But the world is still waiting for Jack Daniel’s answer to Jim Beam’s Red Stag cherry concoction. But also other brands have been jumping the bandwagon, like Evan Williams Cinnamon Reserve, and some other honey-flavoured bourbons.

Canada is also pretty strong in this department. Fireball and Spicebox are two well-known brands of flavoured Canadian whisky. And on my recent trip to the Victoria Whisky Festival I have noticed that a lot of Canadian whisky producers have added at least one flavoured expression to their portfolio. Favourite flavour is the obvious one: maple. Maple here, maple there, maple, maple, everywhere. From sweet and sticky to light and delicate.

The Scotch whisky industry is remarkably quiet. There have been sweet whisky liqueurs for a long time, Drambuie being the most prominent example. But ‘modern’ flavoured whiskies are virtually non-existent in Scotland. One that would certainly qualify is Compass Box Orangerie which is very much on the delicate side. Ironically John Glaser, the founder of Compass Box is an American. In Ireland things look pretty much the same.

Probably it is because of the strict European regulations for whisky that the industry is reluctant to take the plunge. Flavoured whisky would have to be labelled as ‘spirit drink’, so producers may regard this as detrimental to the reputation of Irish or Scotch whisky.

American flavoured whisky has been quite a commerical success and also the Canadians seem to be doing well. In European supermarkets the Jims and Jacks have already conquered quite some shelf space, and they don’t seem to bother about the “spirit drink” issue. After all, such drinks target quite a different audience than traditional whsky, one that might not too different from the flavoured vodka drinkers, actually. The brand name is the most important thing here. Because of the overlap in taste maybe flavoured whisky might actually be able to convert some (flavoured) vodka drinkers to the dark side of the grain spirit world…

I am quite convinced that if the succees of trans-atlantic flavoured whisky continues, the European whisky industry will not longer just sit and watch. But it will be harder and harder to compete against them.

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