Flavoured whiskey: Honey to the Bee?

6th August, 2012 by Becky Paskin

In the early 16th century, adding honey to a flagon of hot water and whisky was seen as a way to banish lingering colds and flu but, sneezing and sniffles aside, producers the world over are starting to see the commercial benefits of adding a squeeze of honey to their whisky brands.

Jim Beam Honey Bourbon

Jim Beam’s Honey Bourbon is one of a growing raft of flavoured whiskeys to hit the market

Flavoured whiskies were the fastest-growing spirits category in the US in the first quarter of 2012, rising 155% to 94,000 cases (Nielsen), thanks to the soaring success of a number of big brands which have released flavoured expressions during the past two years.

Jack Daniel’s Tennessee Honey launched in May 2011 and sold 320,000 cases in its first year on the market, while relative category stalwart Jim Beam’s Red Stag Black Cherry, released in June 2009, has seen growth rise 58% to 300,000 cases in the same period.

Campari’s Wild Turkey American Honey noted similar results, with volume increasing by 28%. Other smaller, but equally successful players have also seen their flavoured expressions gain pace in the past year, such as Evan Williams Honey Reserve and Cherry Reserve and Seagram 7 Crown’s Honey and Cherry.

“In the US, the flavoured whisky category is certainly very vibrant but still quite new,” observes John Hayes, global managing director for Jack Daniel’s. “There’s a lot of consumer acceptance for flavoured whisky as flavoured vodka is very large here.”

Entry level whiskey

The addition of flavours such as cherry, honey and cinnamon are seen as softening the robust nature of American whiskey and bourbon, giving the spirits a sweeter and more accessible flavour profile.

The success of Tennessee Honey, according to Hayes, is mostly down to adventurous non-whisky-drinking male and female consumers, who generally find whisky unpalatable, but are enticed into trying a “more approachable” version of its staple Black Label product.

Irish whiskey, on the other hand, has a naturally smoother flavour profile, but that hasn’t stopped distillers across the pond from looking seriously at the category. Diageo’s Bushmills led the charge in April with the launch of Bushmills Irish Honey into the US. And while it is too early to predict success for the new expression, Diageo anticipates “a very healthy future”.

Cooley, the Irish distillery taken over by multinational player Beam in March, has since hinted at the possibility of releasing a flavoured offshoot of one of its core brands in the near future, building on its reputation as an innovator and newly forged corporate ties with Beam’s Red Stag brand.

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