USA: Land of Opportunity

27th September, 2012 by Chris Mercer
Balcones Baby Blue Corn Whiskey

Balcones claims its Baby Blue Corn Whiskey is the first legal Texas whiskey since Prohibition

Leading the competition with IDL is William Grant & Sons. “We’re having a very good year, growing ahead of the category,” says Laura Gwilliam, US brand manager for Tullamore Dew.

Due to Jameson’s size, though, other brands are picking their battles. “We are 5-6% of the market in the US, so we’re not taking them on head-to-head,” Gwilliam admits.

Tullamore Dew markets itself as a rebellious spirit and has a tight focus on New York, Philadelphia, Chicago and San Francisco.

Further below the radar in sales terms is a flourishing US craft distilling scene. “Attendance at our annual conference more than doubles every year,” says Chip Tate, a board member of the American Distilling Institute (ADI). “It’s a similar kind of environment to what we saw in the 1980s with craft brewing.”

Still, as with beer, the craft spirits sector is something of a labour of love. “It’s fun, but we’re broke,” admits Tate, who personally built and founded Texas-based Balcones Distillery in 2008. Unlike brewers, craft distillers receive no tax breaks.

Urban support for craft

Tate has been been catching a few eyes with whiskies such as Baby Blue, made 100% from roasted blue corn, which claims to be the first legal Texas whiskey since Prohibition. Balcones whiskies are priced between $40 and $70 per bottle.

“William Grant would buy it tomorrow, but I’m trying to get into the game, not out of it,” Tate says of his 2,300sqft distillery. He’s got one eye on moving to a 65,000sqft warehouse, but needs financing to make it work.

While craft brewers have largely relied on local consumers in order to gain a foothold in the market, craft distillers are getting significant support from urban bartenders keen to use high-quality and interesting spirits in cocktails.

Like many of his industry counterparts, Albert de Heer, MD of global brands at De Kuyper Royal Distillers, is optimistic  about high-end spirits in the US. “We’re very interested to see if there are more opportunities and I think genevers could be one of them,” he says. “We have a very premium brand in our portfolio in Rutte, which we acquired a year ago.”

Meanwhile, the recent re-introduction of the Mandarine Napoléon brand into key bars in Miami and New York state is going well. “We’re taking it step by step,” De Heer says of the relaunch, which De Kuyper is doing independently of its partnership with Beam Inc.

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