Hitting the High Notes

Looking at the historical consumption statistics for American whiskies can be grim. According to the 1997 Adams Liquor Handbook, American blended whiskies, taken as a whole, have seen their annual consumption volume decrease by more than two-thirds over the last two decades, while straight American whiskies have seen theirs decline by more than half. At the same time, however, two industry-wide trends may be working in American whiskey’s favor over the long term. And these are the main reasons why suppliers are looking optimistically toward the future.

One of those trends is the recent overall increase in spirits consumption. “This is the first year in at least 10 years that total distilled spirits consumption went up,” said Gus Griffin, brand director for Early Times at Brown-Forman. “The increase is very slight, but it is really great news.” Suppliers cited news stories about the possible health benefits of moderate alcohol consumption as a contributing factor to this trend.

The second trend is the increasing popularity of high-quality products. In American whiskey, “the upper end is growing,” said John Vidal, manager of consumer development at Brown-Forman’s Select Brands Group, “and that is true of all distilled spirits: vodka, gin, Scotch and tequila, too.”

Chris McCrory, brand manager, North American whiskies, at Sazerac Co., agreed. “People would rather spend $30 on one good bottle than on three not-so-good, popular-price ones,” he said.

As for the upper end of the American whiskey category in particular, “there are a few things at work,” said McCrory. “One is the continued resurgence of single malts. It helps to fuel the fire. Because single malts are so varied, people are willing to experiment and it is easy for them to try a boutique bourbon.”

Blanton’s, a single barrel bourbon introduced in 1983, is often credited with being the first “boutique” American whiskey brand on the market. And Jim Beam Brands — which launched the first brand of its Small Batch Collection, Booker’s, in 1988 with the rest of the collection (Knob Creek, Baker’s and Basil Hayden’s) following in 1992 — is credited with bringing the idea to national prominence. Now, virtually every American whiskey-maker has products in the superpremium end of the market.

Generally, these superpremium brands are priced in the $20 to $50 range. Their image is that of hand-crafted, quality products. Often, they are available in only a limited supply; that becomes part of their cachet. For example, United Distillers USA released two brands in February of this year, Henry Clay and Joseph Finch, 15-year-old whiskies each of which has less than 2,400 bottles available. “After 15 or 16 years, more than 40% of these bourbons has been lost to the ‘angel’s share,’ and since many are no longer in production, once the existing supply is exhausted, they will never be available again,” explained Peter Angus, new brand development director for UD USA. “Like a fine art print where the plate is destroyed, Henry Clay and Joseph Finch truly are limited editions — we can’t make more.” In the future, United Distillers plans to release other limited-edition bourbons.

Although most boutique brands are not quite so limited, extra attention is paid to their production, whether each bottle contains whiskey from a single barrel (Blanton’s); the whiskey for a brand is made or aged in small batches of barrels (the Jim Beam Small Batch Collection); they are vintage-dated (Evan Williams Single Barrel Vintage); or they are aged longer than usual (the Bourbon Heritage Collection from United Distillers, which are all at least 10 years old). This special attention accounts for their higher price and image of quality.

While the boutique end of the market makes up only a small percentage — 1% to 5%, according to supplier estimates — of the total straight American whiskey market, it is showing brisk growth. “High-end bourbons are growing at a 100%-plus clip,” said Alan Cohen, Jim Beam’s vice president of brand management. The brands in Beam’s Small Batch Collection are each growing at rates between 50% and 100% per year, he reported. “They’ve been up every year since they were introduced in 1992, and Knob Creek is the fastest growing boutique bourbon, with a growth rate of more than 100%.”

Meanwhile, United Distillers’ Bourbon Heritage Collection (I.W. Harper Gold Medal, W.L. Weller Centennial, Old Charter Proprietor’s Reserve, George Dickel Special Barrel Reserve and Very Special Old Fitzgerald) is up by 35%, according to Thom Smith, brand manager for American whiskies.

All of Sazerac’s ultrapremium brands — the single barrel brands: Blanton’s, Rock Hill Farms, Elmer T. Lee, Hancock’s Reserve and Benchmark, as well as Eagle Rare — are growing too, reported McCrory. “The whole boutique category is at about 30% of its capacity,” he estimated. “True boutique whiskey is now at one-quarter to one-half a million cases. It could easily jump up to a million.”

And new boutique brands continue to enter the market. Brown-Forman, for instance, launched Woodford Reserve, a brand produced by a historic distillery the company recently renovated, and Jack Daniel’s Single Barrel.


Reading Between The Lines

Signs are already emerging that these ultrapremium brands are affecting the American whiskey market as a whole. Adams Liquor Handbook1997 credits them with helping to slow the decline of the straight whiskey market. Control state whiskies declined only 1.2% last year, and while straight whiskies declined by 5.6% nationally, the Handbook estimated that its annual decline would average only 1.6% in the years from 1996 through 2001.

Indeed, the growing ultrapremium category may have spawned yet another new market within a market for American whiskies, one for brands that have a higher in price and loftier image than mainstream straight whiskies, yet are too large in sales to be considered boutique brands. “Gentleman Jack would have been considered a boutique brand when it was introduced nine years ago,” said Brown-Forman’s Vidal. That brand, according to Vidal, continues to grow at double-digit rates. “But now, it is seen as a superpremium sipping Tennessee whiskey,” he said.

Vidal defines the boutique end of the market as “special, small and pricey.” Some suppliers would exclude Maker’s Mark and Beam’s Knob Creek from the boutique category as well as Gentleman Jack, not because of their quality, but because of their prices ($20 and below) and the size of their sales.

The attention garnered by boutique brands in the straight whiskey market has in fact begun to change how people think of straight whiskies. Even suppliers of mainstream brands seem to have changed their marketing strategy. In 1996, for example, they increased their advertising for American straight whiskies overall by almost 14%.

Many focus their marketing efforts on the quality and heritage of their brands, rather than on their prices. “Retailers are always after us to add value by using a rebate or a coupon,” said John Overfield, vice president and brand director for Jack Daniel’s, the number-two brand in the national straight American whiskey market, after Jim Beam. “Frankly, we don’t like to do that. People are willing to pay for a quality product.”

Instead, Jack Daniel’s upcoming off-premise promotions include a special holiday consumer catalog of Jack Daniel’s merchandise. Each catalog, in markets where legal, will include a $25 gift certificate that consumers can use toward the purchase of merchandise, whether or not they’ve purchased a bottle of the brand. “That’s true added value,” said Overfield, pointing out that the brand just ran a similar gift certificate program this summer. The result? “Our business has never been stronger in the summer.” The brand, he said, is up by 2% so far this year.

Also for the holidays, Jack Daniel’s will — again, in markets where legal — offer gift packs. It is also going to introduce its second limited-edition bottle, this one commemorating a gold medal Jack Daniel’s won in 1905 at a whiskey competition in Belgium. The plan is to offer a different bottle every year for seven years. “They’re fun and they’re collectible: when the seven of them are gone, they’re gone,” stated Overfield.


An American Tradition: Advertising

Jim Beam, the top-selling straight whiskey brand and the fourth best-selling distilled spirit brand of any type, is entering its second year of an advertising campaign designed to appeal to younger consumers, aged 21 to 29, as well as to the brand’s core consumers, who tend to be older. “The campaign is called ‘Get in Touch with Your Masculine Side,'” explained Cohen. “We are spending millions and millions of dollars on the ads, all of them spreads.”

In addition, Beam has just debuted a premium extension to its line, Jim Beam Black. The 90 proof bourbon is aged seven years and is available in all bottle sizes, from 1.75 liters to 50 ml. The launch is being promoted by case cards, shelf talkers and bottle neckers.

Third-ranked Early Times has changed its focus. “A lot of the money we had been spending on refunding, we are putting into advertising,” reported Gus Griffin, brand director for the Brown-Forman brand. “In the long-term, this is good for the brand. It is building up its image.” Early Times’s ad campaign, called “Slow Down,” includes print and outdoor executions. The brand will also continue its involvement with horse racing, including sponsorship of the Early Times Turf Classic, a grade-one race held immediately before the Kentucky Derby. The brand will also be promoted through its own hot air balloon, shaped like the Early Times Bottle, which appears at outdoor events around the country.

Meanwhile, another Brown-Forman brand, Old Forester, seeking to emphasize its heritage, will launch a new package in October. The package will be promoted with the tagline: “Serious Bourbon since 1870.”

Evan Williams, the fourth best-selling brand, has shown consistent growth over the last five years, reported Susan Overton, group marketing manager at Heaven Hill. “And we are promoting a lot more,” she said. The effort includes an advertising campaign, entitled “There’s More to It,” as well as a college football promotion with a sweepstakes (where legal). From September until December, Heaven Hill also offers a special holiday product, Evan Williams Bourbon Eggnog.

Ancient Age is up by 2% so far in ’97, while its blended sister brand, Ancient Age Preferred, is down by 3.5%, reported Sazerac’s McCrory. “That isn’t bad, considering blends were down over 7% last year,” he said. “And we are fighting those trends.” One weapon is a redesigned package for Ancient Age.

Ezra Brooks from David Sherman Corporation is also focusing on projecting a quality image in its marketing. “While the brand has been promoted with cowboy and Southwest themes, now we are promoting its premium image,” said Meg Syberg, director of marketing. The brand’s marketing plays off the fact that this brand is cork-finished: its tagline is “The Only Bourbon Worthy of a Cork.”


Blending In

Blended American brands contend with a different market than other types of American whiskies do. “Blended whiskies are somewhat like the vodkas of the whiskey category,” said Heaven Hill’s Overton. “They’re very mild, very smooth, for people who do not want [strong] tastes.” They also compete in a very price-conscious market. Different brands approach this situation in different ways.

“Consumers don’t necessarily recognize American blended whiskies as a category, while I think bourbon does have some category recognition,” said Ashley Culp, category manager for Seagram’s 7 Crown, the leading blended brand, with more than 44% of the market. Part of the solution for Seagram’s 7 Crown is to focus on the strength of its brand name, especially in the popular cocktail, the 7&7. “Seagram’s 7 Crown’s usage seems to transcend just blended whiskies,” he noted.

Barton’s Fleischmann’s Preferred has taken an aggressive stance toward being priced competitively in the blended market — and has since watched its sales grow by more than 8%. Barton took the brand over in the fall of 1995. “We basically focused on pricing,” said Jack Kavanagh, brand manager. “We spent a great deal of time making sure the brand was priced appropriately in each market and that as many different packages were available for the brand as possible.”

While American blended whiskies comprise less than half of the overall sales volume of American straight whiskies, they still account for national sales of 6.6 million 9-liter cases with the two leading brands: Seagram’s 7 Crown and Kessler, from Jim Beam Brands, totaling almost 4 million cases by themselves.

With the American whiskey category including high-priced brands touting their special qualities and lower-priced items offering value, consumers have a wide array of products to choose from. And with attention focusing on the upper end, consumers’ newfound interest may well benefit the entire American whiskey category.



(Thousands of Actual Cases)

% Change


Jim Beam
Jim Beam Brands

Jack Daniel’s Black
Brown-Forman Beverages

Evan Williams
Heaven Hill Distilleries


Early Times
Brown-Forman Beverages

Old Crow
Jim Beam Brands

Ten High
Barton Brands

Wild Turkey
Austin, Nichols/IDV North America a

Ancient Age
Sazerac Co.

Old Forester
Brown-Forman Beverages

George Dickel
United Distillers USA

Total Top 10


Total Straight Whiskey Control States

a Marketing handled by Austin, Nichols; sales handled by IDV North America.

Source: Adams Media from NABCA data.

Who’s Who in American Whiskey

Many brands of bourbon and Tennessee whiskey are named after real people.

Jim Beam was the great-grandson of an original Kentucky settler, Jacob Beam. The company’s “micro-bourbon,” Jacob’s Well, is named after him. The Beams first began making bourbon in 1795, and the sixth generation of the family is still at it. Two of the company’s Small Batch brands, Booker’s and Baker’s, were developed by and named after descendants: Booker Noe, Jim Beam’s grandson, and Baker Beam, Beam’s grand-nephew.

Jasper Newton Daniel, a.k.a Jack, began working for a local store owner, distiller and preacher named Dan Call, when he was just seven years old. When Jack was 13, he bought Call’s business and, by 1866, the Jack Daniel Distillery was the first registered distillery in America.

Elijah Craig, from Heaven Hill Distilleries, is named after the Baptist minister who is often credited with inventing bourbon. It is said that Craig, who lived from 1743 to 1808, was the first to use charred barrels to age his bourbons.

Old Crow takes its name from Dr. James Crow, a Scottish doctor and chemist, who, while working at a Kentucky distillery in 1835, invented the sour mash method.

In 1870 John F. Fitzgerald, of Old Fitzgerald fame, a Frankfort, KY, distiller, marketed his whiskey as “the most expensive bourbon made in Kentucky” and sold it to the first-class passengers aboard steamboats and railroad dining cars.

The first modern single barrel bourbon, the Sazerac Co.’s Blanton’s, is named for Colonel Albert B. Blanton, a distiller with a penchant for collecting his own private stock of select barrels.

Another of Sazerac’s single barrel brands, Elmer T. Lee, is named after its present-day distiller (also a colonel, who, as a radio bombardier, flew missions over Japan in 1945), who learned how to make whiskey from Blanton.

A few of the names in American whiskey lore are fake. In 1875, two German immigrants, Bernard andIsaac Wolfe Bernheim, wanted their brand to sound authentically American; they combined the last name of a horsebreeder, who was then locally famous for the horse he entered into the first Kentucky Derby, with the initials of Isaac’s first and middle names. The result was I.W. Harper.


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