VARIETY IS THE SPICE OF WHITES
Variety is the Spice of Whites
White spirits with fruit, nut, spice or herbal flavors are creating an alternate universe of cocktails.
Have you noticed a change on the shelves of your local liquor store? A subtle rearrangement of the back bar of your favorite tavern? What you're seeing is an explosion: So many new flavored white spirits are being created and distributed that bartenders and liquor retailers don't know where to keep them all. They are spiked with the essences of fruits, nuts, spices, herbs, even grasses. Most of them are as clear and clean as mineral water, with alcohol-by-volume rates that range from a low of 30 percent to a high of 45 percent. Many of the new releases already have "signature" cocktails created for them by celebrity mixologists before they reach store shelves. Together, flavored white spirits form the new tidal wave, the tsunami of spirits.
"White spirits" is a broad category that includes vodka, rum, gin and Tequila. But most of the flavored white spirits are created from vodka and unaged rum. This is because vodka (grain-based) and unaged rum (sugarcane juice- or molasses-based) are fundamentally neutral, relatively flavorless spirits and, consequently, provide a solid base to which to add flavor essences. Gin, which is grain-based, is essentially vodka that's been flavored with botanicals anyway, and Tequila (agave-based) already possesses a singular herbal flavor all its own.
A Long History of Flavor
Flavored white spirits are hardly new. Flavored vodkas, in particular, have been produced for centuries. In eastern Europe and Russia in the 12th and 13th centuries, vodkas were doctored with myriad combinations of botanicals, spices, local wines and honey in order to make them potable. Since hygiene was not a concept, let alone a priority, among practitioners of distilling arts in the Middle Ages, the distilled neutral grain spirits of the era were harsh at best—they were no doubt helped by the addition of a bit of this and a dash of that.
The modern era of flavored white spirits began in the mid-1980s and continued into the next decade. "In the mid-1990s the modern martini was born," declares Michel Roux, now the chairman and CEO of Crillon Imports of Paramus, New Jersey, which imports OP from Sweden. This was the era that saw the introduction of Absolut Peppar and Citron; Stolichnaya Limonnaya, Pertsovka and Ohranj; Captain Morgan Spiced Rum; Bacardi Limon and Malibu Rum. These were the prototypes that instigated and inspired the current boom. But there would be no boom without the post-boomer generation, whose proclivities seem tailor-made for the trend.
The "Sweet Spot" Demographic
Young consumers—women and men from 21 to 39 years of age—are highly coveted by producers of distilled spirits. And flavored spirits hit their sweet spot—appealing not only to their palates, but their self-image. These are consumers who went through their adolescent and teenage years between 1975 and 1995. They have been exposed to a staggering array of nonalcoholic drink choices, like soda pops, fruit juices, sports drinks, flavored tea drinks and flavored milks. They've been groomed to expect lots of flavor options even when it comes to their adult libations.
"The consumers that drink the 'flavored stuff' are consumers that grew up on 7-Up, Coke, Pepsi, et cetera," agrees Kay Olsen, proprietor of The Spirit of Hartford, an import company that brings Foursquare Spiced Rum into the U.S. "They want sweet, flavored drinks. They are not waiting to 'grow accustomed to' or 'acquire a taste for' the true old-fashioned dry gin or straight vodka martini. They want the martini glamour with a sweet or flavorful taste immediately."
The glamour of the martini glass explains a great deal about how consumers, especially younger ones, view themselves and how they want to appear in public to their friends. Cocktails, which continue to grow steadily in popularity, lend an air of sophistication and fun at least as much as a glass of white wine or a bottle of microbrewed beer.
"That's what is really driving the growth in flavored white spirits," says Tom Valdes, president of Todhunter Imports of West Palm Beach, Florida, which imports Cruzan rums. "The bartenders had to create more fanciful drinks to attract the active young consumer who wanted to try something different. These new products met their needs more than traditional spirits [because] the drinks themselves were easier to make with flavored [spirits]."
Ah, convenience. Since the heart and soul of many cocktails, old and new, involves multiple flavor elements—spirits, liqueurs, fruit flavors, spice, et al—having to deal with fewer ingredients is a money-saver and a time-saver for bartenders, both professional and amateur. Is there anything more dear to the heart of the American consumer than convenience? Well, yes: choice. In an age that is notorious for its consumer capriciousness, customer brand loyalty, which used to oil the engine of the spirits industry, has become like a crushed violet in a high school yearbook. From the liquor industry's standpoint the emphasis must, by necessity, be squarely focused on variety, on presenting a whole menu of intriguing flavor possibilities.
"These consumers have grown up inundated with choices and flavor combinations," says Susan Overton of Heaven Hill Distilleries in Bardstown, Kentucky, a company that handles both flavored vodkas (Burnett's) and flavored rums (Whaler's). "Look at oatmeal and other cereals versus what was available just a decade ago. This age group is looking for unique yet good tasting drink options. The flavored spirits fill this need."
Inundated, indeed. The same could be said, and is being said, about flavored white spirits in general. "[The market] is now inundated with too many entries," observes Roux, "and the competition will ultimately weed out weak entries. Basically, how many orange and raspberry vodkas can you make?"
As many as the marketplace will bear, Michel. Only time, and the next trend, will tell.