"Companies are going out of the box," observes Ted Carmon, spirits buyer for the BevMo! liquor chain.
There's no official category name so far — Spirited wines? Laid-back liquors? — but Carmon traces liquor's "anything goes" movement to Pinnacle Whipped, the wildly popular whipped-cream flavoured vodka that came out a couple of years ago. "That really rewrote the rules on what kind of flavours could be used."
Bill Newlands, president of Beam Inc., which bought Pinnacle Vodka earlier this year, sees the intensely flavoured Whipped as playing into a trend of consumers "whether it's an alcohol beverage or anything else, looking for more flavour reward." They're looking for two things, he says, "flavour and flavour intensity."
That quest influenced Beam's latest product, Courvoisier Gold, which blends French cognac with moscato wine from the South of France. Research indicated customers, particularly women, wanted a cognac with less alcohol but more flavour, and Gold answers on both counts coming in at 36 proof, or 18 per cent alcohol by volume, well below the 40 per cent (80 proof) of traditional cognac. Suggested retail for a 750-millilitre bottle is $24.99.
Gold follows last year's introduction of Courvoisier Rose, which blends cognac with French red wine grapes. Both blends can be drunk on the rocks or mixed into cocktails.
Gold and Rose are both grape-on-grape affairs since cognac, a type of brandy made in the Cognac wine region in France, is a distilled grape spirit.
But TUNE, a new product from ABSOLUT, goes in a different direction, blending grain-based vodka with a sparkling white wine, New Zealand sauvignon blanc to be precise. It comes in a Champagne-style bottle decorated with gold stars, swirls and other patterns which has an outer wrapper of silver, black and gold that "unzips" for presentation pizazz. TUNE, so named for the dual notes of vodka and wine, is 14 per cent alcohol by volume and has a suggested retail of $31.99.
Another beverage taking a lighter touch is Croft Pink, which is a port (not a liquor but wine that's been fortified by addition of a spirit). Croft traces its roots to 1588, making classic ruby and tawny ports. Croft Pink is made from traditional port grapes but with light contact between the wine and the grape skins, resulting in a light ruby colour. It was made with cocktails in mind to introduce port to a new audience. Alcohol content is 19.5 per cent by volume, similar to traditional port. Suggested retail is $19.99 for a 750-millilitre bottle.
Lain Bradford, a South Carolina wine and spirits writer who blogs at winetalk.org, has noticed the blurring of the lines between wines and spirits, especially in restaurants, for instance margaritas made with fruit wine that's been flavoured to taste like tequila. As for the flavoured spirits trend, "It almost feels like the vodka producers are just walking down the grocery aisle and saying, 'Let's try this flavour,'" he says, noting that flavoured rums and tequilas also are being introduced.
He sees the new spirit-wine products as tailored to Americans' fondness for all things sweet. "The sweet market has taken off so much. I think a lot of the spirit houses are capitalizing on the sweet market right now and introducing spirits with sweet wine to come out with drinks that will be a good cross-over. It's a good way to bridge sweet wine drinkers with new spirits and the classic spirits."