Is Flavored Whiskey a Threat to Hardcore Whiskey Drinkers?

Cherry, blackberry, honey—over the past few years, flavors usually associated with cough drops have snuck into American whiskey. Drew Lazor surveys the scene to find out how flavored whiskey is impacting the category as whole.

If you want to watch a whiskey purist’s face turn redder than Maker’s Mark wax, ask them what they think about flavored whiskey.

Before you duck and cover, though, be sure to clarify your query, because it’s impossible to start this conversation without sounding like you want to talk about cough drops. Honey, cinnamon, cherry, berry—the same crowd-pleasing varietals Luden’s leans on to soothe scratchy throats—have secured a rising profile on liquor-store shelves. The neat-pour Luddites have noticed.

In whiskey world long fixated on nostalgia, it’s reason enough for skeptics to start hitting the panic button, especially now that more and more respected distilleries are entering the fold. Is their undefiled barrel-aged booze becoming more like vodka? Is birthday cake bourbon and rocky road rye so far off?

Is the world ending?

In early 2012, Washington Post drinks writer Jason Wilson turned in a column singling out trends he thought might coincide with the Mayan doomsday prophecies predicted for that year. Flavored whiskey was one hand-selected to signal the end times. “American whiskeys are often named after old-time distillers, whom I imagine to be grizzled and irascible and committed to tradition,” he wrote then, name-dropping heavies like Elijah Craig and Old Fitzgerald. “I also imagine that those men roll over in their graves when they hear about products such as Red Stag (black-cherry-flavored bourbon from Jim Beam).”

Nearly three years later, Wilson’s stance hasn’t changed. “It’s pandering to the lowest common denominator,” he says. “People like sweet things. It’s the infantilization of taste.”

This attitude is not relegated to the press; bartenders feel the same way. “I can’t give you a single reason why they exist,” says Drew Stephan, a bartender at the Half Moon, a no-frills neighborhood place in New Orleans. “Maybe it’s because drunk dude-bros and lady-bros don’t want to order ‘girly shots,’ so they order bar mat runoff with sugar syrup in it instead.” He concedes that he sells a ton—especially Fireball.

Clearly, flavored whiskey incites aggressive feelings—but it’s also inspiring head-turning numbers. Fireball is a dominant force, and competitors—major players like Jim Beam, Jack Daniel’s, Knob Creek, Wild Turkey and Dewar’s, plus a contingent of smaller indie distillers—are hustling to stake their own claims, Far and Away style.

“[Traditionalists] say, ‘I’m not going to drink it,’” says Russell. “That’s perfect. That’s what I want. We’d like to reach the vodka enthusiasts and fans of sweeter drinks.” This is no secret. In fact, the promotional materials for Sting, a new American Honey variation augmented with ghost peppers, states that it speaks “to a generation of bourbon-loving, legal-drinking-age millennials.”

“I hear an awful lot of whining and moaning about how they’re wasting whiskey by putting flavors in it, but all the manufacturers I talk to say they’re selling the hell out of it,” says spirits writer Lew Bryson, author of Tasting Whiskey.

It’s this philosophical scrap between good taste and sexy sales, exclusivity and everyman approachability, that leads to a complicated question: Does whiskey take itself too seriously, or not seriously enough?

Though detractors dismiss it as a nouveau alcoholic trend for ninny-livered wusses who have never read Bukowski, flavored whiskey has been around longer than many realize. Though not technically whiskey in its current form, Southern Comfort is a proto-example of the style, with New Orleans bartender Martin Wilkes Heron infusing the rotgut of the era with sweeteners and spices in the late 1800s. Skipping ahead to the 20th century, Jimmy Russell, master distiller of Kentucky’s Wild Turkey, developed his honey whiskey in 1976, and also experimented with a cherry-based variation in the ‘80s.

“He thought of it as a woman’s drink—something a little lighter,” says Eddie Russell, Wild Turkey’s associate distiller and Jimmy’s son. In 2006, the Russells updated the recipe, rebranded the bourbon-based spirit as American Honey, marketed it wide and courted what Russell calls “the shot crowd—the younger generation.” In 2007, the distillery sold around 10,000 cases of its rejiggered product. In 2011, it sold 400,000.

Those figures say something. “What this is revealing is how small that niche of purists really is,” says Bryson.

Russell, meanwhile, modestly cites market zeitgeist for American Honey’s success. “Sometimes, it’s not as much about planning as it is just hitting it at the right time,” he says. But it’s the targeting of the product to the “shot crowd” that’s most telling. An old-guard distiller, Wild Turkey has built a loyal following with its traditional bourbons and ryes—a fanbase that can actually benefit from the popularity of the sweet stuff.

“[Traditionalists] say, ‘I’m not going to drink it,’” says Russell. “That’s perfect. That’s what I want. We’d like to reach the vodka enthusiasts and fans of sweeter drinks.” This is no secret. In fact, the promotional materials for Sting, a new American Honey variation augmented with ghost peppers, states that it speaks “to a generation of bourbon-loving, legal-drinking-age millennials.”

The idea that a whiskey maker can successfully sell to two separate audiences that never intercede isn’t unique to macro-distilleries. It’s also in play with smaller-scale operations that play in both sandboxes. Paul Tomaszewski, co-founder and head distiller of MB Roland Distillery in Pembroke, Kentucky, produces 108-proof bourbon alongside specialty spirits with flavors like apple pie, pink lemonade and blackberry, using real fruit and natural flavors.

“As a rule of thumb, the same people we sell our bourbon to don’t buy a lot of our flavored products,” says Tomaszewski. “I’m not as concerned about marketing my flavored products to them. They have a set way how they like to drink.”

Additionally, MB Roland has only been around since 2009—simply not enough time in the game to age and bottle a stock of limited-edition liquid. Moving flavored spirits, which have a young distillate base, is one way Tomaszewski can subsidize more exclusive bottlings down the road. “That, definitely, is what’s helping to pay for the production of whiskey,” he says. The same goes for big boys like Sazerac, whose massive Fireball sales help make the cultivation of rare cult whiskeys like Pappy Van Winkle possible.

“If Jim Beam makes billions of dollars on Red Stag and that money’s going to help them release some really interesting bottlings on the higher end, great,” says the Washingon Post‘s Wilson. “But it has no consequence in the world of the cocktail bar.”

Paul MacDonald, of Society Hill Society in Philadelphia, agrees. “I haven’t seen them used effectively in cocktail bars,” says the bartender, who, like many of his peers, prefers to handle infusions in-house. “It’s just bread and butter for big whiskey companies.” But in Pennsylvania, flavored whiskey cleared $44 million in sales in 2013. People are buying the stuff, whether they’re asking for it by name at bars or not.

But who are those people?

Future connoisseurs—or so industry types hope. “That first taste of 110-proof whiskey can sometimes throw people for a loop,” says Adam Johnson, director of the Kentucky Bourbon Trail. “We always like the idea that [flavored whiskey] might be bringing somebody into the category, somebody’s who’s felt intimidated.”

Wilson, for one, is skeptical of the idea that a transition can take place. “They’re going to give somebody a cherry-flavored bourbon, and, five years from now, they’re going to drink a single-barrel?” he says. “No, that’s not going to happen.”

For now, the drinkers balancing either side of the whiskey industry scale are teeter-tottering peacefully, and insiders who support the growth of the flavored category have no reason to believe that will change. “I don’t know if we’ll ever see whiskey going the way of vodka,” says Johnson.

So rest easy with your rocks glasses: The world so beloved by those who order whiskey by the finger has not reached the point of cough-drop cataclysm. At least not yet.