Who Is the Millennial Drinker?

In the perpetual race to appeal to millennials, the stories that alcohol brands use to market their products has unearthed a number of discernible profiles of the millennial drinker—from the Traditionalist to the Basic. Christopher Ross on Big Booze's Brat Pack, and how we got here.

In the ultimate 1980s teen angst film, John Hughes’ The Breakfast Club, five high school students belonging to different social cliques—“a brain, a beauty, a jock, a rebel and a recluse”—are forced to spend a day together under one roof serving detention. Over the course of eight hours, in spite of each one continuing to some degree to play to type, they begin to share their frustrations about the way they’re pigeonholed both by each other and by society at large. “You see us as you want to see us—in the simplest terms, in the most convenient definitions,” reads the letter the students write to their principal, in answer to his request to explain who they are.

Members of the millennial generation, the group of over 80 million Americans aged 18 to 34, might like to say the same thing to the hundreds of brands attempting to sell them things by appealing to the various subcultures they are imagined to divide into. Especially in the realms of spirits, wine and beer marketing, studying the ways that companies try to reach millennial drinkers can help unearth a number of archetypes—the urban lumberjack with his small-batch bourbon, the new-school hippie sipping natural wine, the tattooed rebel who orders obscure amari—that constitute their own boozy Brat Pack.

The efforts of advertisers and marketers have lately grown even more targeted, in response to the fact that millennials have proved to be a different, often elusive kind of consumer, requiring new strategies of seduction. “Classic advertising is all but done and dusted, really,” says Jim Ryan, the national ambassador for Hendricks Gin. “We’ve made a serious change over the years. Millennials are very savvy—they can see right through a brand.” Hendricks made a splash by picking up on the burgeoning twee dimension of the millennial sensibility and capitalizing on it with a campaign that used “a most unusual gin” as the tagline, imagery evoking 19th-century mustachioed gentlemen and experiential events that felt like Victorian circuses (with rooms that mimicked curiosity cabinets, apothecary shops, secret passageways).

Where brands once focused on traditional, more mass-oriented modes of marketing—like, say, highway billboards—now they were using Twitter, Instagram and Facebook to break ad campaigns into micro-messages honed in on specific audiences. “What’s left when the jingles and slogans and overly done commercials are no longer convincing?” says Ian Daly, chief strategy officer at digital creative agency The Barbarian Group. “Stories. Young consumers and drinkers like stories about brands that they can tell to friends and be a part of.”

It’s this shift that’s led to the widespread trend of products accompanied by a tag or one-sheet featuring long-winded tales about such and such founder conceiving of this unique spirit on a cold winter’s night—a common enough trope that it’s been lampooned by Portlandia and the like. But there’s also no denying that this method can be effective, even when the consumer is hip to the device. Some of the myths surrounding something like green Chartreuse—that only two monks know the recipe, and each only knows half—impart a magic to the liquor and make us feel that, by consuming it, we’re entering into some special pact. It’s the proliferation of these stories that’s helped bring the millennial Brat Pack archetypes into relief.

Probably the foremost type in the spirits world—thanks to the dominance of whiskey—is what you might call the Traditionalist. Whiskey falls neatly into the modern vogue for old, well-made American things and heritage brands. Bourbon and rye feel like the drinks of our ancestors, and the Traditionalist enjoys carrying this torch. Moreover, whiskey brands usually possess a wealth of backstory that help to burnish their brands to shine like heirloom brass. But while whiskey excels in this respect because of its national character, venerable generations-old beer brands like Yuengling or Guinness can hold the same appeal, while gin and rum—with their respective ties to the English Navy and colonial America—also tend to number among the Traditionalist’s favorites.

Equally influential is the Naturalist who, in taking an agricultural interest in what’s in their glass, is drawn to wine (especially natural wine), mezcal and the occasional craft beer or cider. Their desire to drink something that is recognizably a product of the Earth, the human hand guiding the process rather than manipulating it, has helped lead to a terroir of everything. It’s one of the most visible categories of drinkers, and one that’s continuously bolstered by the media; they’re part of the reason why some vodka brands have a lot to say about their potatoes and why Japanese whiskies wax rhapsodic about their mountain water sources. Here again, the story of how the booze is made, the equipment used, the seasons of production, what goes in or doesn’t go in, provides an abundance of material to be spun into stories.

A number of other smaller cliques help fill out the crowd. There’s the Cosmopolitan, who loves foreign booze brands (Chartreuse, Pernod, Kronenberg, international wines), the kind with indecipherable labels that suggest a well-traveled life. On the other side, the Nativist sticks to American-made gin or beer, preferably one produced within 20 miles of their town. There’s the Masochist, who’s inspired a number of beer companies to adopt a vocabulary borrowed from death metal and D&D (Hopness Monster, Raging Bitch, Fade to Black) and who gravitates towards the bitterest, harshest draughts and liquors available—Malort and triple IPAs. The Normcore consumer, utterly fed up with brand identification of any kind, tends toward simple products so far out of the realm of “good taste”—Bud Lite, Jose Cuervo—that they can hardly even be thought of as expressive choices, while the Basic consumer blithely orders whatever seems to be the booze du jour, whether that be rosé or a St. Germain cocktail.

While brands can identify larger trends among millennial drinkers and pivot in those directions, they tend to stumble when it comes to appealing to the most specific types. Moreover, many of the smaller wine, spirits and beer companies simply don’t have the resources to support big marketing departments and market research. The idea that these businesses possess Orwellian algorithms that allow them to perfectly predict and isolate customer profiles is a fiction. More often than not, they’re stumbling around chasing the zeitgeist just like everyone else. So who’s really in charge of where taste heads next?

“Our generation, we were told by our family or by authority figures or mentors—this brand is really good, try this,” says Hanna Lee, founder of PR firm Hanna Lee Communications. “But with millennials, they listen to their peers. That’s the difference. The peers have the authority.”

In many ways, these archetypes are less dictated by companies than they are by the millennials themselves. In The Breakfast Club, the principal is the villain of the movie, the symbol of oppression, and yet the principal didn’t assign the kids to their cliques—the kids did. Their kumbaya revelation at the end is that, “we found out that each one of us is a brain, and an athlete, and a basket case, a princess and a criminal.” And most likely, in the course of a few days of drinking, a millennial may be a Traditionalist, and a Naturalist, and a Cosmopolitan, and a Masochist, a Normcore and a Basic.