The 2021 Spirits Growth Brands Awards — Celebrating Top-Selling Brands

The 2021 Spirits Growth Brands Awards from Beverage Wholesaler and Beverage Dynamics magazine recognizes the fastest-growing and top-selling spirits brands from the past year. These products dominated consumer interest and tapped into the leading beverage alcohol trends.

As always, our lists include the most innovative new brands, emerging stars, comeback stories and tried-and-true staples.

Altogether, these superstar spirits paint a picture of what defined the beverage alcohol category in the last year. Next week, we will post the 2021 Wine Growth Brands Awards winners.

Growth Brands Winners Adapt with Covid-19

All great brands must adapt at some point. Many of our winners successfully did so this last year in the face of the sudden Covid-19 crisis.

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“We have adapted many existing programs to stay relevant during Covid-19,” says Lisa Hunter, U.S. brand director for Jack Daniel’s Tennessee Honey, Established Growth Brand winner. “For instance, Neighborhood Flavors used to be all about festivals and events, and this year we are switching it up to be a local mural campaign that still celebrates neighborhoods, but in a safe, socially distanced way.”

Elsewhere in the Brown-Forman portfolio, Gentleman Jack also took home an Established Growth Brand award.

“Despite the Covid-19 related challenges of this last year, the brand has seen strong acceleration for a number of reasons,” says Mary Beth O’Mara, senior brand manager, Jack Daniel’s Craft & Luxury. “Consumers have turned to purchasing trusted premium brands and making cocktails at home.”

This was a common refrain: winning brands tapping into at-home mixology. As was a move towards other major pandemic trends — like ecommerce.

“In the off-premise, we know that browsing time has dropped dramatically,” says Chrissy Wallace, senior brand and integration manager of el Jimador, Established Growth Brand winner. “We made sure to communicate our value proposition clearly and consistently: el Jimador is a premium tequila, priced right for the everyday at-home occasion. Ecommerce has seen explosive growth during the pandemic. We look to leverage at all touchpoints through shoppable media and building the digital shelf.”

The use of alcohol ecommerce leapt ahead several years in a matter of months during the pandemic. Savvy brands adapted accordingly.

“The past year was certainly not the year we were anticipating, but our team did an exceptional job of rolling with the punches and pivoting into the virtual environment,” says from Charlie Nelson, co-founder of Nelson’s Green Brier Distillery, maker of Rising Star brand Belle Meade. “We focused primarily in the digital space, working with partners like Drizly, Thirstie, etc., and ensuring we showed up on the digital shelves just like we hope we show up on the physical shelves in retail stores.”

An undeniable part of the ecommerce ecosystem is social media, and the personalities that dominate the space.

“Building our social presence has been a big focus for us, specifically partnering with influencers who genuinely love the brand,” says Erin King, director of brand marketing and on-premise for the Fast Track craft vodka Western Son. “More times than not, influencers are reaching out to us looking to collaborate. It’s a great position to be in — it’s critical that we stay true to our brand and not just partner with anyone. Ultimately, they are an extension of us.”

Promoting safety amidst the health crisis was another focus shared by many winners.

“We ran social promotions for curbside pick up; we featured cocktails that spoke to quarantining, social distancing, March thru May,” says Mary Rose DeMarco, creative and branding director for Recipe 21, which received a Fast Track award. “We had branded masks made and handed out to all our retailers and distributors”

Established Growth brand-winner Deep Eddy Vodka worked to support local Texas communities during the pandemic.

“When the Deep Eddy Vodka Tasting Room was first closed at the beginning of the pandemic, we dedicated operations to hand-production, hand-bottling and hand-labeling the sanitizer,” says Reid Hafer, group product director, Heaven Hill Brands. Altogether the brand produced many thousands of gallons and bottles of sanitizer, distributed to healthcare systems, first responders and at-risk communities.

When Austin lost power during the terrible winter storm in Texas last February, Deep Eddy collaborated with local businesses to raise more than $100,000 towards providing hot meals for residents affected by the outages.

At-Home Mixology

Among consumer trends driven by Covid-19, the rise of at-home mixology was among the most influential. With bars and restaurants sadly shuttered across the country, more people made high-quality mixed drinks in the safety of their own homes.

“Within the first two weeks of lockdown, Bombay Sapphire introduced Create From Home, a multi-platform creative learning experience that offered free virtual classes, workshops and cocktail-making sessions led by creatives from diverse fields,” says Natasha Curtin, global vice president for Bombay Sapphire, which won an Established Growth Brand.

This trend benefited brands like the Fast Track winner D’Usse, owned by Bacardi.

“As occasions became more intimate, the popularity of cognac exploded, driven by new consumers entering the category and the move toward smaller, more relaxed group settings.,” says Jennifer Pisciotta, VP global marketing, acceleration brands, Bacardi Limited. “Additionally, as consumers focused more on their at-home bartending skills, alcohol sales — especially luxury spirits — rose, and D’usse was no exception. In fact, D’usse cognac has been surpassing spirits growth in 46 of the last 52 weeks, according to Nielsen. Consumers have had more time to formalize their skills, and improving the cocktail experience comes with an investment in more premium spirits.”

Brands helped consumers reproduce their favorite cocktails while also benefiting the on-premise trade.

“We launched a Bartender Takeover series to benefit on-premise partners impacted by Covid-related closures and featuring local bartenders to demonstrate how to make Ole Smoky cocktails at home,” says Will Ensign, VP of marketing for Ole Smoky, which qualified for several Rising Star awards.

Other brands were born with the idea of cocktails in mind, and benefited when at-home mixology took off in 2020. For instance, Rising Star Old Forester Rye whiskey.

“When we were developing this product, it was paramount to me that this hit on a few keys things: first that it be bottled at 100 proof, making it strong enough to stand up in a cocktail; and second, that it be affordable and lined priced with OF 100 proof,” says Old Forester Master Taster Jackie Zykan. “In addition to the unique flavor profile that’s both spicy and floral, these factors have made it an indisputable hit with consumers.”

Top Trends and Movements

Many winning brands achieved success in the past year by recognizing consumer trends and cultural movements. This includes Woodford Reserve, which took home multiple Fast Track awards.

“The past year has presented challenges, but we prioritized our investment in brand building communication, and we followed our consumers and their emerging behaviors,” explains Tracey Johnson, VP, group brand director at Brown-Forman. “In 2020, this translated into a heavier focus on retail and the e-premise. We also had successful launches of limited-release products, like our Master’s Collection Very Fine Rare Bourbon and Woodford Reserve Baccarat Edition. These expressions were popular with whiskey drinkers and collectors, and garnered significant media attention for the brand.”

Savvy use of social media was, again, a common avenue for growth in 2020. Rising Star Proper No. Twelve Irish Whiskey utilized the profile of its co-founder, MMA fighter Conor McGregor, along with a branded social media account designed for today’s consumer.

“Conor is quite the unicorn and he enjoys interacting with consumers via social media,” says Ken Austin, co-founder. “Our Instagram, @ProperWhiskey, continues to be one of the largest brands in the spirits space globally, and our fan engagement is off the charts. This is a real sign of brand health. The key is to do all we do the right way, the Proper way. We don’t force things, as we want to always be true to our consumers, as we have a delicious whiskey that is fun. We respect the consumer deeply and we don’t take ourselves too seriously.”

One of the biggest developments of 2020 was the massive growth of ready-to-drink alcoholic beverages, as more consumers wanted premium cocktails while sheltering at home. Established Growth Brand winner Jack Daniel’s Country Cocktails benefited from this trend.

“Jack Daniel’s Country Cocktails was already seeing growth coming into last year, but the rocket ship of RTDs has definitely helped accelerate that momentum,” says Dallas Cheatham, RTD portfolio director, USA and Canada, Brown-Forman. “New flavors, the addition of cans to our lineup and the trusted name of Jack Daniel’s positioned the brand perfectly to take advantage of additional consumers that were visiting the cooler section looking for a refreshing, single-serve option. It’s the perfect intersection between a great product and great timing.”

Social unrest across the country in 2020 shed light on lingering racial inequities in America. Hennessy, an Established Growth Brand winner, built on its legacy of championing cultural diversity and progress through several programs.

The company continued with the Thurgood Marshall College Fund, a $10-million fellowship meant to assist the next generation of diverse C-suite leaders. And in becoming the Official Spirit of the NBA, Hennessy in 2020 commemorated the progressive vision of the sports league with a new creative, “Lines,” which “paid tribute to players’ commitment to drive culture forward, on and off the court.”

What Happens When On-premise Returns?

As vaccines roll out and the pandemic recedes, on-premise businesses will eventually reopen to levels similar to pre-Covid. As that happy day approaches, many brands are preparing for how they will return, in full force, to bars in restaurants.

“We do not have any new releases planned in 2021, but we do see some tremendous opportunities in the on-premise,” says Charlie Maas, CMO of RumChata, which won a Comeback award (and was recently purchased by Gallo). “We’re particularly excited about the new RumChata Cold Brew 1-L package, as it creates an easy way for bars and restaurants to serve cold brew coffee during the brunch occasion. Retailers can price and pour it like a bottle of wine, and instantly add a booming category to their menus as they reopen.”

RumChata is far from alone in positioning for the great reopening of America.

“With Covid restrictions hopefully lifting this year, [Fast Track winner] Platinum 7X Vodka will continue to amplify its various campaigns which focus on unique moments throughout the year that bring people together,” says Tyler Smith, marketing manager, premium vodka, Sazerac. “The brand also will continue to grow behind its premium sister offering, Platinum 10X, which launched in 2019.”

This enthusiasm for the future is echoed around the industry.

“As the pandemic ends and the world opens back up, we will be ready to host tastings that allow consumers to sample this amazing liqueur,” says Hunter, of Rising Star Jack Daniel’s Tennessee Apple.

Growth Brands: What’s Next?

Innovation remains at the heart of these winning brands. So it’s no surprise that numerous brands recognized in this issue have big plans for the year ahead.

Southwest Spirits & Wine received a Fast Track award for nue vodka, and a Rising Star for Henderson Blended Whiskey.

For nue, in 2021, “There will be a much heavier emphasis on marketing, particularly towards our targeted male/female younger demographic,” says Rosalind Lynam, brand development manager. “We plan to appeal to them through national accounts (both on and off premise) and social media, which will have a heavy emphasis on cocktail recipes. 2021 will also bring more packaging improvements and, of course, more distribution, which is already off to a great start, given the solid foundation of growth we’ve had the past few years.”

“Next up for Henderson Whiskey is improvements to the label and packaging,” she adds, “continued improvements to its digital footprint, and a new flavored whiskey scheduled to be launched before the end of 2021.”

Kyle Swartz is editor of Beverage Dynamics magazine. Reach him at kswartz@epgmediallc.com or on Twitter @kswartzz. Read his recent piece 10 American Whiskey Trends in 2021.

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