Innovation In American Whiskey

The mega trend of exploration seems to be ramping up when it comes to American whiskey. As producers embrace the needs of a consumer group who don’t know exactly what they want, and who on the whole don’t possess an in-depth knowledge of whiskey, they are becoming ever more free to experiment. While established brands are reinventing themselves with limited edition launches to target this emerging audience, new brands whose identity is entirely centred on experimentation, are also emerging.

Out of this new-found freedom, a few core trends are taking shape. And it will come as no surprise that when we’re talking about experimentation and greater accessibility, flavour is key. Yes, no category is safe it seems from flavoured variants. Though massively effective when it comes to garnering both attention and new fans, flavours sometimes run the risk of seeming faddy. So what’s the halfway point when it comes to experimentation with flavour, without damaging the integrity of the liquid? As we’ve seen in rum, botanicals offer a compromise.

Though brands are increasingly demanding less inherent knowledge from consumers when it comes to accessing their products, many are trialling ever more complex and avant-garde methods of distillation. How they effectively communicate this to consumers however, remains a challenge.

Here’s our guide to some of the most interesting trends in American whiskey to look out for:

Botanical bourbon

Texas’ New Artisan distillery produces both gin and bourbon, so the inspiration for its Botanical Bourbon seems clear. The brand was also co-founded by Don Short, a former executive at Coca-Cola Co, and award-winning chef Robert Del Grande. Its brand Roxor is described as the world’s first botanical bourbon, and is made with a mash of 74% corn, 21% rye, and 5% malt, and is infused with 20 botanicals. Though the brand doesn’t specify which, the finished bourbon is described as having notes of maple, forest fruits, chocolate, and cola. Will this move help in attracting gin drinkers over to bourbon?

Flavours

Bourbon Bourbon. Yes, you read that right, a Kentucky bourbon infused with real Bourbon biscuits exists in the world. Infused with real bourbon biscuits, it’s also blended with dark chocolate and vanilla, and can be sipped neat, or used to add a chocolatey twist to the classics. So popular has the launch been, that retailer Master Of Malt reports it frequently sells out on its site.

Turning to something altogether more savoury, New Hampshire’s Tamworth Distilling has recently released Deerslayer whiskey using its core aged wheat whiskey as a base, before flavouring it with venison. What? How?

Well, first of all, locally sourced deer meat is ground, mixed with spices and flavourings including salt, green peppercorn, juniper, and cranberries, then fermented and smoked. It is then added to the whiskey, which is then distilled again. Well, it certainly makes a change from the endless peanut butter flavours we’ve been seeing of late. Expect producers to push the boundaries even further, as much in search of notoriety and headlines, as new flavour profiles.

Hybrids

Speaking of experimental, step forward Horse With No Name. Described as a ‘bourbon with habanero spirit’, this hybrid liquid straddles the line between whiskey and tequila. It contains bourbon produced by Texas’s Firestone & Robertson Distilling Co, and a habanero distillate made with red savina peppers from Germany. The question on everyone’s lips is whether it will help attract tequila drinkers to bourbon, or bourbon drinkers to tequila? Upon its launch Pernod Ricard says it hopes it will become a talking point at the bar, so as long as consumers are intrigued enough to give it go, it seems its mission will be accomplished. But will consumers struggle to know what its for, when it comes to how and when to drink it?

Alternate casks

Of course, one of the most readily available methods open to distillers to experiment with, is the use of barrels. Rules regarding the production of bourbon, and the use of new charred oak barrels, means they’ll never be much experimentation there, but for wider American whiskies, that’s not a problem. Distillers are now looking to an ever-diverse array of wood in which to age, and from Japanese mizunara casks to sherry, some more unusual choices are creeping in. Thomas S. Moore in particular has focused on cask experimentation. Part of the Sazerac Company, its Extended Cask Finishes range includes a cognac and a port cask finish, but most intriguingly of all, is the chardonnay cask. Though alternative casks have on and off been a trend for decades, expect it to ramp up with a vengeance, in ever more attention-grabbing ways.

Bottle aging

Another trend that tends to flare-up and then disappear is the notion that you can bypass traditional wood aging, in part or completely. Over the years, various alternative techniques have emerged, some which use motion and wood chips to expose the liquid more intensely to wood, others……. well, we’ll skip those. If they were effective, they’d have stuck around.

One brand looking into fast-track finishing outside of wood, is Oak & Eden. Its in-bottle finishing technique uses a spiral of carved wood placed inside every bottle. Called a ‘spire’ the brand describes it as a ‘first of its kind’, pioneering, patented and a few other impressive things. The theory is that the curvy stick, and we’re quoting here, “inspires” the whiskey, “breathing new life, flavour and aromas that couldn’t be achieved in a single barrel alone”.

Wood plus whiskey = tasty, right? For a generation brought-up on visuals, it’s a clever and self-evident ploy to describe the process of whiskey-making. Well, kind of.

So what now?

But in this era of curiosity, experimentation, and exploration, visuals are powerful. Whether it’s on the back-bar, a supermarket shelf, or in an Instagram post, strong visuals matter in conveying not only quality, but intrigue. Yet as brands are increasingly targeting a less knowledgeable consumer group, they are bound to straddling a visual identity that offers some traditional cues related to whiskey, and yet that also say something new.

In a market where premium and super premium products have been on the rise, fun alternatives at least offer accessibility. However, brands — and the market as a whole — need to be careful to tread the line between fun and gimmicky to avoid devaluing the category’s reputation. Remember Jim Beam Red Stag, the mass of honey flavoured liquids, and the plethora of flavours that followed?

Fun, heightened flavour experiences and accessibility are important, but this is still a market driven by quality. Brands moving into experimental liquids must convey that they are still premium. Their challenge remains easily communicating their production methods, and ingredients such as the use of natural, not artificial flavours, and how to consume them, if they are going to pull in a consumer group that may not be knowledgeable about whiskey, but are still discerning when it comes to the products they choose.

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