Left on the shelf?

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Jack Daniel's has the dark spirits market cracked but other brands are less fortunate. Ben McFarland investigates the future of bourbonsDark spirits...

Jack Daniel's has the dark spirits market cracked but other brands are less fortunate. Ben McFarland investigates the future of bourbons

Dark spirits have been living under the shadow of white supremacy for a number of years now.

While the sales of white spirits have continued to soar, buoyed by the extraordinary success of vodka, schnapps and white rum-based premium packaged spirits (PPS), few drinks companies have been able to convert the all-important band of 18 to 24-year-old drinkers to the dark side.

Most young pub-goers will be perfectly happy to drink blue, red or yellow concoctions, but put a liquid with a brown hue in front of them and they're likely to turn their noses up.

Despite persistent efforts to recruit new drinkers, mainstream scotch whisky brands are continuing to struggle to shed the drink's heather and weather image, while dark rums are rarely seen by pub-goers as an alternative to the omnipotent Bacardi.

How much brandy, cognac and armagnac will benefit from their status as the chosen tipple among the fashionable R'n'B community and bands such as the infamous So Solid Crew remains to be seen, but the fact that gangster rappers represent a very small percentage of the pub-going public suggests the likes of Smirnoff can sleep easy.

That's not to say that all dark spirits are floundering, however - there is an anomaly in the shape of Jack Daniel's, from GuinnessUDV. In the world of spirit brands, there are a select few who have managed to create a generic bar call where consumers request the brand by name rather than by style of drink. The likes of Bacardi, Coke and Jack Daniel's have all managed it, while other brands see it as the marketing Mecca.

Jack Daniel's is not perceived as a bourbon, nor is it regarded as an American whiskey. It is first and foremost Jack Daniel's and manages to rise above category classifications.

Jack Daniel's is one of the six best-selling spirits brands overall, and commands a category-dominating 94 per cent of the American whiskey market.

This success has been principally driven by the established "JD & Coke" combination and its appeal as an entry-level brand to the spirits category. What's more, while scotch whisky brands endeavour to modernise their image and be relevant to the "yoof" of today, Jack Daniel's black and white advertising formula has remained stoically traditional and effective for decades.

While Jack's alright, other American whiskeys such as Kentucky bourbons and rye whiskeys seem unable to make an impact in the UK on-trade.

Claims that the whiskey from across the pond is set to be the "next big thing" have been partially substantiated by talk of a mini-boom in the style bar market.

The first UK bourbon bar, Rockwell, has recently opened in London inside the Trafalgar Hotel, offering movers and shakers more than 100 American whiskey brands. While brands such as Maker's Mark, Woodford Reserve, Buffalo Trace and Wild Turkey are often seen on cocktail menus.

The rise in profile of these brands has been boosted by research undertaken by Mintel which predicts that by 2005, American whiskey sales will have risen by 35 per cent.

However, these figures flatter to deceive, as less than 30,000 cases of Bourbon are sold in the UK every year - which isn't very much. In this year's Brands Report, neither of the top two bourbon brands, Jim Beam or Wild Turkey, featured in the top 200 brands. And according to Mark Ridgwell, one of bourbon's biggest proponents within the trade, bourbon will not be represented in the imminent future - in spite of the positive murmurings from the style bar sector.

Mark, creator of Taste and Flavour, a network of speakers aimed at raising the profile and understanding of spirits within the trade, said: "I wish people wouldn't confuse the success of Jack Daniel's with the success of bourbon.

"Bourbon has been in decline for the last five years. People who drink Jack Daniel's just stay with the brand while people who don't drink Jack Daniel's assume they won't like bourbon - despite the fact that they are two very distinctive whiskies.

"Jack Daniel's is a great whiskey but it isn't a bourbon. It doesn't taste like a bourbon or mix like a bourbon."

With the success of Jack Daniel's, the rise in demand for sweet tasting spirits and the kind of rock and roll image that scotch whisky brands would give their left arm for, it is surprising that bourbon brands are often left on the back shelf and find themselves so low down on the list of priorities of drinks companies.

"Bourbon has not been marketed well in this country. There is a huge opportunity for growth and the fact that it is not being exploited is hugely disappointing," said Mark. "It is a proven winner - there are only two naturally sweet spirits in the world and they are rum and bourbon and they are fantastic mixers.

"For a publican who doesn't make cocktails, a Bourbon Sour or a Bourbon and ginger is very easy to make and tastes absolutely fantastic.

"People are definitely wanting more character and depth but Joe Public won't pick it up themselves - they need to be encouraged by those behind the bar. But without support from the brand owners it hasn't got any hope."

JD and bourbon

Jack Daniel's is not a bourbon, it's a Tennessee whiskey. Unlike bourbons, Jack Daniel's is "charcoal-mellowed" which means it is filtered, drop by drop, through 10ft tall columns of sugar-maple charcoal prior to ageing in the barrel. The process, called the Lincoln County Process, is said to give the liquid two-thirds of its flavour and distinguishes Tennessee whiskey from other American whiskies.

History of bourbon

In the late 18th century Scottish and Irish immigrants forced to move west to escape taxes imposed on distillation by George Washington began making rough whiskey not dissimilar to moonshine.

Lady Luck intervened when it was discovered that the free land granted to them by the state governor was on a geological limestone shelf that purified the waters - making it extremely conductive to whiskey making.

The discovery that ageing the liquid in charred wood barrels led to a distinct smooth mellowness and rich colour was made, sometime later, by Reverend Elijah Craig. Whether this breakthrough was intentional or a slice of good fortune is still unclear - some say Craig set light to wooden staves while making a barrel, others that he deliberately burnt a barrel after it had been used to store fish.

What is bourbon?

For a drink to be labelled a bourbon there are very strict laws governing how it is made. These include:

  • the main grain, corn, must represent at least 51 per cent of the mash
  • bourbon must be aged for a minimum of two years in new charred oak barrels, after which, nothing except water can be added
  • at bottling, nothing can be added to enhance flavour, colour or sweetness
  • although bourbon takes its name from Bourbon County in Kentucky, it can be made anywhere in the United States.

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