Bourbon: American spirit

By Claire Dodd Claire

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags Jack daniel Bourbon whiskey

The thing about America is that everything is just so cool. Take lorries for example…US trucks are unnecessarily huge and therefore brilliant. As...

The thing about America is that everything is just so cool. Take lorries for example…US trucks are unnecessarily huge and therefore brilliant.

As our bus passes along the freeways that slice through this corner of Kentucky on the way to the Buffalo Trace distillery, they're all we have for company.

The state, located in east central America, is for the large part rolling green fields and white picket fences. Though famous for its horse farms, and yes, chicken, its most enjoyed export is bourbon.

While bourbon whiskey can be made anywhere in the US, its homeland is Kentucky.

The state produces 95 per cent of the world's supply. To qualify as a bourbon, the whiskey must be made with a minimum of 51 per cent corn and aged in new oak barrels that have been charred. According to the Kentucky Distillers' Association, there are more than five million barrels of bourbon and other whiskeys sat aging away in Kentucky, with its warm summers and cold winters.

But while bourbon is big business, it's also one of the most misunderstood drinks behind the bar. Jack Daniel's is widely mistaken for a bourbon, but as a Tennessee whiskey which is filtered through maple charcoal, is nothing of the sort. Neither UK nor American consumers know much about bourbon.

Which makes Buffalo Trace's plans for the UK seem either ambitious or shrewd. UK drinks distributor Hi-Spirits took on the drink a year ago from Inspirit, and immediately began a concerted distribution campaign which saw volumes triple and included a lucrative listing in Wetherspoons. The aim is to make it the number one bourbon in the UK, pipping Maker's Mark, within the next two years.

"It's getting the product talked about," says Hi-Spirits chairman Jeremy Hill, who is working hard to push listings of the brand. "But more importantly for us, it's getting the product tasted. When people taste it, they taste the difference.

"When we took the brand on, it hadn't broken out of the London scene. It hadn't broken into any multiple operators.

"Whether you like it or not, the whole thing has to be commercially viable. The people who say, well, if it's stocked in Wether-spoons, I'm not going to stock it… it's just nonsense. In that case they wouldn't stock Smirnoff, Jack Daniel's, Jim Beam…"

But what exactly does Hill have on his hands with the brand? Buffalo Trace is distinctive for its smooth, non-astringent, vanilla taste, with hints of brown sugar and spice. It's a bourbon for non-bourbon drinkers, but it also has a long, dry finish and depth of flavour to satisfy aficionados.

Taste and getting people to try it are one thing, but if the mainstream success of brands like Jack Daniel's has proved anything, it's that alongside all this, sometimes you need some rock-and-roll credentials too. Hence a concerted campaign to bed the brand with cutting-edge music. The first Buffalo Rocks gig took place at the Monarch (better known as the Barfly) in London's Camden in September with James Walsh, lead singer of Starsailor.

The ultimate aim is for Buffalo Trace to steal the thunder of brands such as Jack Daniel's by tempting, according to Hill, "disenfranchised" drinkers over to the brand.

Though Hi-Spirits is looking for listings in multiples, Hill insists it has the same resources in place for talking to individual licensees. Purchases are incentivised with 'cork' rewards. One bottle equals one cork, but extra are awarded for running promotions such as prominent back-bar displays. Rewards include team experiences from comedy evenings to a visit to the distillery.

"Within that following of Jack Daniel's drinkers there will be people looking for something slightly different. I think every UK licensee needs to be looking for a point of difference in their offering," says Jeremy.

"They're all in the same arena, chasing the same customer."

Related topics Spirits & Cocktails

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