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High-Proof Spirits, Propelled By Mixologists, Emerge As Key Growth Drivers

July 17, 2013

A surge in popularity for classic cocktails and barrel-strength spirits has led to a high-proof spirits renaissance. Over-proof spirits are showing particularly strong growth on-premise, where mixologists are touting them as being superior to their lower-strength counterparts in terms of bringing out a cocktail’s flavors and nuances.

“There’s a growing appreciation of the flavor concentrations that high-proof spirits deliver,” says Caspar MacRae, vice president of brand marketing at William Grant & Sons USA. “We’ve seen a noticeable increase in demand for these spirits, along with many new products.”

William Grant’s Sailor Jerry rum ($21.99 a 750-ml.), at 46% abv, has enjoyed impressive growth in recent years. MacRae partly attributes Sailor Jerry’s success to its prominence in tiki-style drinks.

Other popular high-proof spirits in the William Grant portfolio include The Balvenie 12-year-old ($69.99) and 15-year-old ($79.99), both at 47.8% abv. William Grant also sells the Hudson whiskey line, which has five 46%-abv offerings—New York Corn whiskey ($31.99), Baby Bourbon ($39.99), Four Grain Bourbon ($44.99), Manhattan Rye ($44.99) and Single Malt ($44.99).

“The strongest sales venues (for higher-proof spirits) are upscale on-premise accounts and specialty retailers,” says MacRae. “People appreciate their versatility, and the consumer is ultimately in control of the liquid’s degree of dilution.”

One notable on-premise success story is Green Chartreuse liqueur, which has become a darling of today’s Prohibition-era cocktail craze. With a 400-year-old recipe, Green Chartreuse ($59) is at 55% abv. “Higher-proof spirits bring out flavors,” says Tim Master, director of the specialty spirits division at Chartreuse’s importer Frederick Wildman & Sons. “Green Chartreuse has always played in the high-proof arena because it’s made with 130 herbs, flowers and spices. You need the higher proof to taste the flavors.”

T.A. Breaux, distiller and founder of Jade Liqueurs LLC, also says bartenders have driven the high-proof spirits craze. His absinthes all have alcohol levels of 65% or more, appealing to connoisseurs rather than casual drinkers. While they’re also more expensive than lower-proof offerings, Breaux notes that educated consumers realize they’re paying for more alcohol and less water.

The Jade Liqueurs portfolio includes C.F. Berger Absinthe Supérieure (65%-abv), Nouvelle-Orléans Absinthe Supérieure (68%-abv), 1901 Absinthe Supérieure (68% abv) and Esprit Edouard Absinthe Supérieure (72%-abv). All are ultra-premium at $99.95 a 750-ml., but Breaux says they’re thriving because their high alcohol content is historically accurate. His brands are meant to be consumed with water or in cocktails and not sipped neat. “Many high-proof spirits are niche products and do better in the on-premise, where education accompanies service,” Breaux adds. “As we see more boutique cocktail bars open we’ll continue to see growth in high-proof spirits.”

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