I’ll Take the Bourbon Slurpee

Watching the NBA Playoffs and Stanley Cup Finals on the web has introduced me to a relatively new and disturbing development: sweet, fruity distilled spirits.

No, not a distilled spirit made out of fruit, such as applejack or grappa: the products I’m talking about are things like Jim Beam’s Red Stag, which is black cherry flavored, or Jack Daniels’ Honey Jack, a honey-flavored Tennessee sour mash.  Jim Beam’s product has been out for two years, and now Jack Daniels has just gotten into the game.

The distillers, of course, are saying that it’s just a great new product that combines new tastes for discerning customers.  But it seems to me that this is  a pretty transparent attempt to get people who normally don’t like whiskey to start chugging the stuff.  It’s designed to cover up the edge or the bite of traditional whiskey, and before you know it, you’re face down on the pavement, perhaps covered in your own vomit.

And who would these people be?  Teenagers, of course.  To be sure, Jack Daniels and Jim Beam would never market them to teenagers, and the ads I’ve seen don’t do so.  But that’s all part of the point: teenagers want to drink “grown-up” drinks.  Ditto with tobacco: Philip Morris put ads in Maxim, not Boy’s Life.  I suppose that this is just following up on wine coolers, which are bad enough.  But distilled spirits have a lot more alcohol in them, and can thus be a lot more dangerous.

Oh — and now distilled spirits are advertised on television.  Can’t have regulation or anything like that.

It will be interesting to see whether evangelical Protestants, yoked to the Plutocrat wing of the GOP, put up any fuss about this.  The Roman Catholic hierarchy has happily thrown over its social justice teaching so it can go after Teh Gay, and I imagine that evangelicals will do the same.  And of course the drug warriors will have nothing at all to say.  I hope I’m wrong.

Mark, Keith: what do we know about the marketing and incidence of consumption on products like this?

Author: Jonathan Zasloff

Jonathan Zasloff teaches Torts, Land Use, Environmental Law, Comparative Urban Planning Law, Legal History, and Public Policy Clinic - Land Use, the Environment and Local Government. He grew up and still lives in the San Fernando Valley, about which he remains immensely proud (to the mystification of his friends and colleagues). After graduating from Yale Law School, and while clerking for a federal appeals court judge in Boston, he decided to return to Los Angeles shortly after the January 1994 Northridge earthquake, reasoning that he would gladly risk tremors in order to avoid the average New England wind chill temperature of negative 55 degrees. Professor Zasloff has a keen interest in world politics; he holds a PhD in the history of American foreign policy from Harvard and an M.Phil. in International Relations from Cambridge University. Much of his recent work concerns the influence of lawyers and legalism in US external relations, and has published articles on these subjects in the New York University Law Review and the Yale Law Journal. More generally, his recent interests focus on the response of public institutions to social problems, and the role of ideology in framing policy responses. Professor Zasloff has long been active in state and local politics and policy. He recently co-authored an article discussing the relationship of Proposition 13 (California's landmark tax limitation initiative) and school finance reform, and served for several years as a senior policy advisor to the Speaker of California Assembly. His practice background reflects these interests: for two years, he represented welfare recipients attempting to obtain child care benefits and microbusinesses in low income areas. He then practiced for two more years at one of Los Angeles' leading public interest environmental and land use firms, challenging poorly planned development and working to expand the network of the city's urban park system. He currently serves as a member of the boards of the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy (a state agency charged with purchasing and protecting open space), the Los Angeles Center for Law and Justice (the leading legal service firm for low-income clients in east Los Angeles), and Friends of Israel's Environment. Professor Zasloff's other major activity consists in explaining the Triangle Offense to his very patient wife, Kathy.

25 thoughts on “I’ll Take the Bourbon Slurpee”

  1. I thought for a minute the results were driving you to drink. Otherwise, I’m afraid you’re spot on.

  2. Judging by which (state-run) liquor stores display which products and have tastings of which products, the target market for Red Stag seems to be blacks.

    I’ll just note that liqueurs (which is what both of those products are) are not an innovation; Honey Jack is basically the Tennessean version of Drambuie.

  3. @SamChevre — Interesting points. I did see the Red Stag web ad on the ESPN NBA site, which of course would have a sizeable Black viewership. But of course marketers can walk and chew gum at the same time. I don’t know. As for liqueurs, that may be right, but it seems to me that there is a world of difference between saying “Jack Daniel’s is making drambuie” and “Jack Daniel’s has a honey-flavored whiskey.” It’s a completely different cultural signal, don’t you think?

  4. I’d agree that it’s a different signal; liqueurs are rarely used as the main alcohol in a drink by themselves in the US, and the flavored whisky products are marketed with that as the main suggestion.

    I’m inclined to think that the flavored whiskey category is mostly trying to win market share from the flavored vodka category (which is the single biggest category, in terms of shelf space, in most ABC stores).

  5. Is hard liquor advertised on TV? This wasn’t the case fairly recently, but I don’t really watch TV and could easily have missed a change.
    My understanding has been that there’s a limit on the alcohol content of beverages advertised on TV, stronger than most beer (one the level of malt liquor) but well below scotch, whiskey, vodka, etcetera. Some companies have gotten around this by advertising co-branded products that meet these limits: Smirnoff, for example, advertises it’s “Smirnoff Ice” drinks, but doesn’t advertise actual Smirnoff vodka.

  6. “The distillers, of course, are saying that it’s just a great new product that combines new tastes for discerning customers. But it seems to me that this is a pretty transparent attempt to get people who normally don’t like whiskey to start chugging the stuff. It’s designed to cover up the edge or the bite of traditional whiskey, and before you know it, you’re face down on the pavement, perhaps covered in your own vomit.”

    And who would these people be? Teenagers, of course.”

    Your evidence for this supposition is what, exactly? (Sound of crickets chirping) Exactly.

    These products are priced at a premium to straight spirits, and the barnds of straight spirits in question are nowhere near the “value” tier of the market. There are scores of cheaper spirits beverages on the market that are cut with flavorings designed to make them sweeter. High school kids looking to get drunk on the sly are unlikely to shell out top dollar for name brand value-added products like these. Yuppies who like the image of drinking spirits but who don’t like the bite on the other hand are quite likely to buy this stuff.

    And besides which most people are aware of the fact that spirits can be mixed with stuff like Coke, 7-up, ginger ale, orange juice, etc. I’m afraid to break the news to you, but its been possible to get falling-down, toxic-level drunk without tasting the harsh bite of dark colored liquor for quite some time now.

    “The Roman Catholic hierarchy has happily thrown over its social justice teaching so it can go after Teh Gay”

    Bigoted and ill-informed*, but that’s par for the course on these pages.

    *Its a common belief among anti-Catholic types that the Church only cares about issues related homosexulaity, abortion, etc. In reality, its only when the Church speaks out on these issues that it shows up in the pages of the NYT (praised be its name). When the Church advocates forcefully for the rights of illeagal immigrants, the poor, the uninsured, etc. (as it does, day-in, day-out) it is greeted with a collective yawn by the media.

  7. Sure, sd. The Church cares deeply about the underprivileged, and it’s a liberal conspiracy to ignore this. Those damn liberals, placing their hatred of the Church over their interest in progressive legislation to help the underprivileged. Someone tell the late Ted Kennedy, John Kerry, Nancy Pelosi, etcetera.

    Meanwhile, back in the real world, the message was sent loud and clear a quarter century ago when Ratzi The Rhyming Slang was head of the Inquisition, and used that office to further JPII’s anti-communist agenda by systematically crushing advocates for Liberation Theology – that is to say, Catholic clergy who actually did care about the underprivileged. It was sent when Catholic bishops threatened to withhold communion from politicians for supporting abortion rights, but not over the death penalty, war, health care, or poverty.

  8. @Warren Terra — And of course, the President of the Conference of Catholic Bishops also recently wrote a letter to Paul Ryan congratulating him for his wonderful social justice budget: http://www.tnr.com/blog/jonathan-cohn/88767/catholic-bishops-ryan-budget-abortion-medicaid-poor. And they also opposed the Affordable Care Act because theoretically it would allow federal funds for abortion, even though it did no such thing and extends health care literally to millions of low-income Americans. Unfortunately, the “seamless garment” has been ripped to shreds.

  9. Meh. These products sound more like (nasty) cocktails in a bottle.

    Maybe there should be some regulation of products that combine stimulants with intoxicants. Because the stimulant keeps you awake long enough to drink enough to hurt yourself (even without a car). Otherwise, let the people drink what they want.

    Do we really want to see SWAT raids vs. parties that serve Honey Jack? Because in 21st century America, that’s where this would lead.

  10. Also too, while I’ve never had a bourbon slurpee, I have enjoyed smooth, icy mint juleps that came out of a frozen daquiri machine and were quite delicious.

    Shall we outlaw fruit-flavored schnapps and Long Island Iced Teas, also?

  11. As a wee lad, I remember Southern Comfort. Yuck! Thank G-d that my parents let me have nips of the real stuff every now and then, so I would never have a sugared drunk.

    As far as the RC hierarchy goes, I think that it is completely sincere about its economic message–no less sincere than it is about the gay/abortion. And its economic message is friendly to moderate lefties. However, it is very enthusiastic about the bedroom stuff, and pretty tepid about economic issues.

  12. Don’t know where you’ve been, but this is nothing new. Jack Daniels has sold cocktails pre-mixed with their whiskey such as Lynchburg Lemonade, Cranberry Jack, Blackberry Jack, etc. since at least the ’90’s. As others have mentioned, teens are an unlikely market for these, mostly because of the premium pricing. A teen that wants a cheap sweet drunk will pick up something like Boone’s Farm.

  13. Hi Jonathan: The drinking population that was the target audience for wine coolers and is also a primary one for many mixed, fruity drinks going back decades (e.g., the “Johnny Blaze”) is women, who tend to find the rawer tastes of alcohol more aversive. Young women’s drinking has skyrocketed over the last generation to come much closer in prevalence to young men’s.

    The frozen drinks issue adds another twist. In Louisiana, a drive through liquor store cannot sell a drink to a driver(only bottles) but a lobbyist got in an exception for frozen drinks, so you can get a margarita handed to you as your motor idles, and speed away onto the interstate.

  14. “And of course, the President of the Conference of Catholic Bishops also recently wrote a letter to Paul Ryan congratulating him for his wonderful social justice budget: http://www.tnr.com/blog/jonathan-cohn/88767/catholic-bishops-ryan-budget-abortion-medicaid-poor.”

    Nope – wrong on the facts. Archbiship Dolan did indeed write a letter to Paul Ryan. In the letter he praised Mr. Ryan’s stated concerns for Catholic social teaching before warning him sternly that rhetoric was no substitute for substance and then raising several serious concerns with the Ryan budget. Of course the USCCB in its official capacity had earlier issued a harsh condemnation of the Ryan budget. The TNR article you link to was wrong, as the extensive “update” section, in which the author more or less says “I don’t know what the hell I’m talking about,” would indicate.

    In a way I feel bad about taking this thread off topic. But I suppose when a post that is ostensibly about the marketing practices of large spirits distillers somehow finds a way to jab at the Church we’ve already entered bizaro world. Then again I suppose there are plenty of posts on paleoconservative blogs in which “The Jews” get trotted out in the closing lines, irrespective of the original topic. So its not that surprising to find similar tics on the other side of the aisle.

  15. In the letter he praised Mr. Ryan’s stated concerns for Catholic social teaching before warning him sternly that rhetoric was no substitute for substance and then raising several serious concerns with the Ryan budget.

    I just read the letter. If it’s not an example of the proverbial iron fist in a velvet glove, I don’t know what is.

    http://budget.house.gov/UploadedFiles/DolanResponsetoRyan5_18.pdf

  16. Why would you assume this was targeted at teens? How is this different than black cherry flavored vodka? Is that targeted at teens? Or Southern Comfort? How is this different from SoCo? Is SoCo targeted at teens?

    I suggest you stop and reflect a bit on the target for this drink. I’d wager the marketing gurus were targeting women, largely absent from the recent whiskey bubble. Just read the evidence.

    http://blogs.dallasobserver.com/cityofate/2009/02/burning_question_why_dont_wome.php

    http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/04/12/bourbon-women-whiskey_n_847444.html

    Coming out with this unhinged tirade about flavored whiskeys makes you look like and ass.

  17. I confess that the idea of a black cherry-flavored whiskey makes me shiver, and not with anticipation, but the principle of tempering the smart of the spirit with something sweet is not new. See Chapter 1 of Bill Rorabaugh’s “Alcoholic Republic” (1979) for a description of the ways our ancestors bent the elbow. Children were encouraged to drink the lees in their parent’s cups, often sweetened, so as to “inoculate” them against becoming drunkards later in life. Thus, whiskey-based cordials such as the ones from Beam and Daniels might be described, with tongue somewhere near the cheek, as temperance beverages.

    Well, maybe.

  18. Maybe someone put some of those drinks in Luongo’s water bottle.

    But seriously, I haven’t noticed sweet whiskey ads during the Stanley Cup. Just beer, cars, and Geico, as usual.

  19. “Oh — and now distilled spirits are advertised on television. Can’t have regulation or anything like that.”

    To be fair, the liquor industry itself placed a self-imposed ban on television sales for about the last two and a half decades. Note how long it has been since you saw a “Riunite on ice, that’s nice” commercial. I think they got a little tired of beer eating into the market share and decided, “hey, if no one else is going to be socially conscious, screw it.”

    Disclaimer: I do not work for and am not affiliated with any distillers. I am a fan, though.

  20. @sd — Until you’ve got a link for the USCCB’s supposed harsh condemnation of the Ryan budget, I’ll assume it’s just a figment of your imagination. I have been unable to locate any such document on the USCCB website. And if it does exist, then why would there be such a warning from Dolan if the USCCB has condemned it already? In any event, Cohn is right: the Ryan budget is so brutal to the poor than anything less than outright condemnation is essentially giving up on Catholic social teaching. To praise Ryan for mentioning it while ignoring to savage cuts to Medicaid in it shows that Dolan isn’t very interested in it. And apparently, neither are you. But thanks for playing.

  21. @Jonathan Zasloff:

    Here:

    http://www.usccb.org/sdwp/2012-Budget-Letter-to-House-04-13-11.pdf

    Took less than 5 minutes to find.

    Some highlights:

    “A central moral measure of any budget proposal is how it affects “the least of these”
    (Matthew 25). The needs of those who are hungry and homeless, without work or in
    poverty should come first.”

    “Government and other institutions have a shared responsibility to promote the common
    good of all, especially ordinary workers and families who struggle to live in dignity in
    difficult economic times.”

    “A just framework for future budgets cannot rely on
    disproportionate cuts in essential services to poor persons. It requires shared sacrifice by all,
    including raising adequate revenues, eliminating unnecessary military and other spending, and
    addressing the long-term costs of health insurance and retirement programs fairly.”

    “Access to affordable, life-affirming health care remains an urgent national priority. We are not
    opposed in principle to block grants, but fear that some proposed changes to Medicare and
    Medicaid could leave more elderly and poor people without the assurance of adequate and
    affordable health care.”

    “Medicaid block grants may offer states more flexibility, but could leave
    states with inadequate resources as costs grow or more people need health care in future
    recessions. Converting Medicare into a voucher program could shift rising health care costs to
    vulnerable seniors and those who are poor without controlling these costs.”

    “We also fear the
    human and social costs of substantial cuts to programs that serve families working to escape
    poverty, especially food and nutrition, child development and education, and affordable housing.”

    “International assistance is an essential tool to promote human life and dignity, advance solidarity
    with poorer nations, and enhance global security.”

    “We do
    not support the entire foreign operations budget, but we strongly support poverty-focused
    international assistance. A cut of this magnitude is likely to devastate poverty-focused efforts and
    the people who depend on them. We support continuing reform of foreign assistance to make it
    even more effective for the poorest people in the poorest places on earth.”

    “The proposal before the House raises important and
    substantive issues for discussion, and at the same time raises serious concerns about how it meets
    the criterion of adequately protecting poor and vulnerable people.”

    “The moral measure of this budget debate is not which party wins or which powerful interests
    prevail, but rather how those who are jobless, hungry, homeless or poor are treated. Their voices
    are too often missing in these debates, but they have the most compelling moral claim on our
    consciences and our common resources.”

    You continue:

    “And if it does exist, then why would there be such a warning from Dolan if the USCCB has condemned it already?”

    Heavens! A person makes a point that has already been made before! The novelty!

    “In any event, Cohn is right: the Ryan budget is so brutal to the poor than anything less than outright condemnation is essentially giving up on Catholic social teaching.”

    In other words – don’t pay attention to the fact that my earlier slander against Archbishop Dolan was complete wrong – I’m too busy moving the goal posts to pay attention to the trivialities of “realtity.”

    “To praise Ryan for mentioning it while ignoring to savage cuts to Medicaid in it shows that Dolan isn’t very interested in it.”

    The Dolan letter mentions the date and authorship of the April 13 letter I link to above – you knwo – the one you had a hard time tracking down (as well as a Januray letter from Dolan himself to all members of Congress outlining the same basic principles). In other words – “Thank you Mr. Ryan for your kind note and please refer to our earlier statements for our position on the matter.”

    Apparently you seem to be concerned that Archbishop Dolan and the USCCB are not being sufficiently nasty toward Mr. Ryan personally. This would be called “diplomacy,” which is a common stance taken by public figures whose statements actually have consequences in the non-blog world.

  22. I have one rabidly-libertarian neuron, the rest of my brain usually tries to shut it up. But in this case let’s have a go.

    This sounds like a problem that’s well suited to CAP AND TRADE regulation. The government decides that (say) 500 million gallons of alcohol can be sold in the US. That creates 500M permits. These get auctioned off publicly (once) and then get traded on the open market (thereafter). What’s the alcohol-maker’s incentive structure under these permits? The key thing is, you have no incentive towards raw volume sales any more. Merely recruiting a new customer is worthless—unless the customer is spending more (per ounce) on your product than they would have on the competitor who sold you the permit.

    It doesn’t put an end to marketing, targeting of teens, etc., but it puts a floor on the problem somewhere. If Smirnoff has found a way to sell a gallon of ethanol to a new-teenager-customer in the form of Smirnoff Ice … well, they have to buy a permit from the bargain-basement supplier who then simply *doesn’t* put out a product. The importer who was considering bringing in a containerload of Buckfast for a profit of $0.10/oz? Well, they’ll have to buy permits for that, and since Pabst values the permits at $0.30/oz, it’s probably not worth it.

    Details. I can imagine—and would want—an explicit exception for (e.g.) brewpubs and small wineries. I’d worry about big-brewery collusion and manipulation of the permit market; what would it be worth to InBev to just shut down Sam Adams for a few years? I’d worry about the regulatory/management burden on small businesses (Can a small family distillery actually enter the market without a team of lawyers? What does this look like to an expanding small business?). But compared to the current setup, where the health/safety costs of alcohol are an externality, it looks pretty good.

  23. Isn’t there, like, an amendment to the Constitution that gets in the way of your scheme?

  24. Brett: No. Are you thinking of the 21st amendment? Read it. All it does is repeal the 18th.

  25. @sd — If that’s the kind of letter that you regard as a harsh condemnation of a budget, then I’m glad you’re not an advocate for any group. And in any event it makes no mention of Ryan. My point about the warning was that it makes no sense to 1) “condemn” something; and then 2) praise someone’s commitment to social justice teaching while asking them to please follow up on it. It simply makes no logical sense. And since you are such an expert in nsvigating the USCCB’s web site, you might mention that all the very gentle reservations to vouchers and block grants have been removed in the subsequent May 5 letter. Real tough talk there, guys. Anyway, it’s very nice that the Bishops are being so “diplomatic”, as you say, while the poor whom they supposedly defend suffer. What is the CHurch’s position on the Ryan proposals? No one knows, and if the bishops (and presumably you) have it their way, no one will. But everyone knows they opposed the Afforable Care Act. Real concern for the poor and disenfranchised, that.

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