How We Learned to Stop Worrying and Embrace Flavored Whiskey

Jasjyot Singh Hans
Jasjyot Singh Hans

The list of great things about whiskey is longer than the leather-bound menu at your average craft whiskey bar. Whiskey’s the best. And while the list of not-so-great things about it could fit on a Post-It note, there’s no doubt about what goes at the top of it (and it also happens to relate to leather-bound menus): it’s the occasional snobbery of hardcore whiskey devotees.

Every so often, someone needs to stick a bullhorn into the great hall of whiskey culture and let loose a hearty, “Lighten up, people!” After all, this is the stuff that came into this world as aqua vitae—water of life—and for much of its early history was distilled in homes and farms and was definitely the drink of the people. Why does it have to be all ivory tower now? Answer: it doesn’t! Whiskey can—and should—be for everyone. It can be highbrow, lowbrow and everything in between.

Which brings us to flavored whiskey, a burgeoning part of the category that’s often looked down upon by the whiskey nerds in the room. It’s time to embrace flavored whiskey in a full bearhug, whiskey snobs—even if it means staining the lapel of your tweed jacket with cherry-infused bourbon. We changed our tune on it, and here are four reasons why you should, too:

Jasjyot Singh Hans

It’s a gateway to the category: Talk to any industry veteran, and they’ll tell you that flavored whiskey is “encouraging trial in the category, and welcoming consumers through an approachable way to try the product,” as one whiskey executive told Beverage Wholesaler last year. And it’s working—both whiskey in general and flavored whiskey in particular are booming. In 2012, nearly 75% of whiskey’s growth was due to flavored whiskies. Today, the third most popular whiskey, period, is a flavored whiskey, and the flavored stuff is very popular with millennial drinkers, drawing young people into the category and ensuring a healthy future for it. It’s also attracting women drinkers, who made up just 15% of the whiskey crowd in 1990, but accounted for 37% if it by 2014. And again, many of them—though certainly not all— are drawn into the category by tasty, approachable, flavored whiskey.

Jasjyot Singh Hans

It’s stepped up its game in the past five years or so: Speaking of that tastiness, flavored whiskey has probably changed since you last checked. Treacly concoctions that neglect the “whiskey” part of the equation now take a back seat to dozens of varieties produced with genuine craft and all-natural ingredients. And there’s no shortage of history to that craft, btw: Flavored whiskey is not a new phenomenon, born of crass marketing. It predates Prohibition, and in the 19th century, whiskey routinely had its rougher edges taken off with the infusion of fruit juices and other flavors. Today, with the benefit of modern methods and gear, distillers are producing a dizzying array of quality flavored whiskies, including ginger, honey, apple, vanilla, chocolate, blackberry, pumpkin spice (natch), and many more.

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Courtesy of Crown Royal

Flavored whiskey has attracted legions of new drinkers to the whiskey category in recent years, and that can only be good. And when it comes to flavored whiskey, Crown Royal brings nearly a century of craftsmanship to the table. Crown Royal Vanilla is a thoughtfully chosen blend of Canadian whiskies infused with Madagascar Bourbon Vanilla for a smoothly balanced spirit that lives up to the Crown Royal legacy.

It’s—gasp—fun and approachable: As mentioned, snobbery occasionally rears its monocle-wearing head among hardcore whiskey folks, and this kind of thing is never good for the long-term health of… anything. Flavored whiskey is accessible, and that’s not a bad thing. It’s also fun, which, hey, sorry to take the show out of the museum, but isn’t that the whole point? Pre-produced flavored whiskey can provide a shortcut to a quality cocktail, or, in some cases, it can be a cocktail in a bottle. Sometimes convenience is a beautiful thing. You can drink it straight, on the rocks, or you can mix it into the craft cocktail of your choice. And speaking of cocktails, what is a whiskey cocktail but… flavored whiskey?

There will never be a “birthday cake” flavored whiskey: Unlike vodka, the spirit that made a special kind of drinks history with the introduction of that particular flavor, whiskey has too much personality to be completely obscured by flavoring. Most producers look for ingredients and flavors that will complement the whiskey, not drown it out, or replace it altogether. This element is definitely on that long list of great things about whiskey: it has so much unique character on its own that it has a built-in safeguard against the flavoring trend going off the rails.

So relax, whiskey purists. Nothing's going to mess up whiskey, because that's pretty much impossible. And flavored whiskey is good for the health of whiskey in general. Embrace it, explore it; chances are, you'll be pleasantly surprised at what you find.