Cognac blended with moscato? Pink wine mixed with port? And how about a mashup of sparkling white wine and vodka? Hard liquor is showing a softer side as producers shake things up with new blends that put wine and spirits in the same bottle.
"Companies are going out of the box," observes Ted Carmon, spirits buyer for the BevMo! liquor chain.
There's no official category name so far -- Spirited wines? Laid-back liquors? -- but Carmon traces liquor's "anything goes" movement to Pinnacle Whipped, the wildly popular whipped-cream flavored vodka that came out a couple of years ago. "That really rewrote the rules on what kind of flavors could be used."
Bill Newlands, president of Beam Inc., which bought Pinnacle Vodka earlier this year, sees the intensely flavored Whipped as playing into a trend of consumers "whether it's an alcohol beverage or anything else, looking for more flavor reward." They're looking for two things, he says, "flavor and flavor intensity."
That quest influenced Beam's latest product, Courvoisier Gold, which blends French cognac with moscato wine from the South of France. Research indicated customers, particularly women, wanted a cognac with less alcohol but more flavor, and Gold answers on both counts coming in at 36 proof, or 18 percent alcohol by volume, well below the 40 percent (80 proof) of traditional cognac. Suggested retail for a 750-milliliter bottle is $24.99.
Gold follows last year's introduction of Courvoisier Rose, which blends cognac with French red wine grapes. Both blends can be drunk on the rocks or mixed into cocktails.
Gold and Rose are both grape-on-grape affairs since cognac, a type of brandy made in the Cognac wine region in France, is a distilled grape spirit.
But TUNE, a new product from ABSOLUT, goes in a different direction, blending grain-based vodka with a sparkling white wine, New Zealand sauvignon blanc to be precise. It comes in a Champagne-style bottle decorated with gold stars, swirls and other patterns which has an outer wrapper of silver, black and gold that "unzips" for presentation pizazz. TUNE, so named for the dual notes of vodka and wine, is 14 percent alcohol by volume and has a suggested retail of $31.99.
Another beverage taking a lighter touch is Croft Pink, which is a port (not a liquor but wine that's been fortified by addition of a spirit). Croft traces its roots to 1588, making classic ruby and tawny ports. Croft Pink is made from traditional port grapes but with light contact between the wine and the grape skins, resulting in a light ruby color. It was made with cocktails in mind to introduce port to a new audience. Alcohol content is 19.5 percent by volume, similar to traditional port. Suggested retail is $19.99 for a 750-milliliter bottle.
Lain Bradford, a South Carolina wine and spirits writer who blogs at winetalk.org, has noticed the blurring of the lines between wines and spirits, especially in restaurants, for instance margaritas made with fruit wine that's been flavored to taste like tequila. As for the flavored spirits trend, "It almost feels like the vodka producers are just walking down the grocery aisle and saying, 'Let's try this flavor,'" he says, noting that flavored rums and tequilas also are being introduced.
He sees the new spirit-wine products as tailored to Americans' fondness for all things sweet. "The sweet market has taken off so much. I think a lot of the spirit houses are capitalizing on the sweet market right now and introducing spirits with sweet wine to come out with drinks that will be a good crossover. It's a good way to bridge sweet wine drinkers with new spirits and the classic spirits."