Embracing Flavor-ization

Remember “Snapple-ization”? For a while in the 1990s it was the pejorative du jour in marketing, denoting a seemingly random proliferation of flavors that creates enormous retail clutter and consumer confusion in the dubious quest for novelty. Never mind that many of those extensions proved quite durable, or that the Snapple folks were careful to prune fading flavors that weren’t carrying their weight. Still, the very existence of the term implied there must be a problem out there worth combating. These days, however, Snapple-ization no longer is seen as a bogeyman, and not just because of the waning influence of Snapple itself. Rather, all the recent talk of high-end niches, mass customization and long-tail distributions has brought home the notion that choice, fundamentally, is a good thing, and that the market is the best arbiter of which innovations are valuable and which aren’t.

Still, that principle can be hard to accept for extensions that aren’t rooted in any sort of tradition of flavor experimentation (as with candy or ice cream). Since bottled iced tea burst on the scene as a new phenomenon, Snapple had plenty of latitude to experiment. But how about that avalanche of flavored spirits we’ve been seeing? By now, of course, we’re used to endless vodka flavors, and other white spirits like rum have followed closely behind. Lately, the phenomenon is infiltrating other segments, from Scotch whisky, with its variety of arcane barrel finishes, to tequila, where after decades of a narrowly defined tequila-ness, a brand like Jose Cuervo now offers us Oranjo, Citrico and Tropina flavors.

It’s no surprise what’s driving the activity: a quest for greater shelf space, new cues that might pull in consumers who have proved previously resistant to the category, greater creativity in concocting intriguing cocktails. They’re devilishly accessible: while something inside me still resists the necessity of flavored tequilas, even though the Cuervo flavor I’ve tasted, Citrico, actually was pretty good.

How do the experts feel? I checked in with Tonya LeNell Smothers, of the remarkable LeNell’s wine and spirits boutique in Redhook, Brooklyn. Since the joint is only 500 square feet, LeNell certainly has no need of 30 different flavors of a given spirit to fill up her shelves, nor is she ever lacking in more tradition-bound rarities to keep her customers’ interest stoked. Yet she’s unequivocal on the matter. “Choice is always good,” she declared. “There’s always been novelty products. They either have a flash and die out or somehow, if they are lucky, become a part of our iconography. Marketing can definitely influence what folks think is worth drinking, but I believe that in the end only the strong survive.”

In other words, let the market dictate the winners. So bring ’em on! Traditionalist as I am in Scotch whisky, I will confess to being enamored of some of the experiments in barrel finishes, which are partly intended to evoke the qualities of wine and hence draw in new consumers, particularly females. How can one resist Bruichladdich Flirtation? Sure, its 20-year maturation in Bourbon barrels and then Mouvedre wine casks sounds finicky, but you can’t argue with the result. (Okay, you can argue with the $200 a bottle price.) Smothers says she has a soft spot for the Buffalo Trace Experimental Collection (four bourbons aged in French oak barrels and the like). At the same time, the Phillips Union line of whiskeys in regular, vanilla and cherry flavors drew a thumbs down from LeNell and her patrons at a recent in-store tasting – too sweet. (Though maybe not too sweet for the cosmo crowd at which it’s clearly targeted?)

If you’re still not convinced that this is a healthy trend, consider a couple of elements of tradition that do support the rabid experimentation. For one, recent years’ mixologist-ashero stories have highlighted one of the pros’ favorite at-home pastimes: infusing spirits with anything from tropical fruits to Earl Grey tea. Hey, you never know! Or consider this: by now, it’s hard to question the bona fides of that quintessential American spirit, Southern Comfort. Which, from what I can tell, is really peachflavored bourbon.