What does the world need more of? An idealist might respond with something lofty, like “peace” or “consciousness.” More tactical types would wish for holistic solutions to the climate crisis, or at least better allocations of resources for all the refugees it’s producing. These are all good enough answers, but they’re also boring and unrealistic because the forces of global capital that operate with near impunity across space and time are aligned against that sort of thing. Those forces will never willingly give the world what it needs for reasons that exceed the limitations of this column. But every once in a while the existential capitalist scramble to sell us new sh*t, different sh*t, more sh*t will give us something that we didn’t even realize we wanted.
I’m talking, of course, about Arby’s French fry vodka.
In November 2021, the meat-havers behind the national fast-food sandwich chain teamed up with Minneapolis’s Tattersall Distillery to produce a pair of potato spirits with various spices meant to mimic the flavor profiles of their crinkle-cut and curly fries. Despite no one in the history of language ever saying “I’d like to buy French fry vodka, like, for money,” the tuber-based tipple sold out with the quickness.
“It was just immediate,” says Jon Kreidler, co-founder and chief officer of Tattersall, describing the demand for the collaborative spud spirit. “It just blew up.”
That a fast-food–focused vodka would resonate with the contemporary American drinking public is one of those ideas that seems reasonable at first glance but becomes utterly baffling the more you think about it. People love [Brand], people love [type of alcohol], so naturally, people love… [Brand] + [type of alcohol]? Hmm. Something doesn’t quite add up, and yet many non-alcoholic brands across the quick-serve restaurant and consumer packaged goods markets in particular have proved out the equation repeatedly in the past few years. Blame the media, or social media, or capitalism if you must. But one thing is for sure: From Grey Poupon’s “La Moutarde Vin,” and Oskar Blues’ mustard beer with French’s, to the red blend foisted upon supermarket shelves by Barefoot Wine and Oreo Thins, The Brands are very much at it again, and at the moment, bizarre booze is the order of the day.
Why? Well… why not? “You’re starting to see all these [crossover products] that don’t make sense,” Andrea Hernández, the founder of the popular consumer packaged goods newsletter Snaxshot, tells me. “But do they have to make sense?” If your French fry vodka is predominantly a vodka, yes, probably, sense would be good. But if your vodka is first and foremost a marketing campaign for the French fry company? It’s chaotic and weird, sure. But as Hernández puts it, “Anything that’s coherent, it’s off the table.”
On ‘Alco-llaborations’ and Media Fascination
Before we get into how the co-branded booze gimmick grist gets milled, how it works for the participating firms, and why, exactly, American drinkers remain so damn thirsty for it, a brief definition of terms is in order. There are all sorts of brand partnerships out there in the vast and thrilling American alcohol marketplace, but most of them are not the subject of our interest here. Today we’re focusing on collaborative co-branding between a) a brand that doesn’t sell alcohol; and b) a brand that does sell alcohol; on something that is, in fact, alcohol. Let’s christen this cohort the pseudo-category of “alco-llaborations.”
The most important thing to understand is that every alco-llaboration exists primarily for you to notice its existence. For this reason they are mostly insufferable. On grounds of compositional impurity, I have no problem with these oddball concoctions: The Reinheitsgebot can Reinheits-get bent, as far as I’m concerned, and the same goes for the unbearable preciousness that still swirls around American wine and cocktail conversations even to this day. In fact, if there’s anything we can wholly appreciate about the category, it’s that these franken-booze partnerships tend to demonstrate just how meaningless, even repellent, that sort of fastidious posturing is to the rank-and-file drinker. It’s no fun, or at least not as much fun as French fry vodka marketed under the insignia of the country’s preeminent roast beefery.
Kreidler — whose team at Tattersall counts among its many accolades a pair of Double Gold medals from the San Francisco Spirits Awards and a Best In Class designation from the American Craft Spirits Awards — agrees. “Sometimes, and the past two years in particular, you need to have some fun and goof off a bit, show people that you don’t take yourself too seriously,” he tells VinePair. “Just watching the social media numbers go insane, and how strong people’s emotion[al reactions] were … I just had fun with it.”
But while a successful stunt booze with real bite can be a lark for both consumer and producer — to say nothing of Arby’s, which did not respond to a request to comment for this story — it also reveals how easily gimmicky marketing campaigns are laundered into #content. For better or worse, novelty is the coin of the realm on social media, and despite the half-decade media outlets have spent weaning themselves off Facebook et al. after getting repeatedly burned by algorithmic shifts and the infamous, failed pivot to video, finding flotsam that will “play well on social” remains a matter of begrudging survival for many publications, particularly those that do food and drink coverage. With grabby household names, slick, ready-to-post photo “assets,” and seemingly incongruous flavor combinations, ad agencies and marketing firms are able to precision-optimize alco-llaborations for publishers in need of viral fodder. (Ahem.)
Stunty marketing activations that exploit structural weaknesses in our decaying media ecosystem for headlines aren’t the sole purview of beverage alcohol, as projects like Kentucky Fried Crocs, Taco Bell x Forever 21, and McDonald’s “Rick & Morty” Szechuan sauce ably demonstrate. (See also: Supreme’s entire existence.) But booze makes a particularly good foil for nonalcoholic brands looking to boost themselves into more oddball conversations. It can lend an illicit edge to boring products, and cast familiar staples in unfamiliar new light.
Take Lay’s vodka, a late-2021 alco-llaboration between Oregon’s Eastside Distilling and Frito-Lay. “If you’re a brand like Lay’s, the challenge today is: How do you get people talking about your brand?” says Tim Calkins, clinical professor of marketing and associate marketing chair at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management. (Eastside and Lays both declined to comment on the project.) “The world of marketing has changed so much, and you can no longer rely on paid advertising to reach people. You’ve got to find different ways to keep your brand top of mind. … An unexpected partnership like Lay’s vodka get[s] people thinking about your brand, and talking about your brand in a way that they never would have.”
Those conversations are typically spurred by editorial coverage from lifestyle publications, which amplify and validate the projects by virtue of presenting them to their audiences as “stories.” This is earned media, in the jargon, and true to its name, brands don’t pay for it. Sponsored content, traditional advertising, and owned media (messaging that they pay employees to put out via branded social channels, newsletters, etc.) for a big national campaign cost beaucoup bucks, and for a product as boring as potato chips, there’s no guarantee any of that even moves the needle. By contrast, free editorial coverage is: free beyond the one-time costs of producing the stunt booze and corresponding collateral, which brands love; can spark organic user-generated social chatter, which brands love; and comes with the implied imprimatur of the publication itself. Which, you guessed it: brands love.
“Editorial content today still has that powerful third-[party] endorsement because you’re not paying for it,” says Mark Beal, a professor at Rutgers University’s School of Communication and Information and a PR and marketing veteran. “So whether it’s Thrillist or The New York Times or whatever outlet, they’re endorsing, so to speak, this product, this story, this news, this collaboration, and it’s not being paid for.” Pass the potato vodka, baby.
‘Who’s the more motivated partner?’
A reasonable question to ask when encountering an unusual collision of mass-produced foodstuffs and alcoholic drink is how, exactly, it came to be. What is the Dewgarita’s Red Lobster origin story? Has Taco Bell’s “Jalapeño Noir” considered its relationship to the Creator? Sour Warheads hard seltzer… in what sense? These aren’t always easy questions to answer, not least because the parties to alco-llaborations like to make the products they produce seem like organic expressions of the zeitgeist rather than the carefully choreographed marketing campaigns that they actually are.
These are business deals first and foremost, so you can assume that each partner is entering the game with an eye on costs and benefits. Money may change hands, but if it does, and in which direction, varies from deal to deal. “If you take the combination of Barefoot wine and Oreo, the question you might ask is, ‘Well, who’s paying?’” says Calkins. (Neither E. & J. Gallo, which owns Barefoot, nor Mondelēz, which owns Oreo, responded to requests for comment for this story.) “Is Barefoot paying Oreo? Is Oreo paying Barefoot? It gets to [the question of] who’s the more motivated partner?”
Beal lays out a typical calculus, riffing on a classroom discussion in 2020 where he examined the Dewgarita project in real-time with his students. “I see this driving younger audiences, legal- drinking-age audiences, to Red Lobster, which is a huge benefit,” he says. “When you look at it from the Mountain Dew standpoint … all of a sudden, you’re in thousands and thousands of Red Lobsters, and maybe before you weren’t in any of them.” Indeed, the electric-green stunt cocktail was created to mark a new corporate partnership between Mountain Dew’s parent, PepsiCo, and Red Lobster, which had previously been a Coca-Cola house. The deal put the Dewgarita on the timeline, but crucially, it also put Pepsi’s portfolio on the full-service restaurant’s menus nationwide.
“There’s always that element, the sales element or the distribution element,” says Beal, who has written two books on marketing to Gen Z consumers. “Even if the brands are completely different categories or personas … those are all things that these brands are looking at” when assessing a deal’s potential.
Beverages, brand fit, and business development
The calculus shifts depending on partners’ brand strengths relative to one another, but also based on what each wants or needs out of the project. The Barefoot x Oreos Thins red blend, Beal says, is probably best understood as complementary (ish) CPGs embracing cross-selling potential to turn the heads of America’s wine moms.
“You have to think of Oreo Thins as a completely separate brand than just the traditional Oreos,” he says, hypothesizing that the line extension customer probably skews older and drinks more wine than the main brand. “If Barefoot is a brand they drink, now you’ve actually created a business case, where it’s more than just a stunt. … Now all of a sudden [customers] are eating them while sipping their wine.” If it sells more wine and cookies, that’s great; if not, there’s all that sweet, sweet earned media to fall back on anyway.
In the case of the French fry vodka, Arby’s wanted novelty booze for a marketing stunt, and Tattersall specifically, and Kreidler knew the folks at the QSR company’s ad agency. “They brought this idea to us because they knew we could get creative and be nimble enough to pull this off,” he says. “Essentially, they contracted us to make a spirit for [Arby’s], but it’s weird because the way that spirits work, they don’t really pay us directly. We still have to sell it through a distributor through retail customers. So it was basically a consulting fee that the agency pays” in exchange for Tattersall to then develop the French fry vodka, which Kreidler says unfolded with “a lot of back and forth” between agency, distillery, and chain. “As goofy as this product was, we actually put a good amount of time into the making of it, and it turned out to actually be really pretty good.”
(For its part, Arby’s issued a press release timed with the vodkas’ retail debut in which marketing officer Patrick Schwing celebrated the collaboration as an opportunity for the chain’s fans to “enjoy our menu from bag to bottle.” )
In the case of a smaller partner with less of a household name, like Tattersall — or Portland’s Eastside Distilling in the case of the Lay’s partnership — the money might be less valuable than the business development opportunities that the alco-llaboration brings to the table. “It opened people up to us,” Kreidler says. “We’re actually launching in Michigan this coming month [with a new wholesaler], and initial conversations on that definitely stemmed from the Arby’s news and that release.” For four years, Tattersall had been exploring ways to bring its spirits portfolio to its hard-drinking neighbors in the Wolverine State, from which it already sourced some of its ingredients. But it was the French fry vodka that made everything fall into place. “That one was pretty significant for us,” Kreidler says, adding that other distributors from all over the country had called the Minneapolis firm to inquire how they could get their hands on the fast-food–flavored liquor.
The thing was, they couldn’t, not really. Tattersall only produced about 100 cases of the two vodkas. The product wasn’t a spoof per se, but it was made in such a vanishingly small quantity compared to the national scope of the campaign that from the average drinker’s perspective, it may as well have been. This isn’t unusual, says Calkins. “Many of these are just tiny production runs” where the sales revenue is dramatically less important, or even irrelevant, he says. “It’s really about marketing impact.”
‘Sh*tposting and chaotic vibes’
If it seems counterintuitive to develop a red-hot product just to sell out of it immediately, it is — if you’re still thinking about alco-llaborations as products. But you really shouldn’t be, because these CPG brand mash-ups are built for the attention economy first, and the actual “stock-this-product-on-a-shelf-so-people-can-buy-it-IRL” economy second (if at all.) “These combinations are just press,” muses Hernández, a 2022 VinePair 50 honoree. Whether drinkers lay hands on an alco-llaboration, or like it if they do, is less meaningful than the fact that the gimmick seeds the participating brands in their consumer subconscious. “It’s just gonna be like a Trojan horse kind of purchase,” something that sneaks into your shopping cart out of curiosity, she says. “So it’s a limited drop, and that’s it. That’s the depth of it.”
I agree: Sometimes a French fry vodka is just a French fry vodka. The product is ephemeral and incidental. But I think alco-collaboration as a strategy has more dimension, and Hernandez, who has carved out a niche as a talented forecaster in the CPG space, seems to agree. With these collaborations, she says, brands are “allowing themselves to kind of test the waters. Millennials are already so old. We have Gen Z and Gen Alpha, in three years they’re going to be in their teens. I feel like these are the moments where you have to start testing what fits with more of a younger demographic. Sh*tposting and chaotic vibes and sort of like counterculture sh*t, … those things are appealing to a younger audience.”
In other words, in scrambling to sell us more sh*t, the brands have embraced the sh*tpost, and alco-collaborations are but one boozy iteration thereof.