Meticulous craftsmanship. Exquisite blend. Decadent. Prestige flavor profile. These are exact words and phrases from the announcement of a new, limited-edition 23-year-old super-premium whisky that hit store shelves this June, leading to inevitable whiskeyhead mania as hardcore fans of the brand flocked to scoop up the $250 release.
The limited-edition whisky is encased in a “bespoke golden bottle” within a collector’s box, a tantalizing clue as to the golden nectar contained within. Golden, as in the golden delicious apples with which Crown Royal Golden Apple is flavored. It’s an apple-flavored whisky and labeled as such, but one that is based on a blend of whiskies matured for more than two decades, cobbled together and brought to your neighborhood booze dispensary for a cool 250 bucks.
How do you like them apples?
Flavored Whisky Is a Numbers Game
Crown Royal doesn’t shy away from the fact that this is a, well, unusual offering. Golden Apple’s official product page tells us: “You’d never imagine that a high-end flavored whisky aged 23 years could be filled with such bold flavor. … But Crown Royal Golden Apple has rewritten the rules.” We’re instructed to enjoy it during “refined, high-energy celebrations,” and to drink it neat or on the rocks.
You may be wondering who the target market is for a $250 apple-flavored whisky, though. Crown diehards? Collectors who will never drink the juice either way? Folks who have entirely too much money to spend and don’t know what to do with it? Of course, if we’re being honest with ourselves, most “luxury” whiskey that arrives in fancy bottles and collector’s boxes may be targeting this consumer subset.
“Crown Royal Golden Apple is targeted towards spirits lovers who are open to experiencing whisky in a new and exciting way, this includes Crown super fans and whiskey aficionados alike,” says Tatiana Conti, Crown Royal’s vice president. “This new flavored whisky aims to challenge the norms of the prestige category by introducing an innovative blend of traditional whisky flavors with a unique twist.”
While Crown Royal might be offering a first-of-its-type flavored whiskey at this price point, it’s also following a well established trend: Flavored whiskey appeals to a much larger segment of the drinking public than you might like to admit, especially if you consider yourself a Very Serious Whiskey Drinker™.
Flavored whiskey accounted for 23 percent of total whiskey sales in the United States in 2022, according to IWSR Drinks Market Analysis. Allow that to seep in for a minute, the way a dose of flavored syrup may be seeping into a dram of your favorite spirit. This, like oh so many societal issues these days, is fairly unique to the modern American way of life, as IWSR indicates that the U.S. accounts for almost 80 percent of global flavored whiskey sales by volume. The premium end of that market has been growing the quickest, and projections point to that continuing in the future as well.
“It would have been much easier, and safer, for Crown Royal to take a younger-aged liquid and test the marketplace reaction but no, they took some of their oldest matured stocks and stuck a huge Canadian flag in the ground with this release,” says Ewan Morgan, a national luxury ambassador for Diageo, Crown Royal’s parent company.
While Golden Apple’s $250 price makes it an outlier, it’s not the only premium flavored whiskey available, a categorization that most marketing and data organizations set at a lower entry point than you might imagine, in the ballpark of $40 to $50, rather than $100 or more.
“Off-premise, this will sell out quickly; Crown Royal has an incredible following and their loyal fans flock to the special releases.”
Pernod Ricard acquired a majority stake in Skrewball Peanut Butter Whiskey in March, calling the product a super-premium flavored whiskey in its announcement. The sales figure was never disclosed, though the Jefferies Financial Group estimated a $200 to $300 million valuation. Last year, Campari acquired a 15 percent stake in Howler Head, a banana-flavored bourbon with UFC ties, for $15 million. So there’s no denying the fact that the major players believe flavored whiskey represents an enormous growth opportunity, and the numbers in terms of retail sales as well as brand acquisitions prove the point.
Meanwhile, according to fiscal figures released by Diageo in August, the conglomerate’s net sales increased for the prior year on the back of its super-premium brands. Yet, Crown Royal fell by about 6 percent. How do you course correct for that? You give consumers two of the things that they love at the same time: super-premium prices and flavored whiskey.
Is Flavored Whiskey Finding Its Super-Premium Footing?
Numbers and sales trends are one thing. Reactions of real world consumers and bartenders are another.
Mary Kelly, the former president of the D.C. chapter of the United States Bartenders Guild, gives the product her seal of approval. “The Golden Apple highlights the fruit, yet dials back its natural sweetness on the palate, letting it shine through on the noise, with the 23-year-old whisky offering a spicy backbone with hints of caramel, vanilla and toasted oak, making it a luxurious sip,” she says.
Most producers rightly say some variation of the line that their whiskey is already flavored — via its mashbill, its fermentation and distillation processes, the barrels they use, and so forth — and those flavors are the naturally occurring vanillas and spices and charred oak. But there’s a huge chunk of drinkers who just don’t care that much about all that noise. To them, a fun flavor is a fun flavor, regardless of its origin.
If whiskey drinkers on the whole have proven anything over the past several years, it’s that products perceived to be premium, and in particular those coming from a recognizable brand with clout, will indeed sell in droves. And if all news is good news, well then, here we are, talking about Crown Royal and its $250 flavored release. “Off-premise, this will sell out quickly; Crown Royal has an incredible following and their loyal fans flock to the special releases,” Kelly says.
As a brand ambassador, Morgan is nobody’s idea of an unbiased consumer, but rather than preaching to the choir, he’s seen some converts on the road with Crown Royal Golden Apple as well. “I’ve seen surprise from the industry ‘stalwarts’ who are typically staunch proponents of traditionalism when it comes to whiskey, who have genuinely enjoyed it very much,” he says.
“Our targeted consumers and whiskey connoisseurs alike have enthusiastically embraced the smooth finish and bold flavors that define Golden Apple, which challenged conventions and revolutionized the way we think about the prestige whiskey category,” Conti says. “Our liquid has been recognized and applauded widely by consumers and industry leaders, even earning an accolade in this year’s L.A. Spirit Awards.”
For what it’s worth, the whisky did indeed claim a silver medal at that particular competition. That doesn’t mean that everyone thinks this new Crown Royal release is all rays of sunshine and apple pie, though.
Danny Ronen of DC Spirits, a spirits education and consulting organization, sees something like Crown Royal Golden Apple as a challenging mix of product style and price point for the consumers he works with via cocktail subscription kit Shaker & Spoon. “I think flavored products can be great, they can be fun, festive, creative, and serve many purposes, including getting folks into a new spirit category, which I’m all for,” he says.
“I’d say why not, if it tastes good and the liquid is well made, then why shouldn’t Crown Royal usher in a new term or category that offers people more choice?”
However, Ronen says he’s looking for authentic flavoring that “tastes and smells like that thing,” so that if you’re tasting blind, you know what it is. He’s also interested in products whose pricing matches up to how you may want to play with it. An apple-tinged Old Fashioned or Manhattan — or how about a Diamondback, which has applejack alongside rye and Chartreuse — sounds like a great idea, but a $250 price point eliminates the possibility.
“With my Shaker & Spoon hat on, where we’re having conversations with tens of thousands of people every month, I have to think about the purpose of a flavored product,” Ronen says. “It’s hard to justify something that pricey as a flavored whisky.”
Of course, Crown Royal’s copywriting team already instructed us to drink it neat or on the rocks, during our refined, high-energy celebrations, rather than putting it to use in mixed drinks. Cocktails is not the market they’re trying to capture with a release like this. Consider the objection overruled, from the brand’s perspective.
Given the surge for flavored whiskey, and all things super premium, you should expect this to be more of an opening foray than a one-time only event. “I’d say why not, if it tastes good and the liquid is well made, then why shouldn’t Crown Royal usher in a new term or category that offers people more choice?” Morgan says. “I’ve been working in whisky for over three decades and can honestly say that this kind of bold innovation excites me, and I think it’s going to pave the way for fascinating and delicious new products that may never have left the blenders’ benches.”
Twenty-three-year-old golden delicious-flavored whisky is only step one. The sky’s the limit. How about a 25-year-old Madagascar vanilla whiskey, or a 28-year-old Alphonso mango whiskey? You can bet the mad scientists over at Crown are already concocting the next batches to come, though peach may be the next most likely candidate. “We will continue to bring forth flavor through our flavored series as we continue to see favorable feedback from our other liquids,” Conti says.
Someone call my assistant and tell him to schedule another refined, high-energy celebration for next Thursday. I have $250 burning a hole in my wallet and feel a good vibe coming on.