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Introducing American Whiskey to New, Younger Demographics

YCCI explores how memories, social occasions, out-of-the-box pairings, and functional merchandise play pivotal roles in engaging diverse new audiences further into whiskey consumption. 

If asked to conjure up an image of the quintessential “whiskey drinker,” who would come to mind? Might it be a figure the likes of Winston Churchill, Humphrey Bogart, or Ernest Hemingway? Traditionally, whiskey has been associated with older white men, but the tide is changing as companies today work to appeal to broader and younger demographics.

For some of the oldest brands in the category, building brand recognition and establishing a connection with younger consumers will be vital for continuous growth. Plus young consumers, especially those in the millennial and older Gen Z age groups, are known for their exploration of new and diverse alcoholic beverages. However, they often reach first for vodka, which is perceived by newer whiskey drinkers as smoother and more approachable than whiskey.

YCCI talked to a diverse set of young whiskey drinkers aged 21-44, including Hispanic, African American, and Caucasian consumers, to uncover the key occasions and choice heuristics shaping whiskey consumption. This research included an online ethnography, store intercepts, and interviews. Derived from these qualitative methods, The Center also conducted quantitative research via online surveys with over 1,000 responses.

From this research, the Center offers suggestions for building a deeper emotional connection and drive brand preference with new audiences.

Tapping Into Memories

Despite whiskey’s strong association with an older, white male demographic, YCCI found that among a younger generation of diverse consumers, there was a storehouse of positive memories associated with drinking whiskey in early adulthood. Rather than capitalizing on the nostalgia of a bygone era of macho whiskey drinking, brands might consider tapping into how the beverage plays into personal nostalgia.

More accessible whiskeys with a long history of availability and affordability are often associated with positive memories of youth. As a result, drinking whiskey can elicit feelings of youthful nostalgia. Advertising that showcased young people gathering and drinking received positive responses on the question of whether the featured whiskey was for “someone like me,” especially among African American respondents. Advertising showing an occasion like a global music festival increased some consumers’ likelihood to purchase by 20% over a more traditional whiskey ad, showing the distillery and statue of its founder.

Specific Social Occasions

Identifying new social occasions outside of the traditional, like parties or the cigar lounge, can be a way for brands to drive resonance with a new and diverse audience. It will be helpful to keep in mind that many of these occasions could also be tied into feelings of personal nostalgia.

One popular occasion for standard whiskey consumption was camping with friends, often as a way to re-capture memories of their youth. One interviewee noted, “We have nice times [at a cabin] with some of my married friends. Hanging out by the fire and drinking, taking shots. Pretend[ing] that we're 22.” The Center found that any messaging around camping did really well and increased the purchase likelihood, whether it mentions friends or sleeping under the stars or showed a cozy cabin.

Another occasion that resonated particularly well with Hispanic and African American consumers was the summer cookout. Interviewees said that whiskey was a natural pairing for the foods and social elements of a barbeque. Among some groups of consumers, messaging that included bringing family and friends together at a summer barbeque increased likelihood to purchase by 22%.

Other, more specific occasions may also play a role in speaking to new demographics. In interviews, YCCI found that in Latin cultures, whiskey is tied to remembrance of loved ones during celebrations like Dia De Los Muertos (The Day of the Dead). This celebration which honors people who have passed away, often features whiskey as part of an altar including things that the deceased enjoyed in life.

Out of the Box Pairings

In qualitative research, YCCI found that whiskey is enjoyed with heavy meals. Interviewees noted that foods like starches and steak stand up to the liquor. One participant mentioned, “I think with whiskey you have to have heavier meats. Bacon, steaks, if it's even chicken...hearty types.” With a heavy meal (steak & plantains), more people chose whiskey over beer to pair with their dinner. The same is true for just steak, but other lighter, foods such as tacos and salmon were not successful.

Another popular pairing that we found from our qualitative research was that of bourbon with
chocolate, especially among Hispanic and African American consumers. One interviewee noted she loves to pair whiskey with chocolate because it really brings out the different flavors and sweet notes. Between whiskey and beer, whiskey is a more popular pairing for chocolate, but when compared to wine, wine wins.

Some qualitative research found that pairing whiskey with another culturally significant beverage or snack could increase appeal. One successful test replaced a plastic bottle of Coca-Cola with a glass bottle of  Coca-Cola from Mexico, increasing by 15% the Hispanic response to the whiskey featured being for “someone like me.”

Functional Merchandise

For many participants the addition of a functional piece of merchandise can add an element of fun and novelty to the product, making it stand out on shelves and creating a unique unboxing experience. YCCI tested this with other whiskey products and found that functional products accompanying whiskey were well received.

In a test that compared a bottle of whiskey, and a bottle of whiskey alongside a branded shot glass, likelihood to purchase increased by 14% among African Americans. The portrayal of both a branded cloth bag and a leather carrying case also had a positive impact. The perceived functionality played an important role here, sweetening the deal so to speak.

Diverse groups are already whiskey drinkers. The question is: How can brands speak to the varieties of goals, and choice heuristics in order to bring them further into the fold? Considering the nuances around social situations and memories associated with whiskey drinking, as well as preferences for pairings and merchandise, might allow whiskey brands to become time-honored staples for a new generation.

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