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At a recent get-together, everyone was asked to bring a bottle of bourbon - or any whiskey for that matter. Being a group that frequently drinks bourbon together, people were comfortable bringing some of their better bottles along knowing no one would overindulge. As the bottles started to fill the table, a curious situation started to unfold. One by one, each bottle was from a major distillery without a craft or small brand bottle in sight. Being someone that is exposed to a wide range of whiskeys, I brought something off the beaten path that I deemed to be worthy of the group's attention. While I didn’t go out of my way to sell the bottle I brought in any particular showmanship way, I left it to speak for itself. As the night unfolded and bottle levels dropped, my bottle remained the least touched. This event made me wonder if bourbon has a small brand problem. In a setting of like-minded whiskey drinkers, where money wasn’t involved, the least known bottle of the group sat, untouched, and unloved.

It’s hard to believe bourbon has a small brand problem with the constant influx of new blood in the market. Perhaps it's wishful thinking on their part that a small distillery brand will be the next one to strike gold with consumers. With so many new brands jumping in the proverbial bourbon pool, they must know something the consumer base as a whole doesn’t know…right?

One common way for liquor store owners to stand out from the pack is to carry a wide breadth of bourbon brands with the goal of their store becoming a destination for bourbon consumers. But many store owners often say that outside the initial curiosity a new brand on the shelf creates, they get quickly forgotten about and the stock sits collecting dust. It’s not unlike when a new restaurant opens and everyone is curious to try it out, only to never make the same effort to return again.

Speaking with these liquor store owners, they say getting customers to try anything beyond the major distilleries is quickly becoming not worth the effort it takes. We see it on Breaking Bourbon too. We do our best to cover a wide range of releases, everything from the latest major distillery, to maturing craft distilleries, to the local bourbon that can’t be found outside of the particular state it's made in. But more often than not, if it’s not from a major distillery, people don’t seem to care in large numbers.

While that isn’t true for everyone and every brand, the broad strokes paint this unfortunate picture and it’s concerning. A lot of the real creative growth within bourbon and the larger American whiskey space is from craft distilleries both new and old, big and small. Bourbon will remain stagnant, both financially and creatively if consumers only care about obtaining a bottle of Blanton’s. The sense of exploration within the bourbon drinking community just doesn’t appear to be there. If true, how did we get to this point? It appears to be an overlapping and entwined set of developments which lead to more people gravitating to Elmer T. Lee, Elijah Craig, and Evan Williams, over Samual Maverick, Ben Holliday, and Carl T. Huber.

There are a few major areas that might have led to consumer mentality getting to this point:

Lack of trust

The last decade has been a laborious and tumultuous one for both small brand distilleries and their customers. The rapid rise in bourbon’s popularity meant many craft distilleries had to play catch-up, forgoing a proper slow and steady growing and learning period they would have otherwise had. As bourbon grew, consumers looked to alternatives to the major distilleries and craft distilleries were there to offer them just that. The problem was they were often underaged and underdeveloped, leaving a literal bad taste in people’s mouths. Despite the excellent output many craft distilleries offer to consumers now, they continue to fight the ghosts of their not-so-distant past. Sometimes first impressions really are everything.  

Lack of access

Distribution still plays a huge role in how effectively a brand can grow. Given the complex web of state laws, shipping regulations, and overly complicated distributor systems, getting a brand off the ground, let alone into a number of states for sale is a daunting task. Even with the ubiquity of online shopping, shipping alcohol is as archaic as ever (although slowly improving). Breaking Bourbon can sing the praises of “Brand X” all we want, but if you live in a control state and the state doesn’t carry that specific brand, good luck getting it.

Lack of knowledge

There’s nothing more daunting to consumers who walk over to a store’s bourbon section and are confronted with a wall of choices. Without the proper understanding of what they’re looking at, it can all blend together. The information on a bottle can (sometimes) be useful, but without understanding keywords, it's hard to know what is fact and what is smoke and mirrors. Not everyone has the time or interest level to commit to reading about bourbon in their free time. With the flood of whiskey on store shelves, how does one choose?

Lack of familiarity

Spawning out of lack of knowledge is the importance of familiarity. Big brands are safe. Familiarity breeds trust. That’s why people eat at Applebees and Mcdonald's. The same goes for bourbon. Buffalo Trace, Four Roses, Wild Turkey, Old Forester, Heaven Hill, and so on are reliable and hard to beat quality-wise when shooting in the dark. These companies have also been around for a long time, and this familiarity often equates to trust then and a perceived inherent quality. People like familiarity and to play it safe.  

High price

Small brand whiskey in almost every instance costs more to produce and therefore costs the consumer more to buy. These small-scale distilleries aren’t producing the volume the major distilleries are and therefore are forced to charge more. Although the gap has been closing over the last few years, it still remains. In 2022, with inflation and everything in general costing more, $5-$10 or more for a bottle of unfamiliar craft whiskey can be a dealbreaker for more whiskey drinkers than it has ever been.

Too many choices

Options are great, but they can also be paralyzing. There are more options for bourbon than there ever has been in the history of bourbon, and that results in difficult, potentially impossible decision-making for people. With stores trying to cater to bourbon’s popularity, they bring on more products, leaving the customer with analysis paralysis. If they don’t have time to check Breaking Bourbon or flag down a store employee for help, it's easiest to retreat to a familiar, cheaper big brand.

Lack of marketing

Pepsi and Coca-Cola spend billions on advertising each year to keep their brand name fresh in the minds of consumers. The same mindset goes for major Kentucky distilleries. If a brand isn’t one of the first brands that comes to mind when thinking about bourbon, you’re less likely to grab a bottle of their bourbon over one you remember. Small brands can’t compete on this playing field and are already at a disadvantage the second a customer glances at a store shelf.

Lack of hype

Consumer marketing is fueled by hype. When a major distillery releases a limited product, there’s instant hype for it. Small brands don’t exhibit the same effect on consumers. Some cult brands or grass root distilleries manage pockets of their own hype regarding their releases, but hype drives excitement, which drives sales. Plenty of small brands offer limited releases, but they don’t hit anywhere as hard as big brands’ limited releases do.

Surface level interest

Perhaps small brands struggle simply because the majority of consumers just aren’t that into bourbon. They may have an ever-growing collection of bottles, but adding an unknown small brand bottle of bourbon next to their Pappy’s just doesn’t hold the same esteem. Being in the know and introducing your drinking pals to an amazing small brand that no one knows about is fun, but that takes work, and not everyone that just wants to drink great bourbon is into doing work.

Fear of Commitment

While large whiskey collections are en vogue, many consumers keep their collections to just 1-3 bottles at a time and only buy a bottle a few times a year. A combination of both lack of familiarity and high price, many consumers fear that they’ll end up buying a bottle that they won’t end up liking. They’ll now be forced to drink something down that they don’t like before they can justify going out and buying another bottle of bourbon. Not only will they avoid that brand, but they may avoid all craft in general from now on based on that one bad experience.

Certainly, bourbon is at no risk of failing anytime soon. There are always going to be big companies that dominate any product type and whiskey is no exception. The whiskey business and their consumers are better off if both their products and consumer base are equally diverse. So during this year’s holiday office parties, family get-togethers, and gathering with close friends, bring along a wild card. Plop down a bottle you’ve never had and work together to taste it and figure it out together. You’ll have a much better time talking about what works and what doesn’t while you Google the distillery and read more information about the bottle on Breaking Bourbon. By taking a risk, going outside your comfort zone, and doing some work (at least the drinking kind), you’ll learn and familiarize yourself with more brands. That’s the kind of work most people can get behind.

Written By: Eric Hasman

December 2, 2022
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Does Bourbon Have a Small Brand Problem?
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