The Rise Of Spicy Whiskey

From Red Stag to Kentucky Fire, old-school whiskey companies are betting big on Americans getting spicy. 

It’s no secret; Bourbon is back. Bourbon production has grown by more than 150% in the last decade and Kentucky is home to more aging bourbon barrels now than any time since the late 1970’s. With Fireball Cinnamon Whiskey becoming ubiquitous in bars the world over, Jim Beam, Wild Turkey, and Jack Daniel’s have released their own spicy bourbons this year, with fitting names like Kentucky Fire and American Honey Sting.

While these twists on old standards might be new, flavored bourbon has been around for decades. As Wild Turkey Distiller Eddie Russell explained, Wild Turkey has been making American Honey (sans sting) since the 1970’s.

“My father, Jimmy Russell, created it back in 1976 for my mother and other women who felt Wild Turkey was too strong a drink for them,” Russell told Maxim. Russell attributes the rise in flavored whiskey to changing palettes. “Spicy products like hot sauces and salsas are also extremely popular right now, so we wanted to see what would happen if we combined the sweetness of American Honey with something spicy for a totally new flavored-Bourbon experience.”

And so American Honey Sting was born. The company tried out several different peppers, but the flavor profile of the ghost pepper gave them the best results. “There’s just something about it that really meshed well with honey and Wild Turkey.”

Russell explained that consumer demand is exactly what’s fueling the category. “It’s just become this phenomena,” says Russell. “You’d be hard pressed to find a bar in America where people aren’t ordering shots of spicy whiskey. The consumers just can’t get enough of it.”

The craze has spread throughout the industry. “The flavored whiskey category is exploding, and based on the success of our Jack Daniel’s Tennessee Honey, we thought the time was right to offer our Jack Daniel’s Old No. 7 whiskey with the heat and spice of our own red hot cinnamon liqueur,” said Casey Nelson, senior brand manager for Jack Daniel’s flavor portfolio. Jack Daniel’s joined the party by combining its whiskey with liqueur to create Tennessee Fire. 

Fred Noe, a seventh generation Jim Beam Master Distiller, has been in the flavored whiskey game before — Jim Beam Kentucky Fire is already the company’s third flavored whiskey. “We recognized that the rich spicy flavor of cinnamon is a natural complement to Kentucky Straight Bourbon, but hadn’t seen a bourbon that offered this taste profile, so we felt that the time was right to pair the taste of cinnamon with the world’s finest whiskey,” Noe told Maxim.

Noe credits the popularity of spicy foods for translating into increased interest in spicy cocktails. “We take pride in our heritage, but also in our innovations and the focus we place on listening to bartenders,” Noe said. He heard bartenders’ desire for a cinnamon whiskey with a more robust taste profile, prompting his company to create Kentucky Fire.

Whiskey and bourbon makers are betting heavily on Americans continuing to desire spicy flavors, looking past the ol’ hat regular whiskey and trying for more of an exotic taste. Here’s hoping that Americans don’t wake up with a cinnamon-flavored hangover, with thousands of barrels of spicy bourbon still on their way.