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Country Artists Take a Shine to the Whiskey Business — But the Pairings Aren’t Foolproof

The attrition rate — of new alcohol products, as well as celebrity deals — is one factor that bottlers and distillers are forced to consider in advance.

It’s one thing to make music that lifts spirits; it’s another to enter the spirits industry.

At least a dozen country acts have tried their hand at a signature whiskey in recent years, with Alan Jackson’s Silverbelly hitting shelves in Nashville on June 30 in the latest iteration of the trend.

John Rich’s Redneck Riviera, Jason Aldean’s Wolf Moon, Jon Pardi’s Pardi Batch and Whiskey Myers’ Red Handed are just a few of the partnerships that have sprouted up as artists attempt to expand their impact with deals they hope are as smooth as Tennessee whiskey.

There are, of course, other signature alcohols: Luke Bryan has a beer, Blake Shelton is affiliated with a vodka, and Kenny Chesney is in the rum business. But bourbon, a form of whiskey that is aged under specific parameters, seems to be the most popular among the hard-liquor associations.

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“We’re talking about a product that comes from stuff that grows right there where we’re from,” says Brad Paisley, who established American Highway Reserve in a partnership with Kentucky-based Bardstown Bourbon. “You know, my own state of West Virginia — when you think about that sort of area, Kentucky, Tennessee, the Carolinas, this place where moonshine became something more — it’s just the perfect country beverage.”

That has certainly proven true at a musical level since country creatives have been looking through whiskey glasses for decades. Paisley’s Alison Krauss duet, “Whiskey Lullaby,” joins such similarly titled hits as Cole Swindell’s “Ain’t Worth the Whiskey,” Highway 101’s “Whiskey, If You Were a Woman,” Michael Ray’s “Whiskey and Rain” and Tex Ritter’s “Rye Whiskey” in the genre’s canon. Chris Stapleton’s version of “Tennessee Whiskey” has spent 327 weeks on the Country Digital Song Sales chart.

Whiskey and country music “both are as American as baseball or apple pie,” asserts Bardstown executive vp of sales and marketing Herb Heneman.

Alan Jackson
Alan Jackson with some Silverbelly Whiskey. David McClister

Artists end up in the alcohol business for numerous reasons. Diversifying their professional portfolio is an obvious one.

“If you study the beverage trades and the liquor industry, you know that brown liquor — bourbons and whiskeys — the growth pattern on those have been really steady,” says Maverick Management partner Chris Parr, who was involved in Aldean’s deal.

But the love of the product and creativity also rated highly for Florida Georgia Line when the duo introduced Old Camp whiskey in 2016. In its early years, it frequently ingested — and sang about — cinnamon-flavored Fireball whiskey. It decided to develop its own brand, mixing Florida-bred pecans and Georgia-centric peaches into the taste profile.

“We didn’t want it to be too sweet, but we wanted it to be drinkable for everyone,” Florida Georgia Line co-founder Tyler Hubbard recalls. “The process of creating this whiskey was probably the funnest part of the whole journey.”

For alcohol manufacturers, celebrity involvement is attractive because it helps build a story around the brand.

“It is a crowded market,” says Silverbelly CEO Robbie Goldsmith. “You can walk into any liquor store, and you are almost overwhelmed by how many options there are. So when you can combine that with the fact that you have a little bit of leverage with the audiences that a lot of these celebrities have built, it just gives you that unique selling proposition over the other brands.”

Florida Georgia Line
Florida Georgia Line photographed on Aug. 2, 2016 in Nashville, Tenn.  Joseph Llanes

But the partnerships don’t always last. Florida Georgia Line sold its interest in Old Camp back to Proximo Spirits about 18 months ago.

“I was really wanting to be highly focused on making my music and not trying to juggle different brands and different businesses,” Hubbard says.

Similarly, Jake Owen is no longer affiliated with Beach Whiskey, Willie Nelson’s Old Whiskey River Bourbon is discontinued, and Darius Rucker is ending his association with Backstage Whiskey.

The attrition rate — of new alcohol products, as well as celebrity deals — is one factor that bottlers and distillers are forced to consider in advance. Most successful artists worked at least a decade to build national music careers, but that doesn’t guarantee a similar patience when they get into the alcohol business.

“The reality is that there’s thousands of new brands and labels that come to market each year, just like in music,” explains Heneman. “Everybody wants to be on that [liquor store] shelf just like everybody wants to be on that stage on Broadway or in the studio, so I think they’re a lot alike in that everybody wants in. And it’s important, if you’re going to partner with an artist, to know that that person is vested in it for the long haul.”

The long haul was built into Paisley’s business model when he paired with Bardstown. Whiskey qualifies as a bourbon when it ages in oak barrels for a minimum of two years, soaking up flavors from the wood as it expands and contracts with the temperature.

Paisley hauls his barrels on a truck during his concert tours. The rough ride and the changes in climate are ideal for the product.

“It’s in a tractor-trailer, it is sloshing around — every single bump is a vibration, and those vibrations cause it to penetrate deeper into the wood,” he says. “It’s also hot as hell in August, and it’s really cold [in winter]. This voyage went from, I believe, Maine all the way to Arizona and California. It wasn’t fun for that whiskey in the back of that thing, and that’s what you want.”

Ultimately, the story around the product, its name and its taste palette all play a role in the success of an artist/bourbon association. Eric Church, who earned a gold single with the album cut “Jack Daniels,” teamed with the Jack Daniel’s Distillery for a limited-edition brand that bore his name on the label. “God Bless the U.S.A.” singer Lee Greenwood engaged Soldier Valley Spirits, a bottler that donates to veterans organizations, to create a self-named signature bourbon in 2020. Aldean chose the Full Moon bourbon — one with bite rather than flavors — because it fit his own tastes.

“Is it believable? Is it real? I would dare say that rule, or that measure, probably applies to many of the artists in our format, where they want it to feel authentic,” says Parr. “I think they know that their fans will know the difference.”

The artist’s persona and the customer’s expectations are both key aspects in the product. For Jackson’s new bourbon, the name Silverbelly represents the shade of the singer’s trademark Western hat. Each new batch will be named after one of his chart-topping singles, and the price tag was determined with his audience in mind.

“The country music fan is a very hardworking, loyal, blue-collar fan that enjoys good times and good music,” Goldsmith says. “I’ve seen some of these companies roll out products that aren’t priced for that market. And that’s tough because you’re then asking your fans to pay a different price point than what they may have envisioned or have in their budget. It was very important for us to come up with a product that was below $40.”

In the end, Paisley sees the bourbon business in a similar light as guitar manufacturing. Each batch of a particular drink has its own characteristics based on variations in the ingredients and the aging process, just as certain guitar models — depending on the wood and the manufacturing — may be good one year and superior the next.

“Really,” says Paisley, “it’s just a fun chemistry experiment.”

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