As the beer industry fights to reverse its recent declines, the spirits industry is riding high after two decades in the doldrums.
Beer industry executives like to point out that the consumption of spirits is still way off its peak in 1978. "Their growth rate needs to be about 4 percent for the next 14 years to get back to their peak," said Jeff Becker, president of the Beer Institute, an industry trade group.
Maybe so, but the liquor industry seems to have done lots right in recent years, especially going after consumers where they drink. Take Johnnie Walker. One of the distiller's approaches, for example, is having sexy women at hip bars serve free tastes of super-premium scotch along with a few bites of rich chocolate dessert. The company calls it "mentoring" a new generation of drinkers.
Spirits makers have also pushed hard to promote their image among women in the wake of HBO's "Sex and the City" series. Bacardi hired Kim Cattrall, one of the stars of the show, to promote its low-calorie rum drink, Island Breeze.
In the ads, the actress is shown with a martini glass, which has become another marketing tool. Finding a natural home in the recently hip martini culture, Bombay Sapphire, a high-end gin, has been holding annual design competitions for martini glasses.
"There is nothing romantic or sophisticated about standing in a fancy restaurant or nightclub holding a light beer," said Frank Coleman, a spokesman for the Distilled Spirits Council, an industry trade group. "For professional women, there's something elegant about spirits glassware."
Not to limit themselves to women, though, liquor companies have likewise courted male consumers aggressively, persuading NASCAR to take liquor sponsorships, for example. Jim Beam bourbon has sponsored several NASCAR teams in the past few years.
And to reach as wide an audience as possible, liquor companies have also pushed more television stations to accept spirits advertising. The number of stations running liquor ads has gone from about 50 five years ago to more than 500, Coleman said.
The ads these companies are running, too, have become considerably sexier and more youthful. And it's working.
"Because of the extensive marketing that's been done by a lot of these premium spirits brands, it's now quite cool and quite trendy to go for those kinds of long drinks," said John Michalik, North American director for the London-based beverage consulting firm Canadean Ltd.
As the beer industry is finding, of course, cool is critical.