Matt Stutts is a government geographer, but that doesn't mean he can't occasionally enjoy a little opulence. He's in the lounge of Dupont Circle's voguish Topaz Hotel on a recent weeknight, sitting in front of a plate of chocolate truffles. A band is playing smooth jazz. The air is chilled. Here comes a beautiful woman, wearing all black.
"Welcome to the Johnnie Walker Gold Label Pleasures of the Palate," she says. "You will experience something decadent, indulgent and sensual: ice-cold Johnnie Walker Gold Label and chocolate dessert."
Stutts, 31, is sitting with a couple of buddies, about to sample 18-year-old Scotch that costs about $80 a bottle. But this liquor is free, part of Johnnie Walker's efforts to "mentor," as company executives put it, a new generation of Scotch drinkers. Here come more women in black, holding bottles of Scotch against their chests, offering tidbits of history (Johnnie Walker's grandson came up with the recipe for JW Gold) and forecasting the pleasures of the palate (hints of raisin, vanilla).
"Being co-opted is so great," Stutts says. "I love this."
Scenes like that are playing out nightly in chic clubs in New York, Washington, Los Angeles, Boston and Chicago, and in smaller cities such as Kansas City, Mo., and Providence, R.I. They are elaborately staged by the world's biggest liquor producers, who have discovered in the past several years a winning recipe for increasing their sales while flattening those of their competitors, the beer companies.
Using carefully scripted on-premise marketing as the linchpin of hundred-million-dollar ad campaigns, the $15 billion-a-year liquor industry is pushing the concept of affordable luxury into the hands of people in their twenties and thirties as they lean over bars to order drinks. The idea is to get them to order not just a martini, but a Grey Goose vodka martini. To not just do shots of tequila, but to sip Jose Cuervo Reserva. To not order Scotch on the rocks, but Johnnie Walker Gold.
Like all modish events, this one at the Topaz began with a cocktail hour -- at first featuring nothing but glasses of Johnnie Walker Black, a tease to the higher-end Johnnie Walker Gold that awaited patrons in a separate lounge downstairs.
Luisa Calderon, 28, a radio marketing executive, stood at the bar with her friend, Rossanna Hernandez, 30, a consultant with Ernst & Young. "Our lives may not be as glamorous as the girls on 'Sex in the City,' " Calderon said. "But that doesn't mean we can't try."
Hernandez agreed: "We can live vicariously through them by drinking nice liquor."
Which is perhaps why Ivan Menezes, chief executive of Diageo North America, the maker of Johnnie Walker, summarizes his strategy like this: "They may not be able to stay at the Four Seasons, but they can order a drink at the bar."
"That's the key here. These companies set up a stage that lends itself to sophistication," said Michael C. Bellas, chief executive of Beverage Marketing Corp. a research firm. "These young people carry on dialogues with their friends. These people are attractive. They'll go out and talk to people about what Johnnie Walker is and how it tastes. That's marketing."
Apparently it's working. Liquor consumption increased 4.1 percent last year and 3.9 percent the year before, the most successful two-year period for liquor since the 1970s. Meanwhile, beer consumption grew just 0.7 percent last year. Molson Coors Brewing Co. recently reported that first-quarter beer sales volume was down more than 4 percent.
Liquor companies are also aggressively advertising in arenas that have for years been dominated by beer companies. At the start of the recent NASCAR racing season, three cars began displaying the sponsorship logos of Crown Royal, Jim Beam, and Jack Daniel's. More than 600 network affiliates and cable channels carry liquor ads. FedEx Field, home to the Washington Redskins, has been plastered with liquor ads from Diageo. Grey Goose vodka is sponsoring PGA golfer Retief Goosen.
Liquor companies are aiming at consumers one by one, courting people like Stutts. During the first part of the evening at the Topaz, as Stutts and two friends sampled crab cakes and Cajun shrimp wrapped in bacon, they reflected on how their tastes have changed since being drawn into the Johnnie Walker orbit at a previous event.
Stutts, for example, said he drank whiskey before, but it was often whatever he got his hands on, and never something he ordered by name.
Now Johnnie Walker is his drink of choice. "It's all about finding something that you like," Stutts said.
"If we want a Scotch we know it by name," said his friend, Mark Cutler.
The industry's broader ad blitz began in the mid-1990s, when liquor companies decided to lift a voluntary ban on TV advertising that had persisted since the 1940s. The ads on TV, which stress responsible drinking, have broadened liquor's acceptance as a drink on par with beer and wine.
Beer companies, on the other hand, find themselves trying to market a comparatively static beverage when people want products they can customize.
"With the success of spirits, there's this whole me culture going on right now," said Michael J. Owens, vice president of sales and marketing for Anheuser-Busch Inc. "Customization. I can make my own music lists. I can make my own shoes. I can make my own jeans. I can make my own drink. The 21-to-27-year-olds have the widest choices of beverages in their lifetime. Where does that leave beer? We have to make it more fun and appropriate."
To that end, Anheuser-Busch has two new products: Budweiser Select, which comes in an aluminum bottle, and "B-to-the-E," a caffeinated beer with aromas of blackberry and cherry. "Anheuser-Busch is not going to just sit here and hope things get better," Owens said.
Anheuser-Busch will spend upward of $150 million this year on new marketing campaigns, including on-premise promotions, but analysts said it has a long way to go before catching up with the creativity of the liquor companies, which already have in place extensive networks of consumers they can continuously try to "upsell" -- move from less expensive to pricier brands.
The Johnnie Walker Gold event at the Topaz is a case in point. Over two nights, there were four seatings of 50 people. Stutts, Cutler and another friend, Ted Chamberlain, along with each of the other attendees, had been to events for the less expensive Johnnie Walker Black. At the previous events, they filled out questionnaires that asked them about their drinking preferences -- and for their e-mail and home addresses. About a month ago, they got an invitation that would try to promote them to the circle of Gold drinkers.
As the first part of the evening concluded, one of the company's black-clad ambassadors asked the crowd to descend to the lower lounge for the main event. The three men sat down near each other, the chocolate truffles spread before them.
The drinks were poured into oversize shot glasses. The instructions were given. "You take a bite of the chocolate and with some of it in your mouth, then you take a sip of the ice-cold Gold Label," instructed the company's representative, Kaye Lake.
"I see what they are trying to do here," Chamberlain said. "They are totally trying to open up a whole market for an after-dinner drink."
Their glasses empty, a woman approached their table. She offered the bottle suggestively. In the midst of being branded, they were enjoying every minute of it.
"Would you like to touch it?" she asked.