With the news that Nigel Farage has released his very own gin, Lucy Shaw takes a look at some successful celebrity spirits collaborations and what happens when things go wrong.
A perfume or aftershave used to be the celebrity side hustle of choice. Now every star worth their salt-rimmed Margarita glass wants to zhuzh up their lifestyle empire with a booze brand. Everyone from Michael Jordan to Bob Dylan have skin in the game, but levels of involvement vary wildly, and so do success rates. “It’s quite easy to tell which celebrities are genuinely passionate about the spirits they get involved with, which tends to be evident in the liquid and packaging,” says Tom Gamborg of drinks marketing agency Skål, who singles out The Rock as a star who cares about his Teremana Tequila brand, which became a lockdown hit among his 335 million Instagram fans.
The trend has mushroomed to such an extent that there’s an app called GrapeStars dedicated to hawking celebrity drinks, where you’ll find Jay-Z’s D’Ussé Cognac and Dan Aykroyd’s Crystal Head Vodka alongside more under-the-radar bottlings – Kenny Chesney Blue Chair Bay Rum anyone?
When celebrity spirits brands go wrong
But while the appeal for celebrities is clear, drinks brands need to tread carefully when it comes to collaborations, as their reputations are at stake if their high profile pal gets into hot water. Last year Entertainment Arts Research pulled out of a $12 million deal to acquire Ambhar Tequila amid sexual assault allegations against its majority shareholder, Sex and the City star Chris Noth.
Meanwhile, porn star and rum pusher Ron Jeremy was indicted last August on 34 counts of sexual assault involving 21 women. Not surprisingly his partners at One Eyed Spirits have sought to distance themselves from Jeremy, rebranding Ron de Jeremy as Hell or High Water. A statement from the brand read: “Continuing with the brand is not a sustainable option for us at One Eyed Spirits. The joke is over.”
In contrast, mixed martial art fighter Conor McGregor’s multiple assault and reckless driving charges haven’t yet dented the popularity of his Irish whiskey brand Proper No. Twelve. McGregor’s tireless promotion helped to turn the brand into the fastest-growing Irish whiskey in the US. Last year he sold his majority stake to Proximo Spirits for a reported $600m. Proximo Spirits’ SVP of marketing, Lander Otegui, admits that the whiskey’s success is entirely down to the fighter’s involvement. “Conor is a very unique athlete. His popularity in sports, and as a celebrity overall, and his path to success from humble beginnings has created a highly engaged fan base that are open to trying the whiskey,” he says. And to show that whiskey and fighting really can mix, earlier this year Campari took a $15m 15% stake in Howler Head, the official whisky of Dana White’s UFC (Ultimate Fighting Championship).
Going loony for Clooney
So is there a recipe for success when it comes to creating a celebrity spirit? Being a wildly charismatic A-lister certainly helps. Ryan Reynolds has turned Aviation Gin into a £465m brand through his tongue-in-cheek approach to publicity, while the sale of George Clooney’s small batch Tequila brand Casamigos to Diageo for a cool $1 billion in 2017 has become the gold standard for celebrity sips.
Everyone wants to ‘do a Clooney’, but not all celebrity brands are created equal.
“Successful brands have authenticity that stretches way past a press release. You had little doubt that Clooney and his mate actually lived the life in the photos and drank the Tequila. He even did his part to expand the brand by attending new account openings. Can you imagine turning up to a distributor pitch and George is flashing his perfect smile at you?” says Kevin Shaw (no relation), owner of drinks packaging design agency Stranger & Stranger, who has worked with a number of celebrity clients, some of which have been easier to handle than others. “Some celebs are perfectly respectful, collaborative and lovely to deal with and others think that, as ‘artists’, they can design anything and view designers as Mac monkeys. You can see the result in the look of some of their brands,” he says.
Nowadays, slapping your name and/or face on a label won’t cut the mustard, and inauthentic collaborations that are clearly cash grabs will be called out, as influencer Kendall Jenner learnt the hard way. “The branding of her 818 Tequila draws off stereotypes of Mexican culture in a way that’s forced and uneducated. Tequila is deeply rooted in the identity of Mexico and plays a significant part in its social and cultural rituals. Jenner’s 818 dismisses these elements and uses the Tequila only to boost her own image,” says Rowena Curlewis, CEO of drinks packaging consultancy Denomination.
For every Clooney success story there are many more flops in the celebrity spirits world, from teetotal Donald Trump’s short-lived Trump Vodka and Pharrell Williams’ doomed liqueur brand Qream (who drinks cream liqueurs in nightclubs?) to Danny DeVito’s ill-conceived limoncello, which he struggled to import into the US. Yes, celebs with deep pockets can engineer introductions with heavy hitters everywhere from Kentucky to Jalisco to craft their own high-end liquid, then flash more cash to secure the right distribution deals, but money will only get you so far. “Unless the celebrity truly invests their own time and toil into it, the product doesn’t resonate with consumers. If a celebrity isn’t willing to put in the marketing time and spirits creation time, it’s a bust,” says American whiskey specialist, Fred Minnick.
Here to stay
Glory hunting celebs may opt for the easy route of entering a white hot category like bourbon or Tequila, but those that back unsung spirits have the chance to be transformative. It doesn’t get much more niche than Bolivian grape brandy, which Ocean’s Eleven director Steven Soderbergh is shining a light on through his Singani 63 brand. “When a celebrity like Soderbergh gets behind a little-known spirit, it helps to elevate the entire category, ” says VinePair co-founder, Adam Teeter.
While many would like to see the back of the celebrity spirits trend, the appetite for these bottlings shows no sign of stopping. “Celebrity sells, and spirits are no different. Fans closely follow what their favourite celebrities are up to, and will likely support any business ventures they pursue. As long as the quality is there, we can expect an enduring future for celebrity spirits,” believes Melita Kiely, editor of The Spirits Business. Shaw of Stranger & Stranger agrees: “Their pulling power, especially on social, is hard to put a price on, and the margins in the spirits sector mean you can throw some serious percentage points at the deal. The power of fame is here to stay, so we’re going to be seeing more of these endorsements, a lot more.” You have been warned.