New boom could be shot in the foot
It used to be that if someone wanted a shot of alcohol they would choose a good whisky, bourbon or brandy and savour it. These were connoisseurs' drinks. But the traditional shot market is changing rapidly as small, innovative companies use new flavours and clever marketing to fuel the "party" scene.
Young people in bars and nightclubs are buying shots specifically designed to be "fun" and "hip" and the market has taken off - it has been estimated to be worth £100m a year in the UK alone.
The array of new products is endless: shots sold in single-use plastic containers; bubblegum flavoured vodka drinks; vodka shots sold in foil packets; alcohol-laced ice pops; alcoholic strawberry smoothies.
This is a market that has developed as a by-product of the ready to drink (RTD) phenomenon and, like RTDs, has attracted younger (often female) customers by using smart marketing and sweet, tasty flavours with the added "thrill" of knocking them back in one go.
So far, the companies that have entered this new market have been small regional brewers or marketing-driven start-ups. They are typically UK, Ireland or Northern European based although Australasia (which usually mirrors UK drinking habits) also has a handful of its own producers.
It is notable that the majors, Diageo and Allied Domecq in particular, have not entered this market - and they have a good reason for avoiding it. The rise in popularity of RTDs has gone hand in hand with a rise in alcohol-related misbehaviour and binge drinking. The UK government, concerned that this "yob culture" will become an election issue, has been delivering warnings to the industry that it must curb the anti-social behaviour or legislation will be introduced. The major producers appear to have decided that entering the shot market would compound the binge-drinking problem - and antagonise government further.
Diageo spokesman Paul Flanagan explained: "Our view is that these products make a ritual of drinking alcohol quickly. It is fine if someone wants to sip a single malt but encouraging people to drink quickly is not something we want to be involved in."
The Portman Group, the self-regulating body that oversees the UK drinks market, has also taken a dim view of some of these shot products and at the end of October demanded that three change their sexually suggestive names.
One of the companies reprimanded by the Portman Group was Liverpool-based Shooters UK. The Shooters range come in 20ml test tubes and have an abv of about 15% abv. What angered the Portman Group was that the drinks are given names such as: Blow Job, Orgasm, Foreplay, Bit on the Side, Love Juice and Sex on the Beach.
The test tubes are distributed in bars and clubs by attractive girls and boys who sell the £1 shots direct to consumers by asking: "Do you fancy a Blow Job for £1?" Perhaps not surprisingly the Portman Group found that Shooters breached its rules on implying sexual success in promotion.
Gavin Leslie, marketing manager for Shooters, said: "We found that pretty girls work better than boys in selling the shots but they have got to have a good personality. The Portman Group said we were breaking the law but we were just using original cocktail names that have been going for 15 years or more. We are going to have to change the product names and will stop using the girls to sell them, which will cost us a lot."
Global Brands, possibly the most successful of the new breed of drink manufacturers, is now generating income of £70m a year on the back of its Vodka Kick RTD and its specialist shots. These include Corky's, a 20% abv shot in toffee, bubblegum or butterscotch flavours, and Slammas, a 22% abv single shot sold in a throwaway plastic glass. Global Brands believes it is giving its customers what they want and that its products are harmless fun.
But the arguments used by Shooters, Global Brands and the other manufacturers to defend their products seem weak. These are drinks that inevitably appeal to the youngest consumers, including the underage. They encourage fast consumption and it is hard to see how they not a major factor in the binging taking place in bars and clubs across the country.
A spokeswoman for Alcohol Concern said: "We are very concerned by these products because of their appeal to young people and under-18s. They also use sex to sell and we welcome moves to combat them."
The UK is not the only country to be concerned about the role of shots in encouraging binge and under-age drinking. Sweden has banned Freaky Ice, a tequila or vodka-laced ice pop, from supermarkets after concern that they would be sold to children.
In Ireland, Vodka Bullseye Baggies (30ml shots of vodka sold in foil bags) were withdrawn two months ago and the Vintners Federation of Ireland has drawn up a list of six more products it wants banned.
The US party scene is a few years behind Europe. It is still dominated by energy drinks like Red Bull and the variations created with them, including the popular Jager Bomb - a mix of the German liquor Jagermeister and Red Bull. It seems likely, however, that young, sweet-toothed American consumers will also develop a taste for specialist shots should they become readily available. The only question is whether European governments, with the backing of the major drinks companies, legislate these products out of existence first.
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