The health and wellness trend has generally been bad news for spirits. While other drinks sectors have been able to stress the health benefits of their products or launch healthier options, spirits brands have had to concentrate on minimising a generally negative image. However, Euromonitor International has found signs that spirits producers are starting to turn defence into attack.

As health concerns increasingly influence consumer choice, wine and beer producers have either been able to launch "healthier" alternatives or promote certain positive health attributes of their products. However, spirits producers have so far taken a more defensive stance, focusing primarily on minimising the negative image of spirits and promoting sensible consumption.

In terms of capitalising on the health and wellness trend, spirits has been one of the least active sectors of the food and drinks industry and little investment has been made by leading players, Euromonitor found. Nevertheless, Euromonitor has observed signs that health trends are becoming more important in the spirits market.

For example, in the US cocktails market, such a key area for the development of spirits brands, new low-fat cocktails like the Skinny White Russian, which uses skimmed or soy milk instead of milk or cream, are becoming increasingly popular.

Leading spirits producer, Diageo, has not become actively involved in new low-carb launches but it has created a website www.lowcarbparties.com, designed to show Atkins devotees that they can enjoy their usual Diageo tipple without worrying about the level of carbohydrates in their drinks.

Phillips Distilling Co, which owns UV Vodka, has gone further. It claims UV to be the first vodka positioned as having "zero carbs", and has also encouraged distributors to cross-market UV Vodka with other low-carb mixers, such as Crystal Light sugar-free lemonade.

Another health-orientated innovation to hit the US market, combining both the health attributes of soy and low carbs, is 3 Vodka, launched by Sovereign Brands LLC at the end of 2003.

In light of obesity problems, the US is one of the most developed markets in the world for lower-calorie products. With low-calorie cola carbonates continuing to take share from standard cola carbonates, Euromonitor believes there are strong opportunities for development in this area for spirits.

In 2005, Bacardi was the first major international spirits player to capitalise on this trend with the launch of Island Breeze, a lower-calorie rum targeted at the calorie conscious. One shot of Island Breeze contains only 48 calories, compared to 96 calories found in the same size serving of vodka, rum, gin or whisky.

One market which could potentially offer rewards for spirits players choosing to capitalise on health-orientated trends is Japan. The country has long been a pioneer in healthy and functional products, and is one of the largest markets in the world for fortified/functional food and drinks.

So far, manufacturers such as Suntory have made announcements linking spirits brands with health benefits. However, these announcements have been restrained, due to the lack of strong evidence and discouragement from authorities which do not want to have spirits promoted as "healthy".

Positioning a spirit brand as healthy is extremely problematic, but one or two products have certainly seen sales bolstered by the consumer perception that they offer healthy attributes. For instance, in the cream liqueur sector, Yoghurito, imported by Suntory, was launched in 2003, and excelled in its first year of sales, due to growing demand for yoghurt and the widespread belief in its beneficial effect on the digestive system. Yoghurito's appealing packaging, wide off-trade and on-trade distribution and desirable yoghurt flavour has made it a clear winner with female consumers.

Another brand which has performed well in the Japanese cream-based liqueurs market is Berentzen Tropical Yoghurt, launched in 2002 and owned by Berentzen Gruppe. Imports of the brand in 2004 were recorded at 25,000 cases, again boosted by the yoghurt boom. The fact that these two brands commanded the top two positions within cream-based liqueurs in Japan during 2004 indicates the potential success which health-orientated spirits could have in the Japanese market.

Another key trend derived from Japan and the Asia Pacific region is the green tea phenomenon. Green tea has not only continued to enjoy growth in Asia Pacific, but has secured a significant presence internationally over the past three to four years. At a global level, volume sales of green tea in leaf form rose by 33% between 1997 and 2004. Consumption was driven by the appeal of its health benefits, including its richness in anti-oxidants, catechins and polyphenols, as well as its proven ability to help fight medical conditions including cancer and HIV.

In Western Europe, green tea flavoured spirits, such as Keglevich Thé Verde, launched in Germany and Italy by Eckes-Stock, have already appeared on the spirits scene, seeking to offer more health conscious consumers alcoholic drinks enhanced by the healthy image of green tea. There are clearly opportunities for other spirits containing green tea flavour or natural green tea as an ingredient.

In the Asia Pacific region, another prominent trend involving the green tea boom is the increased use of green tea as a mixer with spirits, particularly with whisky, brandy and Cognac. Mixers such as "Martell with green tea" became a hit bar call from mid-2004 onwards, particularly in Malaysia, Singapore and Japan, supporting sales of both green tea and brown spirits.

Euromonitor also sees potential growth for other herbal teas such as Jasmine and Camomile tea in the spirits market. With green tea already being used as a mixer in many Asia Pacific countries, Jasmine tea and other flavoured teas could well be brought in as exciting cocktail ingredients or mixers to support spirits sales.

With health and wellbeing increasingly influencing consumers, other trends being seen elsewhere in the food and drinks market, such as the current blueberry craze, could also transfer to the spirits market.

Cocktails featuring blueberry juice, or spirits brands offering the same health properties as blueberries, are most likely to appear in Japan, but could well develop across all international markets during the next year or two. Pomegranate could also become a new hit flavour within the vodka and rum markets, where the expansion of exotic flavours is seen as a route to growth.

Within functional and hot drinks sales, gingseng and gingko biloba have been the star ingredients in driving volume and value growth, so their appearance in spirit-based elixirs or new spirits with health properties, may be the next big trend to hit the spirits sector, as products targeting consumers interested in health and wellness enjoy increasing prominence in the market.