It’s all George Clooney’s fault, according to Rob Dietrich, that musicians like Bob Dylan, Motörhead, Slipknot, Drake, Sammy Hagar, Georgia Florida Line, Snoop Dogg and Nick Jonas all have their own spirits labels. In 2017, the Oscar-winning actor sold his Casamigos tequila brand to Diageo for $1 billion. “People were like, ‘He did what? How did he do that?’ After that, musicians started looking into ways to invest their money into something cool,” says Dietrich, the master distiller of Metallica’s Blackened American whiskey.
Of course, celebrities have been entwined in the business of selling booze for ages. Salvador Dalí shilled for Old Angus scotch, and Sean Connery was a paid Jim Beam man. In the mid-2000s, Sean Love Combs (formerly variously known as Puff Daddy, P. Diddy, Puffy, Puff and Diddy) became a Ciroc vodka frontman as well as an equity partner.
Diageo, Bacardi and other multinational booze conglomerates still make star-powered endorsement deals (remember when Absolut went juicy?), but the nature of collaborations between spirits brands and musicians has dramatically shifted in the last few years, driven by changes in the music and booze industries and accelerating during the pandemic. And as Nick Jonas would say, everybody wants a taste.
Greg Kennelty has covered heavy metal for Metal Injection since 2013, and he remembers the early days of beer collaborations with Iron Maiden and Voivod. “Every time there was a new beer, it was like, ‘Holy crap. This band has a beer. That’s insane,’” he says. Now, Metal Injection has a dedicated “Bands and Booze” section, where you can read about spiced rum from Judas Priest and The Healer bourbon from Anthrax.
At the same time, with music digitization and an increasingly low barrier of entry for producing songs, “anybody can buy a guitar and an audio station and be a metal guy,” says Kennelty. “But then you’re vying for attention across how many platforms, with how many hundreds of thousands of metal bands. Everybody has Twitter, Facebook, SnapChat and TikTok. Marketing in 2021 is a whole different ball game.”
There has been parallel growth in the spirits world. In 2000, there were 24 licensed craft distilleries in America. Now, craft distilleries are a $1.8 billion industry with more than 2,000 producers. “There are so many cool, small and regional producers; bands can create a more custom product and experience,” says Alix Kram, the vice president of global licensing and retail for Warner Music Artist Services.
Kram and her team help artists generate revenue and marketing exposure outside of traditional brand endorsements, and in 2020, they launched 800 products—everything from tour T-shirts and snowboards to Grateful Dead all-natural deodorant and wine from the band All Time Low. And in the past few years, Kram has worked with Illinois whiskey producer FEW Spirits on several band and bottle collaborations, and she says deals fall into a couple of major categories: one-off bottles, often released alongside an album or anniversary; ongoing collaborations with seasonal drops; and musician-backed brands and private labels.
Whatever the setup and regardless of a band’s involvement in the creative process, they’re getting paid. “It could be a royalty deal on a minimum run, a certain number of bottles with a flat fee or payments for appearances from artists,” says Kram. “Sometimes, it’s upfront payment and then equity. It depends on the objective.”
Metallica owns Blackened American outright. Working with Dave Pickerell, WhistlePig’s late master distiller, band members helped zero in on a blend of minimum eight-year-aged Tennessee bourbon, Kentucky bourbon, Indiana bourbon and rye, and Canadian rye that’s finished in blackened brandy casks and enhanced with (patent pending) Black Noise.
The Black Noise process involves exposing the barrels to Metallica songs played through a subwoofer at low frequency for two to 14 weeks. Dietrich, who took over the project in 2019, says the vibrations rapidly move small amounts of the spirit in and out of the barrel. “It’s not just a gimmick,” he says. “The whole point is that we want to see the effect of this Black Noise process.”
Dietrich has been a Metallica fan since middle school and worked as a stagehand for the band’s 1996 Lollapalooza tour. Now he’s friends with band members and winning awards for their whiskey. Through his work, he hopes to “crack the code of celebrity brands” and make whiskeys that appeal to an audience beyond the band’s Fifth Members. “They’re going to be interested in anything Metallica comes out with,” he says. “It’s more important to connect with whiskey aficionados.”
Private Label Collaboration
Not every band has a megafan who’s a distiller, and there are all kinds of ways and back channels by which collaborations come together. Pete Kelly launched Spirits Innovation Partners, a development and branding company, in 2016 with the goal of entering the tequila business. A year in, he was connected to the country trio Midland, whose members’ love of tequila is rivaled only by their affinity for flamboyant Western wear.
“The thing we loved about Midland is that we were looking to find a partner to help us build and be a voice for the brand,” says Kelly. “We wanted Midland to be part of the process and not just tell the story. They worked on packaging, visited the distillers, Alberto and Octavio Herrera, and helped develop the flavor profile.”
The Herrera brothers’ independent Premium de Jalisco distillery sits high in the mountains south of Guadalajara. Its production hovers around 60,000 cases per year (in comparison, Jose Cuervo sells nearly 4 million cases annually in the United States), and Insólito makes up 20% of the distillery’s output. “When we first met Midland, I thought they were looking for something easier, but they are artists; they were asking for real tequila with a real agave presence,” says Octavio. “I was also surprised that they were already thinking of the customers who will drink it.”
Insólito launched in 2020, strengthened by Spirits Innovation Partners’ marketing expertise, bespoke tequila from Premium de Jalisco and Midland’s built-in fan base. In nonpandemic years, the band plays 175 shows with pre-parties, after-parties and press events all potentially fueled by tequila. Insólito will expand distribution to eight states in 2021, and Kelly believes he has built a brand for the long haul (one that’s, ahem, tougher than the rest).
One and Done Is Fun
But Kram says there’s value in one-and-done-partnerships, too. With FEW, her team facilitated a Flaming Lips album release whiskey, followed by a tequila-barrel-aged whiskey to commemorate the 10th anniversary of Alice in Chains’ song “All Secrets Known.”
“We did a limited release with Alice in Chains and FEW and sold out in the preorder phase. The retail value of the bottle is now $1,900. It was awesome,” says Kram. “Even if it’s a limited run, it lives on and becomes a collectors’ item. Just like when you go on tour and you’re proud to rep a T-shirt, you collect the bottle.”
Becky and Scott Harris were happy to turn over their Catoctin Creek Distilling Co. to “alien invaders” to make Ragnarök rye, an upcoming bottle collaboration with GWAR. For the uninitiated, Kennelty explains that the ’80s metal band is composed of “weird alien guys sent to earth. They were in Antarctica, frozen and then unfrozen. They’ll conquer Earth and then go back to space,” he says. “GWAR shows have giant worms and blood. It’s meant to be absolutely ridiculous.”
The real humans behind GWAR closely guard their identities, but what we do know is that they’re based in Richmond, own a metal bar and love high-end whiskey. Catoctin Creek focuses on Virginia rye whiskey, a style born in colonial times that petered out with Prohibition. Becky is the head distiller, and Scott runs the business, and last year, band members descended (very politely, the Harrises say) on their distillery for a tasting. Oderus Urungus, Flattus Maximus, Balsac the Jaws of Death, and Beefcake the Mighty happened to gravitate toward rye finished in native sugar maple and cherrywood barrels.
Scott says the spirit, made with local grains, embodies Virginia terroir, even if the label will bear a winged eyeball flanked by maces, knives and battle axes. “We’ve had nobody express concern about how outlandish this is; it’s performative art,” says Scott. “2020 was such a terrible year. We needed this to take our minds off the drudgery.”
Kram has watched these types of collaborations blossom during the pandemic and expects to see more music crossovers with rum brands, canned beverages, hard seltzer and kombucha in the future. “More than ever, people are hungering for a touchpoint, and this has been a vehicle for fans to connect with artists in a real way,” she says. “But music and booze have always gone hand-in-hand. Music has the power to evoke emotion and transport you to a time and place. When you sit down with your favorite cocktail, you get transported as well. In that way, they’ll always be compatible.”