What makes a ‘good’ celebrity drinks brand?

Everyone from The Rock to Phillip Schofield has launched their wine, beer or spirit in the past year, and the reviews have been as varied as the A-listers.

Celebrity wines have split the drinks industry in two. One faction embrace a chance to draw more people into a category they might have otherwise passed up. They give smaller businesses struggling in the storm of a pandemic a way to make their drinks stand out on supermarket shelves. They tell a unique story and, ultimately, are just a bit of fun. On the other side are those that believe they are malicious, cynical attempts to take consumers away from honest craftsmen and women and line the pockets of serial entrepreneurs with little to no interest in the product itself. They are overpriced, tell lies about their “clean” credentials and imply they are of higher quality just because of their status.

There is, of course, nothing new about celebrity drinks. Orson Welles famously attached his name to everything from Sherry to Carlsberg, while earlier this month wine writer Robert Joseph pointed out that Victorian actress Lillie Langtry opened her own Californian estate in 1888.

But it’s hard to ignore the acceleration on the star-studded drinks over lockdown. Idris Elba, Cara Delevingne and Snoop Dogg all launched a Provence rosé and Champagne, a Prosecco and a strawberry-flavoured gin within three days of each other earlier this month. In July, someone even tried to crowdfund an app that helps celebrities promote their drinks to their fans.

The appeal to consumers and big players alike is self evident. Rapper Post Malone sold thousands of bottles of his Provence rosé in just 24 hours this summer. Aviation Gin, which received backing from actor Ryan Reynolds in 2018, was later snapped up by spirits group Diageo for US$610 million.

Some receive more praise than others. Graham Norton’s wines have been known to pick up a few gold medals at blind tasting competitions such as The Global Wine Masters, The Sydney International Wine Competition; the UK People’s Choice Awards; 90 points from both Robert Parker’s Wine Advocate and Wine Spectator, and are served in Qantas Business Class. On the other hand, other celebrity-backed labels have attracted harsh criticism from wine writers.

Are there any brands that make everyone happy?

Perhaps it’s the wrong question to ask. “The world is going to hell in a hand basket and we’re all squabbling over a few celebrity wines,” Robert Joseph sighed over the phone earlier this month.

“If people are going out to buy Kylie’s who are otherwise not out to buy wine, I don’t think that’s a bad thing.”

Producers who themselves are competing for shelf space, like Avallen spirits founder and former bartender Tim Etherington-Judge, feel they are being pushed to the sidelines for a shiny new product that doesn’t “honour the industry”.

“We started Avallen with some very paltry life savings. It’s all of that time and effort you’re putting in.”

Aviation, he said, is a great, or rather bad, example of this. The brand, he says, was originally conceived as a gin for bartenders to create innovative cocktails. “We were one of the first bars to stock it, then they sold it two or three years ago for US$59m and two or three years later that figure has become $610m.

“It does feel like jumping on a bandwagon and not honouring the industry.”

Others are also “absolute jokes”, he says, such as Conor McGregor’s Proper No Twelve Irish whiskey.

“There are people putting blood, sweat and tears into their work but then people are just buying stuff for the name, not the product.”

It’s certainly true that celebrity influence easily dwarfs any hopeful spirits startups’. Kylie Minogue has more than two million followers on Instagram, while Idris Elba sits ahead at 4.7 million. Then you have The Rock, who comfortably reaches 199 million people every day with his religious posts about Teremana Tequila and his Jalisco distillery.

Joseph concedes this is a problem for the small players, “but then, they can’t afford advertising, promotions, all sorts of things anyway.”

There are some ways A-list drinks backings have been forces for good. NBA Player Josh Hart has worked with the Napa Valley Wine Academy to launch a scholarship programme aimed at people of colour to promote diversity in drinks.

Meanwhile in east London, craft brewery Signature Brew has been using its connections to the music industry to support venues that haven’t been able to open during lockdown.

Sam McGregor, Signature’s co-founder, originally worked in the music industry himself before founding a brewery with his cousin, Tom Bott. “We realised that there was never any good beer when you went to a gig or festival,” he said. They launched Signature in 2011, partnering with musicians and bands on limited edition beers that are then sold on tour. The artist gets a cut in the beer sales, while Signature gets listings in venues across the country, giving them more exposure.

McGregor says the collaboration usually involves a day in the brewery meeting the team, working out the style they’d like to create, and designing the can’s artwork together.

“They’re really excited to be a part of the process. The way we see it is we’re bringing people who otherwise wouldn’t be into craft beer.”

These new ideas range from straightforward lagers like one made in partnership with alt indie band Idles, to a more recent experimental launch, a smoked lager with sommelier and DnB artist Dynamite MC.

“It genuinely is like a collaboration. We’ve arrived at things we wouldn’t have arrive at without the artists participating.”

And those collaborations have gone beyond brewing. The outbreak of the Covid-19 crisis in March saw Signature Brew get creative to keep the beer flowing in people’s homes, creating a “Pub in a Box” bundle for local drinkers, hand delivered by musicians who had their tours cancelled.

It’s these kind of collaborations, with conspicuous effort coming from the celebrity themselves, that win over people like Etherington-Judge.

“I think they can add to the category they’re in,” he said. “They can bring something that’s really exciting, but it has to feel like a genuine product they’re interested in.

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