Women are closing the drinking gap, consuming more alcohol at restaurants while making most of the purchasing decisions for at-home consumption. That has alcohol producers and entrepreneurs trying to deliver what they think women want.
Beam Global Spirits & Wine Inc. of Deerfield, Ill., a unit of Fortune Brands Inc., announced recently that it had acquired Skinnygirl Margarita, a low-calorie, ready-to-drink cocktail sweetened with agave syrup.
Michael Binstein, owner of Binny's Beverage Depot, said Skinnygirl was among his store's fastest-moving product.
"Women tend to be smarter customers in general," Binstein said. "They understand value, and they're adventurous in terms of what they like to try and experiment with."
Another hot product, Binstein said, is Adult Chocolate Milk, a sweet, vodka-infused drink developed by Tracy Reinhardt and Nikki Halbur in a home kitchen and sold in 28 states. At "milk and cookies" tastings Binny's pairs Chocolate Milk with Oreos.
"The fact of the matter is that women in this country constitute the majority of vodka consumers, and they've been ignored," said Adam Kamenstein, chief executive of privately held Voli Spirits, which a year ago rolled out Voli Light vodkas with the tagline "stay sexy." The product comes in flavors such as espresso vanilla, raspberry cocoa and lemon and promises a 25% to 40% reduction in calories.
Big brands also have had some success with women-focused products in recent years, including Anheuser-Busch InBev with Bud Light Lime and Brown-Forman Corp. with Jeremiah Weed Sweet Tea.
Statistics show women have been ordering more drinks. Alcohol servings in restaurants to women increased 9% in 2009 and 3% in 2010, according to NPD Group, a market research firm, while servings to men decreased 4% in 2009 and 6% in 2010. Men still consumed about 10% more.
Although women's drinking patterns have been shifting for at least 20 years, Gary Stibel, founder of the New England Consulting Group, credits the recession with accelerating the latest trend.
"There's an awful lot of dual-income households living on only her income."
Stibel said women make 65% to 70% of the alcohol-purchasing decisions for at-home consumption.
"I buy the stuff. This is how it's always been," said Sharon Wolfson, 34, outside a Highland Park, Ill., beverage store. She said her husband long ago ceded liquor buying to her. Her purchases for a party included whiskey, bourbon, vodka and beer. Low-calorie beverages did not make the cut.
"I'm not that kind of a girl," Wolfson said. "I saw an entire women's section in there, but it's not for me. I don't think about calories while I'm drinking."
Shelley Grill, 24, a senior at DePaul University from Northbrook, Ill., and Adam Levy, 24, an insurance broker from Wilmette, Ill., said their decision making was 50-50.
"He gets what he wants, and I get what I want, and we share," she said.
Although their heads were turned by a prominent display of Adult Chocolate Milk, Grill opted instead for a can of vanilla Cream, an alcohol-infused whipped cream used for topping drinks.
"That's a good time," Grill said. "It's pretty creamy, it's good."
Other purchases included a tiny bottle of Effen vodka, Mike's Hard Lemonade, wine and a bottle of tequila.
"I don't care about calories at all," she said. "The whipped cream is probably awful, but it's my thing."
After decades of advertising that may have alienated women, at least in part by depicting women as sex objects, alcohol marketers are looking for ways to connect with them.
"Spirits companies oftentimes are not as adept at appealing to women," acknowledged Bill Newlands, president of Beam North America.
Over the holidays, Beam's Sauza tequila hired Marcella Valladolid to hold cooking demonstrations, offering recipes for, among other things, winter margaritas.
The company has launched other products for women, including Red Stagg, a cherry-flavored bourbon whiskey, in 2009, and Effen cucumber-flavored vodka this year.
Now comes Skinnygirl. Launched in 2009, Skinnygirl sold 100,000 cases in 2010 and has been struggling to meet demand. The product, which costs $12.99 to $14.99 for a 750-milliliter bottle, will soon be distributed in 40 states, up from 13.
Skinnygirl founder and reality star Bethenny Frankel will continue to be involved in marketing, publicity and product development at Beam. A Skinnygirl sangria is expected to be introduced this summer.
Frankel's drink concepts weren't considered all that hot as recently as a year ago. She pitched the Skinnygirl idea to every major spirits company and was sent packing, she said. After her start-up company had success, she said, Beam approached with an endorsement deal to make her Skinnygirl margarita recipe with Beam's Sauza tequila. Frankel declined.
First cast into the public eye as part of Bravo's "The Real Housewives of New York City" in 2008, Frankel said she would order margaritas with clear tequila and club soda, with splashes of triple sec and lime juice. One night, while the show was taping, someone asked her what the cocktail was called.
"I said it's a Skinnygirl Margarita," she said. "And right then this light went off, and I knew I had something."
Skinnygirl Margarita, Morningstar analyst Philip Gorham said, "is the fastest-growing ready-to-drink product in the U.S." Although it's likely to remain a niche category "clearly aimed at health and appearance-conscious women, I see this product as something that can exploit the trend toward healthier alcoholic beverages," he said.
Marketing specialist Michelle Schaufel, 24, of Antioch, Ill., agrees. She pays close attention to calories when preparing her own mixed drinks and said, "I would use more of a low-calorie mixer with vodka, rather than soda or juice."
Schaufel said she perfected the art of low-calorie mixed drinks while working as a bartender last year.
"We had all different versions of skinny drinks," she said. "They were big among women."