At one time, celebrities dreamed of owning a vineyard and bottling wine. These days, they’re finding the real profits come from the harder stuff.
Actor Ryan Reynolds, who bought an ownership stake in Aviation Gin last month, is the latest Hollywood A-lister turned spirit monger. This month, rumors flew that the band Metallica, which won a Grammy for the song Whiskey in a Jar in 2000, planned to get into the whiskey business. Other stars have sought a piece of the action, from Ludacris with Conjure Cognac to Dan Aykroyd, who co-founded Crystal Head Vodka in 2007.
“It’s a natural extension of celebrity,” Aykroyd, the Saturday Night Live alum who went on to a film career that includes Ghostbusters and Trading Places, said in an interview. “This isn’t showing up at 5:30 a.m. at a movie set, staying late at a studio laying tracks. I can contribute to the manufacture of actual products.”
Those products are in hot demand. Liquor sales hit $26.2 billion last year, up 4% over the previous year and the eighth consecutive annual increase, according to the Distilled Spirits Council, a Washington, D.C.-based trade association.
Big names attract millions of potential consumers — and millions of dollars in sales, celebrity branding experts say. In the booze world, where branding and caché matter as much as taste, having a star’s name attached can make all the difference. Sales soar and so do their profits.
“I haven’t heard of anyone selling their T-shirt company for $2 billion,” said Shep Gordon, a celebrity branding expert, explaining that calculating how much celebs make off booze deals is impossible — but it’s a lot of money.
But these aren’t just endorsement deals. Entertainers are taking equity stakes while also lending their names in a way that can drive sales.
“Celebrities can bring the X factor,” said Jeetendr Sehdev, author of the book The Kim Kardashian Principle: Why Shameless Sells (and How to Do It Right). “Audiences want to buy products celebrities are personally invested in. No longer can a celebrity stick a face on a product they have no real connection to or investment in and have credibility in the marketplace.”
In August, actor George Clooney and partners sold their Casamigos tequila venture for $700 million, with the possibility of another $300 million if the tequila continues to sell well. He co-founded Casamigos in 2013 with friends Mike Meldman, a real estate investor, and Rande Gerber, a nightclub developer who is married to model Cindy Crawford. The new owner is liquor giant Diageo, whose brands include Johnnie Walker, Ketel One and Captain Morgan.
“When people see someone cash out, it is like the gold rush and everyone is running to California to try and get a piece,” said Skinnygirl founder and reality TV star Bethenny Frankel, whose signature product is low-calorie margaritas.
In 2011, the Real Housewives of New York City star sold Skinnygirl for a reported $100 million.
Loyal fans are known to buy what their idols are hawking, and if it’s a higher-priced item, all the better for the stars.
“They have such intense followings. They have such solid personal brands,” said Robert Familetti, managing director at Platinum Rye Entertainment, a large talent broker that connects celebrities with companies. “Liquor is sexy. It’s also lucrative.”
But the pairing has to be well thought out. A celebrity with a drunk-driving conviction would be a no-no, and some stars don’t want to tarnish their wholesome images.
“You’re not going to see a Disney star getting into liquor,” he said.
Even well-made matches sometimes fail, such as actor Danny DeVito’s Premium Limoncello and singer Pharrell Williams’ Q Qream liqueur.
Aviation Gin now sells an estimated 300,000 bottles annually, but owner Davos Brands said it expects to double that this year, thanks to Reynolds, who will appear in ads and provide brand strategy and marketing input.
“He can introduce more and more people to gin and to Aviation Gin,” CEO Andrew Chrisomalis said. The company declined to say what Reynolds’ stake was worth but called it “significant.”