When the rapper Jay-Z called for “gold bottles of that Ace of Spade” in his 2006 track “Show me what you got”, it began a lucrative run for the Armand de Brignac Brut Gold champagne brand, nicknamed for its ace of spades logo.
In backing the $300 drink — Jay-Z bought into the brand, later acquiring a majority stake — the rapper was ahead of his time. The lure of owning a premium beverage has since drawn in celebrities from Bob Dylan to the Irish mixed martial arts fighter Conor McGregor.
In the high-end tequila market alone household names including George Clooney, Michael Jordan, Justin Timberlake, rapper Sean “Diddy” Combs and actor Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson are battling it out for market share.
A-list stars are tapping into a rising trend. Between 2015 and 2019, annual sales of premium tequilas in the US rose at five times the rate of lower-priced ones, increasing by about 14 per cent on average a year, according to drinks industry analytics group IWSR.
In August, Diageo bought Canadian actor Ryan Reynolds’ minority-owned Aviation Gin brand and three other spirits for $610m, having acquired Mr Clooney’s Casamigos tequila for $1bn three years ago — confirming the value of a celebrity backer to the world’s largest distiller.
“[Casamigos] has been financially a success for Diageo, despite the price,” said Trevor Stirling, analyst at Bernstein. Sales of Casamigos were up 68 per cent in the year to July, Diageo says.
Mr Stirling added: “When Casamigos was first announced, there was a lot of cynical and critical comment. When Aviation was announced, people thought ‘It worked with Casamigos — maybe it’s going to work here.’”
Ken Austin, who co-founded Mr McGregor’s Proper No. Twelve Irish whiskey brand and Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson’s Teremana tequila, argued celebrity-owned drinks provide an all-important quality for the age of social media: “authenticity”.
“The past was all about endorsements — the future is not about endorsement,” he said. “When I was growing up you would turn on the TV and big companies would tell you what to buy . . . [now] consumers don’t want to be ‘sold’ in that way, like drones. If it’s organic and real, that’s what people want to see.”
That means the partnership must ring true. An endorsement by the reality star Kim Kardashian of melon liqueur Midori raised eyebrows among fans who had heard her say she did not drink. Other premium celebrity drinks were poorly reviewed by critics even as they retailed at eye-watering prices.
Some partnerships have left a hangover. Bruce Willis’ endorsement of Sobieski, a mid-market vodka, became co-ownership in 2009 when he was paid with a stake in its parent company. But the French parent group entered bankruptcy protection and said it could not pay Mr Willis a multimillion-dollar payment due once its shares fell below a set threshold. The dispute was settled, according to Bernstein, but sales declined.
By contrast, Mr Reynolds’ acquisition of a stake in Aviation in 2018 helped energise a 12-year-old brand. “Gin is perceived very much as an old person’s drink in the US . . . but Ryan Reynolds is really making it a bit fresh, contemporary and hip,” said Mr Stirling.
Successful partnerships involve “a very professional shrewd celebrity, with a big spirits company doing the heavy lifting,” he said. Jay Z, who also part-owns the D’Usse VSOP Cognac brand, “is a very shrewd businessman, an aspirational figure for African-Americans. He isn’t a wild party animal.”
The volatile character of a man such as Mr McGregor, known as “Notorious”, who in 2018 pleaded guilty to disorderly conduct, has raised questions over potential risks to his brand. But it has done well, becoming the fourth most popular Irish whiskey brand globally last year and helping to push growth in the category, according to IWSR.
Mr Austin said: “Conor is an entrepreneur. No one believed they could make what they made in that Floyd Mayweather fight.” (Mr McGregor said he made about $100m from the 2017 fight.) “When I met Conor I saw a guy who I want at my parties, a guy who is incredibly engaging . . . Conor is a unicorn.”
Celebrity investment, said Mr Austin, “won’t work long term if it’s just about the money. Whether it’s about their legacy or about being an entrepreneur, being a businessperson, they need to really lean in.”
Mr McGregor is also one of a handful of non-US names to break through with a drinks brand. Diageo said: “We . . . don’t see this as being solely a US-centred strategy — for example, in the UK we have worked in partnership, very successfully, since the launch of Haig Club Scotch, with David Beckham.”
For those looking to join the club, the pandemic has added hurdles — particularly as many celebrity brands are spirits, which consumers traditionally sample in bars first.
Mr Austin said at least one celebrity beer is in the works. But with consumers hesitant to resume partying, new brands will have to work hard.
Mr Stirling said: “The celebrity endorsement will help a lot on social media, but getting liquid on lips is much harder to do.”