First Taco Bell Jalapeño Noir, now Old Bay Vodka: Why food brands are turning to unexpected spirits

A picture of a mouthpiece in a New England liquor store unexpectedly caught my eye on Monday as I was scrolling through Twitter. The display was filled with clear spirits bottles adorned with distinctive blue, red and yellow packaging – a variation of the same thing I see every time I open my spice cabinet.

I immediately turned to Google to find out if Old Bay Vodka was A) a real product or B) a really compelling Photoshop job. Sure enough, McCormick, the company behind the iconic spice blend, had released what it describes as a “crisp, refreshing and smooth vodka with fresh celery and herbal notes followed by sweet spice and notes of mild heat (red pepper)”.

For reference, Old Bay is a blend of 18 herbs and spices, including paprika, celery salt, and black and red pepper. Although the seasoning is traditionally used to flavor crabs and seafood, Marylanders have a fondness for using it on the rims of their Bloody Marys. Fittingly, this new vodka was made in conjunction with Maryland-based George’s Beverage Company (which previously partnered with McCormick on an Old Bay Bloody Mary blend).

“Old Bay has been a fan favorite for more than 75 years in the Chesapeake Bay Area and beyond,” Jill Pratt, director of marketing excellence at McCormick, said in a statement. “Our fans are loyal and passionate when it comes to all things Old Bay. We are thrilled to work with George’s to bring the unique flavor of Old Bay to fans in entirely new, exciting and innovative ways.”

The new vodka’s website – which says it will be sold exclusively (or at least to begin with) in Maryland and Delaware – recommends using it to make drinks like the Bay Bomb (6 oz Natty Light, 1.5 oz Old Bay Vodka and a sprinkle of Old Bay seasoning on the rim) or Bay Lemonade (1.5 oz chilled Old Bay vodka and 6 oz chilled lemonade).

Only a few Comments of the product floating around right now, my favorite of which comes from an Arlington-based Twitter user. “Really not bad, you can taste Maryland in it, it will absolutely give a fucking 7.2/10,” they wrote.

Halfway across the country, I wondered if Old Bay Vodka would have some kind of resistance – or if that was even the intention behind it. It’s the latest example of a food company releasing what I heard at a craft drink conference last week as a “stunt spirit.”

As reported by Food and Wine, Arby’s also released two vodkas last fall. The “Curly Fry” flavor has been distilled with cayenne pepper, paprika, onion and garlic for a spirit that “preserves the distinctive and authentic tasting notes of Arby’s traditional curly fry”, while the “Crinkle Fry” variety was prepared with kosher salt and sugar. to honor “the rich tradition of savory potato forms”.

Oh, and they weren’t cheap either. Both vodkas retailed for $59.99 — considerably more than the $2.19 you’d likely spend on a large curly fry — and were only briefly on the market for two specialty drops in November.

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Also in 2021, Taco Bell Canada launched Jalapeño Noir, a pinot to accompany the chain’s grilled cheese chalupa. It sold out just 11 minutes after landing on the chain’s website. That same year, the Kraft Heinz company unveiled the Gray Poupon wine, which was a Viognier made from mustard seeds. It also sold out within a day. (In an update posted to Instagram, Gray Poupon wrote, “We’re officially sold out! Turns out everyone wanted to snack on their lunch break.”)

Unless you’ve had connections or stalked product websites with the same tenacity needed to secure coveted concert tickets, chances are you’re never going to try these special product launches, which have been executed similarly to collaborations like the launch of MLMA x Crocs x Kentucky Fried Chicken in 2020. . (In case you were wondering, these one-of-a-kind shoes sold out less than an hour after they went on sale.)

So what’s the point exactly? Well, I’m currently sitting here wondering if there’s anything I could buy at Taco Bell that would taste good sprinkled with a sprinkle of Old Bay. Just kidding – well, sort of – but in an oversaturated market, attention is both a commodity and a currency. To borrow a line from Netflix’s raunchy comedy “Big Mouth,” “You imagine it, and we talk about it.”

I simultaneously dream of Arby’s vodka and Gray Poupon wine. I can’t get any of these bottles at my local liquor store, but I can get my hands on the real food stuff that inspired them. For the aforementioned companies, that’s probably more than enough.

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