Celebrities are flooding the market with liquor brands — and some are faring better than others

Mark Wahlberg showcases his Flecha Azul Tequila at Palms Casino Resort in Las Vegas, June 15, 2023.

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As more drinkers seek out luxury spirits, a growing number of celebrities are using their star power, and cash, to elevate premium liquor brands.

Volume sales of spirits brands at the top end of the distilled spirits market increased 4% last year from the year before, according to the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States. Consumers’ willingness to spend more on premium bottles has led to booming sales of liquors such as tequila, which rose 21% in 2022 from the prior year.

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As shoppers shell out for pricier bottles, the high-end spirits business has become an enticing venture for those with the right capital and celebrity, said Chris Swonger, president and CEO of DISCUS.

“Celebrity-owned spirit brands have been around for a while,” Swonger said. “But certainly, the increased consumer interest in great distilled spirits has excitedly generated a lot of celebrity engagement and enthusiasm in recent years.”

DISCUS tracks celebrity-affiliated brands and said it has counted several dozen on market.

From movie stars to athletes, models and musicians, celebrities of all types are aligning themselves with top spirits, forging lucrative partnerships within the industry and even hitting the road to get the word out on their products.

The trend has appeared to take hold most in the booming tequila space.

Actor Mark Wahlberg took on the role of bartender this summer, giving patrons a taste of his Flecha Azul Tequila brand at bars and restaurants across the country. The push is part of the brand’s global expansion, which Wahlberg’s business partner Aron Marquez said wouldn’t have been possible without the actor’s involvement.

“Mark has a tremendous network that has opened up a lot of doors for us,” Marquez said in a phone interview with CNBC. “We always felt that our product was superior to anything else on the market but having somebody like Mark amplify it and our message has made people more willing to taste it.”

Marquez started the company in 2020 with Mexican American pro golfer Abraham Ancer. Wahlberg joined the team last year with an ownership stake, and since then, “sales have gone up exponentially,” Marquez said.

“He’s fully invested not only from a capital perspective, but with his time,” Marquez said. The trio plans to continue its promotional tour across the U.S. and then Canada.

Clooney’s Casamigos sets the standard

(L to R) Founders of Casamigos Tequila Mike Meldman, George Clooney and Rande Gerber attend the launch of Casamigos Tequila at Ushuaia Beach Hotel Ibiza in Ibiza, Spain, Aug. 23, 2015.

David M. Benett | Dave Benett | Getty Images

The Flecha Azul team has a lot of catching up to do, as other celebrity-owned brands such as George Clooney’s Casamigos Tequila gain significant market share on the U.S. e-commerce platform Drizly. Clooney was among the first celebrities to show others how lucrative the premium liquor business could be, especially if they look for an established buyer.

Clooney started Casamigos in 2013 and then sold it to spirits conglomerate Diageo in 2017 for $1 billion. The brand now holds a 19% share of the tequila subcategory on Drizly. The platform said it’s the top-selling tequila brand on its marketplace to date.

Other spirits run by the rich and famous have fared well in recent years.

Newer celebrity entries to the tequila space include Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson’s Teremana Tequila, which is the 8th best-selling variation on Drizly, and Kendall Jenner’s 818 Tequila, which has risen to the 15th spot. Johnson and Jenner launched their brands in 2020 and 2021, respectively.

“While consumers can be somewhat skeptical of celebrity endorsements, there seems to be true staying power for celebrity-owned brands that have been able to leverage their star power in an authentic and meaningful way, while also bringing a quality product to market,” said Liz Paquette, Drizly’s head of consumer insights. “Celebrity-owned brands have seen tremendous success on Drizly, often becoming top sellers in their respective categories.”

Celebrity reach goes beyond tequila

Beyond tequila, Drizly said actor Ryan Reynolds’ Aviation Gin is the No. 3 selling gin brand this year and holds a 9% share of the category. Reynolds sold the gin to Diageo in 2020 for a payout of up to $610 million.

Meanwhile, Jay-Z’s D’USSÉ is the second best-selling brand of cognac to date on Drizly. It holds a 14% share of the cognac space on the platform.

Jay-Z, whose given name is Shawn Carter, sold a majority stake in D’USSÉ to Bacardi in February for a payout reportedly worth as much as $750 million.

While many celebrity brands have flourished during the recent rush, others have fizzled as the competition heats up.

Last month, Diageo cut ties with rapper and music producer Sean “Diddy” Combs after he sued the spirits maker, alleging racial discrimination. Combs, who had partnered with Diageo for 15 years, claimed the company typecast his Ciroc vodka and DeLeon Tequila as “Black brands,” and instead poured resources into Clooney’s Casamigos and Reynolds’ Aviation Gin.

Diageo filed a motion to dismiss the lawsuit and ended the partnership.

“Mr. Combs’ bad-faith actions have clearly breached his contracts and left us no choice but to move to dismiss his baseless complaint and end our business relationship,” the company said in a statement to CNBC. “We have exhausted every reasonable remedy and see no other path forward.”