The ‘champagne of Maine’; Allen’s has top sales but mixed reputation

This story was published on Jan. 23, 2007 on Page A1 in all editions of the Bangor Daily News

For some Mainers it is the syrupy, smooth coffee taste they enjoy with each sip. For others, it is the value they get from its competitive price.

Regardless of why they drink it, Maine residents undeniably have a favorite choice when it comes to brands of hard alcohol: Allen’s Coffee Flavored Brandy.

The product is far and away the most popular of all brands of hard liquor sold in Maine, according to statistics compiled by the state Bureau of Alcoholic Beverages and Lottery Operations. More than 990,000 bottles of the booze were sold in Maine in 2005, while Orloff Vodka, the state’s second-highest-selling brand, sold just fewer than 314,000 bottles, or less than one-third of Allen’s total, the statistics indicate.

Allen’s coffee brandy also far outclassed those next in line in terms of revenue, grossing $11.6 million in Maine for 2005. That same year, Captain Morgan’s Spiced Rum and Bacardi Light, ranked second and third in Maine for dollar sales, grossed $4.3 million and $4.1 million, respectively.

Along with its popularity, however, Allen’s coffee brandy has developed a reputation other distillers may not envy. It is known for frequently being involved in alcohol-fueled criminal complaints, while a popular drink made with Allen’s has a host of unflattering nicknames, including “gorilla milk,” “liquid panty remover,” “keep me up all night” and “fat ass in a glass.”

In spite of its reputation, or maybe in part because of it, Allen’s coffee brandy sales thrive in what is known – for now, at least – as the Pine Tree State.

Because Maine’s liquor bureau tracks the sales of each brand’s various bottle sizes separately, the brandy appears more than once on the state’s list of top-selling hard alcohols. Not only does Allen’s hold the No. 1 spot, it also occupies the third, sixth and ninth spots. No other brand registers more than once in the top 10.

Dan Gwadosky, director of the state’s alcoholic beverages bureau, said recently that the popularity of the brand in Maine is a nationwide aberration. It has held the top slot in Maine for at least the past decade, he said.

“It’s not number one in any other state. It’s not even close,” Gwadosky said. “It’s not even on the radar screen in New Hampshire.”

As for why the brand is so popular in Maine, Gwadosky said he didn’t know. Other coffee-flavored brandies and drinks are popular throughout New England, he noted, perhaps because some think they help fight off the chill of the region’s relatively long winters.

Maria Dorso, a bartender at Raena’s Pub in Bangor, said recently that Allen’s coffee brandy is the most popular brand of hard liquor she serves. She said she goes through nine half-gallons a week, most of it on weekends, and sells the vast majority of it to women.

“It’s 95 percent women who drink it,” she said. “You’ve never heard of a coffee brandy queen?”

Dorso said the bar recently planned to hold a pageant for its regular patrons to anoint one of them with that very title. The pub’s employees changed their minds, she said, when they realized word would get out and they likely would be overwhelmed by a throng of contestants they had never seen before.

Though it sells well, Allen’s does not have the worst reputation among the pub’s staff for being a liquor that inspires bad behavior, according to Dorso.

“Not like [Jose] Cuervo,” she said, referring to the popular tequila.

A few blocks away at Carolina’s, owner Mark Greenleaf said Allen’s is not the top-selling hard alcohol at his establishment, which specializes in drinks made with a licorice-flavored liqueur. He said he sells enough Allen’s coffee brandy, however, that he goes through four or five half-gallons of it every week.

“They say, ‘Give me a brandy!’” Greenleaf said. “You’ve got a pretty good idea they mean a coffee brandy and not a cognac.”

An executive with M.S. Walker, the Somerville, Mass., company that makes Allen’s, suggested recently that the status of his company’s signature product in Maine might be linked to the rise in the 1980s of the Sombrero, a drink that is half Allen’s coffee brandy and half milk.

Gary Shaw, vice president the company, pointed out that the Fuzzy Navel drink helped make DeKuyper Peachtree Schnapps a well-known brand and that the Bloody Mary boosted sales of Smirnoff Vodka. Similarly, it may be the popularity of the Sombrero that makes Allen’s coffee brandy sell so well in Maine, he said.

“Coffee brandy as a product is predominantly a New England or Northeast phenomenon,” Shaw said. “We’re a New England company, and we’re proud of that.”

Shaw said though M.S. Walker reports its Maine sales to the state, it considers such information proprietary and does not release its general sales figures to the public. He did say, however, that Allen’s made up 14 percent of all the hard alcohol sales in the state.

“[Maine] is our number one market,” Shaw said, adding that in the state Allen’s coffee brandy sponsors a bluegrass music festival, a dog sled race and a racecar.

“They don’t call it the champagne of Maine for nothing,” he said.

Allen’s is not the only brand of coffee brandy sold in Maine, but if someone has a bottle, chances are good it says Allen’s on the label. Gold Crown Coffee Brandy, made by White Rock Distilleries in Lewiston, is the second-most-popular brand of coffee brandy in Maine. It is ranked 29th on the state’s list of top-selling brands for 2005, with a total of 30,000 bottles selling for $536,000.

The 2005 Maine rankings show a slight change for Allen’s from the previous year, but not in terms of its overall popularity. In 2004, its various bottle sizes ranked first, second, sixth and 10th in terms of statewide sales, with a total of more than 930,000 bottles selling for more than $10 million.

And the bigger the bottle, the more popular it is. The top-selling unit in Maine for 2005, as in 2004, is Allen’s 1.75-liter container, the largest bottle size of the brand available. Allen’s sales just for that bottle size, also known as a half-gallon, topped $5 million last year. Half-gallons retail for about $20.

The popularity of the liquor, however, means its name shows up in more places than state statistics. It also frequently shows up in police reports and criminal court documents. Police officers, some of whom can tell crime stories involving coffee brandy that are too graphic for publication, have been known to use empty bottles of Allen’s as props at mock accidents staged to warn minors about the dangers of drinking and driving.

“It’s not just stops on the road. It’s [domestic violence complaints] and other incidents,” Detective Gerald Coleman of the Maine State Police said recently. “When alcohol is involved, it’s very often coffee brandy.”

Mary Kellett, assistant district attorney in Hancock County, agreed.

“It appears in [police] reports an awful lot,” she said. “It’s very popular.”

Jeffrey Toothaker, a criminal defense attorney in Ellsworth, said recently he had a case this past year in which emergency personnel went to the scene of a drunken driving accident at the end of a bridge in Belfast.

When firefighters and medical technicians arrived at the scene, they found a woman passenger trapped in the vehicle with a bottle of Allen’s coffee brandy stuck in her mouth, he said.

The booze most often figures in domestic violence cases, the attorney said, but Budweiser and Twisted Tea also frequently are mentioned in court documents. These other brands are not classified as liquor and therefore do not qualify for the state’s list of top-selling units of hard alcohol.

Toothaker speculated, only half seriously, that the number of injuries stemming from domestic violence in Maine may have declined when Allen’s coffee brandy started selling its half-gallon sizes in plastic bottles instead of glass.

“The first one goes down like ice water, and before you know it, they got a fifth [750 milliliters] into them,” he said. “It’s so prevalent, you almost expect it [to appear in police reports].”

Toothaker joked that he makes a point of checking out the liquor aisle when he shops at the local supermarket on weekends.

“If the Allen’s section is half-empty, I know I’m going to have business on Monday,” he said.

Not surprisingly, incidents involving coffee brandy have received attention not only in police and court records but in media reports as well. Some of the reports may be amusing, but others show just how deadly serious drinking to excess can be.

One incident involved a man who in 2002 was found passed out in a stranger’s home in Blue Hill wearing nothing but a pair of girl’s pink underwear. He later told police he had consumed more than a half-gallon of coffee brandy and could not remember breaking into the house.

In 1997, it was linked to an accident in which a New Hampshire woman and her daughter were killed at a highway tollbooth in Scarborough. In that incident, police said Gary Sledzik of Webster, Mass., had been drinking coffee brandy and had a blood alcohol content three times higher than the legal limit when his truck plowed at full speed into the back of Barbara Maxfield’s car.

Such incidents may cast coffee brandy in an unfavorable light but, according to Shaw, whatever reputation Allen’s coffee brandy may have is undeserved.

It is a 60 proof liquor, he said, which means it contains less alcohol than the 70 proof or 80 proof liquors more commonly found on liquor store shelves.

The attention his company’s brand receives in Maine, he said, is simply a symptom of its dominant market share in the state.

“There is nothing in the brand that would make it more potent or dangerous,” Shaw said. “The vast majority of our customers enjoy our product responsibly.”

A1 for Tuesday, Jan. 23, 2007

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