A fresh way to sell alcohol? That's absolutely FAB

Lambrini's popularity has made Italian wine producers bubble with irritation, yet the newest drinks market is now the toast of the town
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Indy Lifestyle Online

You might wonder why a drink made in Liverpool from pears should have had a writ slapped on it by a number of major Italian wine producers. On the face of it it's because the British drink, Lambrini, is a little too close for comfort, in name and look, for the producers of Lambrusco. But is there more to this sorry legal fizz-fight than meets the eye?

You might wonder why a drink made in Liverpool from pears should have had a writ slapped on it by a number of major Italian wine producers. On the face of it it's because the British drink, Lambrini, is a little too close for comfort, in name and look, for the producers of Lambrusco. But is there more to this sorry legal fizz-fight than meets the eye?

Lambrini was first launched in 1994 by Halewood International, a company that comes up with ideas for sweet, fizzy alcoholic drinks and then markets them with vim. Lambrini was given its Italianate name to distinguish it from other perries in the Halewood stable; a French style called Chateau Chaumet, a German one called Hochberg and the English-style Harvey's Tradition. Advertised with slogans like "Have a Perry Christmas" it never pretended to be anything other than a perry, the company claims; it's adamant that there's no confusion and that, in any event, Lambrusco has dragged its heels.

Most major retailers have Lambrusco in the wine section while Lambrini sits in a separate party or pre-mixed drinks section. According to Emma Fox, head of the Asda wine department, "Lambrini is the middle-aged housewives' naughty drink while Lambrusco, believe it or not, appeals to a slightly more sophisticated consumer." Why anyone would want to imitate a drink already in decline is hard to fathom. Lambrusco has become so debased by price cuts, alcohol reductions and colour changes that it's lost its way.

Underlying the tiff between fizzies is the fact that that Lambrusco is a spluttering Lambretta next to the sexier Lamborghini of lucrative alcoholic drinks. Backed by a £10m promotional budget and an advertising campaign which included "Mary had a little Lambrini", the Halewood product has overtaken the traditional tipple, with sales of 35 million bottles, worth £80m.

The man behind Lambrini and similar drinks is 53-year-old drinks-marketing whizz John Halewood. After working for Gonzalez Byass, Halewood sold drinks ranging from Advocaat and Whisky Cream to Romanian wines. In the five years since he developed a bottling plant in Huyton to put bubbles in drinks, his business has been increasingly effervescent. Halewood International has cunningly tapped the rich vein of so-called alcopops, a phenomenon that took off in 1993 when an Australian farmer created a drink sensation on the back of a glut of lemons.

This led to a rash of immensely popular products such as Hoopers Hooch and Two Dogs, and while the alcopops craze peaked in 1996, it made way for a more sophisticated version of pre-mixed alcoholic drinks. Designed to be drunk in by twentysomethings who like the buzz but not the taste of alcohol, FABs, or Flavoured Alcoholic Beverages, are cleverly packaged, with catchy names like Bacardi Breezer, Smirnoff Ice and Moscow Mule.

Halewood's contribution, Caribbean Twist, now sells more than a million cases. Then came Sorted, a vodka-based drink with flavours bearing the names Iron Brew, Zade and Teaser. Sorted fell foul of the Portman Group, a voluntary drinks industry watchdog, for drug-taking imagery. With a deft change of design, that problem was, like, sorted.

Then in March last year came the Next Big One. Red Square, a vodka and cranberry juice FAB with 5.5 per cent alcohol, was aimed at young people who like to imagine they're cool enough to drink Seabreezes. Red Square proved initially to be a red rag to the popular Red Bull, which sued it because of its similar appearance. In an out-of-court settlement, Red Square changed its packaging from blue to black and now sells over five million cases a year. Recently, Halewood joined forces with AG Barr, the Irn Bru people, to produce Red Square Irn Bru. Next in line is a new dairy-type drink called Smoovie.

Tempting as it might be to dismiss the FAB phenomenon as just another passing fad, the new generation of sweet, synthetic drinks havebecome so popular that sales have rocketed from a total of 12 million litres in 1996 - Halewood alone now sells around 35 million litres a year. John Halewood has plenty to comfort him as he prepares to deal with the grapes of wrath, Italian-style.

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