Smithfield Foods' Brown Sugar & Bourbon bacon will be sold at retail in the fall.
Smithfield Foods has high hopes for the company's latest innovation in the bacon category, Brown Sugar & Bourbon Bacon.
KANSAS CITY, Mo. – Bourbon, or American whiskey, is enjoying resurgence in popularity. The distilled spirit — or some semblance of its flavor — can be found in burgers, sauces and bacon on menus all across the country. Enter Smithfield Foods, which is poised to release its Brown Sugar & Bourbon bacon on Oct. 1.

“There is a trend right now,” said Mike Merritt, senior director of the Smithfield brand, about the company’s choice to use bourbon as a flavoring. “We’ve seen a lot of bourbon-based products. It’s something that’s on the top of consumers’ consciousness right now because there are so many things going on in bourbon production right now.

For example, Arby’s recently launched a Brown Sugar Bourbon sandwich; Carl’s Jr. and Hardee’s unveiled a Midnight Moonshine Burger and before that, partnered with Jim Beam on the Jim Beam Bourbon Burger — which also was topped with slices of bacon.

Merritt points to the mystique surrounding bourbon and consumers’ perception of the craftsmanship involved in producing the spirit. “There’s a little bit of romanticism about it,” he said. “It feels like it delivers a flavor that pairs well with a lot of things.”

But before deciding on bourbon as the flavoring, product developers created different types of flavors, Merritt said. “Bourbon came back as the clear winner, both with consumers prior to them tasting it when we did some flavor [tests] as well as after tasting it,” he added. “The Brown Sugar & Bourbon Bacon is something we tested with consumers, and it came out really well.”

Smithfield’s Brown Sugar & Bourbon is flavored using real bourbon, but the company didn’t partner with a producer the same way Farmland, a Smithfield subsidiary, partnered with Yuengling and Boulevard — which both manufacture craft beer — on some of Farmland’s bratwurst offerings, Merritt said. However, real bourbon is part of a topical seasoning that provides rich, rounded smoky notes in the bacon.

The biggest challenge for the company was finding the right blend of spices to convey the bourbon and brown sugar flavors. “We wanted to make sure we had the right balance,” Merritt said. “You don’t want something to have so much bourbon flavor that it dominates the taste experience.”

Otherwise, the production process went smoothly. Once the bacon is sliced into slabs, it’s hand-dipped into a container that contains the topical seasoning blends. It coats the bellies all over, and gives them a fantastic appearance, Merritt explained. Then, the bellies are thick-cut and placed in stack-packs. The thicker slices are fitting for the heartier flavor profile, he added.

Short selling

The product is set to appear at retail on Oct. 1 but as a limited-time offering. Merritt said the company wanted to test the product before deciding whether to make it a permanent addition to the Smithfield brand bacon lineup.

“We know there’s a lot of opportunity and excitement around bacon and bold flavors for bacon,” he said. “But at the same time, it’s a very competitive market place and space is very, very limited in that bacon space. There’s a lot of different brands; a lot of people competing for space. It’s important for us, given a lot of fixed costs…to really be able to understand how something works.”

Points of differentiation for Brown Sugar Bourbon Bacon, Merritt said, include bold flavor and stack pack packaging which shows off the thick bacon slices. “I think visually it’s going to be very appealing to consumers when they see it,” he said.

The limited-time offering period will give Merritt and others time to examine sell-through rates; gather consumer reactions, and then retailers’ responses to the product. “A lot of times you will get comments right from stores based on how things sell or how their customers respond to product,” Merritt noted.

Next steps

Smithfield plans to support the launch of Brown Sugar & Bourbon Bacon with in-store promotions, advertising and social media promotions. In the meantime, Merritt and his team are keeping an open mind about the possibilities for the new bacon flavor.

“There’s an opportunity for us to use seasonal flavors as well as drive attention and excitement around the category,” he explained. “The great news about selling bacon is everyone loves bacon. You usually don’t have to do too many things to get people excited about bacon. But at the same time, you need to differentiate in that case versus all the other competitors, and you want to get some buzz around what you’re doing. You want to get those extra displays, and you want to get extra sales.”

Merritt said he envisions the company doing more products and promotions similar to the Brown Sugar Bourbon Bacon initiative the future in the form of a LTO, a permanent addition or a seasonal offering.

“We’re really excited about this,” he said. “It’s a big opportunity for us in the market place, and we’re really going to get behind this.”