Every year on Christmas morning, men across the United States open small gift-wrapped boxes full of rocks, purchased at the prompting of gift guides promising the "best gifts for dad" or the perfect gifts for a general "him." These, as we've come to know over the past decade, are whiskey stones, and their purpose is to prevent melting ice cubes from watering down perfectly good whiskey.
Whiskey stones, especially around the holidays, are inescapable. Today, Barnes and Noble sells a few sets of whiskey stones ranging in price from $10 to $25; Bed Bath & Beyond sells $215 sets in wooden boxes themed for NHL teams; Williams Sonoma sells a set of skull-shaped whiskey stones. Alibaba has 100 pages of whiskey stone options, and Amazon has so many styles that they even take the shape of whiskey footballs, whiskey diamonds, and whiskey bullets in silver and gold.
In recent years, critics have turned against the whiskey stone. Last year, Lifehacker's Claire Lower wrote that she rarely feels bad for men—save for the times she reads gift guides meant for them, which contain "stupid fucking whiskey stones." A satirical piece in the New Yorker pleaded from the perspective of an over-it boyfriend, "No more whiskey stones." In June, Gear Patrol, a site one might expect to be pro-whiskey stone, called them "the worst gift idea," and when the New Yorker's Helen Rosner published a holiday gift guide last week, it came with a simple directive: "This holiday season, please do not give your loved ones whiskey stones."
But before whiskey stones were something people loudly hated, before they became the butt of a tired joke about "hipsters," and before places like Epicurious concluded that ice works just fine, rocks in a box were a novelty associated with whiskey enthusiasts who cared about improving their drinking experience. Prior to that clever branding, they were just rocks—their trendy gift potential unseen. So, how exactly did small polished stones become the cultural juggernaut they are today—loathed by many, yet still being added to online shopping carts nationwide?
"We invented it, one hundred percent," Andrew Hellman, co-founder of the Connecticut-based company Teroforma, told VICE in a phone call. Since late 2007, Teroforma has sold "whisky stones," a term for which it holds both the trademark and the domain (whiskystones.com).
That wasn't the plan when Hellman and wife Anna started the company in 2007. They hoped to sell high-quality tableware, but the Great Recession hit soon after Teroforma's launch and with mortgages in crisis, high-end home goods weren't a priority for most people. The couple needed a more accessible product to get their fledgling company through.
Before the Recession and before Teroforma, Hellman and his family had cleared out their large family home in Sweden following his grandfather's death. In the kitchen, Hellman found a leather pouch full of small, worn stones and held onto it. Though he didn't realize their use until later, Hellman explained, he learned that the stones had been kept outside to chill and then dropped into hot liquid to cool it down, as old wood burning stoves didn't offer much temperature control.
In need of a new product—one that people could buy even in the midst of financial turmoil—the Hellmans realized the principle of using stones to cool liquid might apply to whiskey. Over years of living and working in Europe, Hellman had developed a taste for it, and at the distilleries he'd visited across Scotland, he said, "The notion was, sure, add water, but don't you dare add ice—it'll mess it up." As he put it, ice congeals the oils in Scotch, dulling its flavor, but stones provide a gentler way of cooling.
The thought behind whiskey stones, Hellman explained, was that they could be a $20 gift idea still novel in a time when cheap gifts for men meant socks and ties. He found Glenn Bowman of Vermont Soapstone, who remains the sole producer of Teroforma's American-made whiskey stones, and began selling them in late 2007. By 2009, the stones had picked up in popularity, which Hellman attributed to word of mouth and the endorsement of websites like Cool Hunting and the now-defunct Daily Candy.
The rise of the whiskey stone is clear through analytics on Google Trends. Before 2008, interest in the term is virtually nonexistent. In 2008, however, "whiskey stones" beings to trend upward, with the first big spike in December 2009, followed by a smaller one in June 2010. There's another big spike in December 2010 and again in June 2011, and that pattern continues. These times of year make sense for increased searches for the term: Christmas, and then Father's Day. The phrase's popularity reached its all-time high in December 2011, and it has slowly dwindled since. Over the past three years, interest has been lower, but still consistent; with the holidays upon us, it's peaking right now, of course.
Daniel Whittington, a whiskey enthusiast who runs the Whisky Marketing School, recalled seeing similar products marketed for cooling wine or other beverages earlier in his life, but that in the late 2000s, those products began to skew specific to whiskey.
"Being named 'whiskey stones' or being sold as a whiskey accoutrement, I think, has gone hand in hand with the explosion of interest in whiskey in general in the last decade," Whittington told VICE in a phone call.
To both Whittington and Hellman, the craft cocktail and small-batch distillery boom of the past two decades has no doubt catapulted the whiskey stone to ubiquity. In 2000, the United States had just 24 craft distilleries, and that number jumped to 430 by 2014, with most of them producing whiskey, according to Fortune. Kentucky had just eight bourbon distilleries in 2009, but it had 68 by 2018, according to the Kentucky Distillers Association.
In the earlier part of the decade, the demand for whiskey grew faster than the supply. As a distillery manager explained to Fortune in 2014, the availability of 10-year-old bourbon relied on how much they'd thought to make 10 years ago. "There was more money in the market to spend on bourbon than bourbon could address," Hellman said. For the whiskey-curious, then, a whiskey-adjacent product wasn't a hard sell, and whiskey stones had a bit of novelty: "Haha, get it? It's on the rocks."
To Hellman, the whiskey stone is fundamentally a simple delight. "There's nothing contrived about it. It's just a very basic physical functionality that anybody can understand really quickly. It seems inherently honest," he said. "And so this notion that the product is made in America; is this straightforward, intuitive, honest, this stone type of product; and the fact that it's, you know, it's always been priced at $20—it's a hell of an impulse purchase."
Whittington suggested that the rise of small distilleries—all of which needed ways to stay afloat—might have led to more merchandise sales, too, like whiskey stones or branded gear. In his speculation, the appeal of whiskey stones to non-whiskey drinkers could have had some pull as well, as people suddenly found themselves knowing more whiskey-drinkers.
"When someone's buying gifts for somebody, if you're known for being serious about whiskey and they go shopping for you, they're not going to buy you whiskey. That's too risky, right?" Whittington said. Those people might go to the accessories aisle instead, he suggested, where the options for whiskey fans are limited. "I mean, really, there's glassware and whiskey stones. My guess is there's a whole lot of people trying to buy things for whiskey people going, 'Oh, whiskey stones—that sounds cool. I'll put that in a stocking.'"
For a few calm years, Teroforma's stones existed without the crush of competitors. They took off "like a rocket," Hellman said, taking the business from $20,000 a quarter to being a "$2 million open order business in like, ten days."
By 2013, though, there were plenty of similar products on the market, especially on Amazon. "The thing that really put a dent in our revenue growth and kind of caused, from our perspective, the product to hit a kind of maturity was really the combination of Amazon and Southeast Asian manufacturing outside of the scope of our US Patent and Trademark protections. That's just an absolutely lethal combination," Hellman said. As a result of the proliferation of similar products on Amazon, he classified whiskey stones as a "deeply mature product" in a saturated market.
"If all you're looking to do is buy rocks to stick in your whiskey, that's a pretty easy thing to accomplish, and there are products that are far cheaper, and frankly, much lower quality than ours," Hellman said. He thinks Teroforma's product still shines in its American-made origins (and its production at a soapstone quarry started in 1850), and in the face of the copycats, he takes pride in knowing that his contribution to the whiskey market was original. "I kind of feel bad for people who have to run their business on the basis of 'Yeah, I'm just going to copy that guy and knock two bucks off his price.' You know, we only get one lap around the track—it's a pretty bad way to waste your time."
Regardless, we've definitely passed peak whiskey stone, according to Whittington, who still relies on them to cool his drinks in the Texas heat. "I mean, there's only so many ways you can make a stone," he said. That doesn't mean people won't try, however: Whittington acknowledged that people are always looking for ways to add their own touch to the world of whiskey, whether that's glassware or other ways to optimize the drinking experience. As innovation begets imitation, he said, "You're going to get the feeder fish who recognize the big fish swimming by and try to get in on the feeding fish."
But the changing trajectory of the whiskey stone market doesn't necessarily indicate that people aren't interested in whiskey stones, Hellman clarified. After all, when whiskey stones were new on the market, the category was starting from zero. As they introduced whiskey drinkers to a new product, it made sense that the growth numbers were "insane." Now, with most whiskey drinkers already well aware of whiskey stones, sales simply grow in line with the percentage of people who enter the legal drinking age and take up whiskey drinking.
Even if people aren't as excited about whiskey stones as they might have been 10 years ago, the stones might just have the staying power to outlast us all. Trends are cyclical, and who knows who might find an abandoned bag or box of polished stones at home?
"If it was ever going to be a kind of 'pet rock,' then would have it would have risen and fallen years and years ago," Hellman said. "Let's face it, it's stone: If you use it exactly right, it'll outlive everybody who ever has your DNA."