Partisanship nearly defines America today. But on Tuesday morning, the Distilled Spirits Council of the US offered some information that all parties can applaud: the American whiskey can claim a banner year. Again. The total whiskey category was flat for years, then in 2011 it picked up steam and it hasn’t shown signs of flagging.
This year’s industry review, which the trade organization presents each February, revealed that the total supplier sales in the US were worth $23.1 billion. With American whiskey, it’s the same happy story: the category is booming and it’s the high-end and super premium brands that are driving the growth. Supplier sales of bourbon and Tennessee whiskey across price segments grew 7.4% over 2013 to approximately 19.4 million cases, a jump of 1.3 million cases. That increase accounts for a massive chunk of the 4.4 million cases by which the overall industry grew in 2014.
The revenue growth for American whiskey tells its own story. Last year, supplier sales rose 9.6% to $2.7 billion, up $230 million over 2013. Breaking it down by price segment proves DISCUS’s oft-repeated dogma: premiumization, which is shorthand for “people aren’t drinking more, they’re drinking better,” drives the industry. Revenue on value products ($12 or less at retail) grew a mere 5.5%, about $181 million on 3.1 million cases. Revenue on high-end ($18-$30 per bottle) products, were up 8.1% to $1.6 billion (yes, billion). But the truly jaw-dropping growth quotient comes in the realm of the super-premium brands ($30+/bottle). These sales leaped 19.2% to $325 million.
Combined whiskey sales growth is accelerating (numbers include imported and flavored whiskeys; CAGR = Compound Annual Growth Rate)
Flavored whiskey was a factor in the surge. Sales of an increasing selection of flavored American whiskey products grew by 140,000 cases. But a more significant is the thriving export market. Christine LoCascio, DISCUS senior vice president for international trade, apologized for being repetitive year after year as she reported more record-shattering stats: the $1.12 billion revenue that bourbon and Tennessee whiskey bring home to producers accounts for 70% of the $1.56 billion spirit exports market.
The top export markets are Canada—which, with $212.6 million of sales, marked a colossal growth of 111% over the past ten years—and the UK ($177.6 million). Germany and Australia pretty much tie with their spending of $136.7 million and $131.2 million, respectively. Then there’s the bureaucratic activity (or mumbo-jumbo, depending on your appetite for granular examination of international relations.) Trade agreements in recent years have reduced or eliminated tariffs in countries like Korea and Australia, which open up more export opportunities.
All this American whiskey talk, however, didn’t drown out the news about Scotch.
“When you listen to single malt Scotch drinkers talk, it’s almost like they’re having a religious experience,” said David Ozgo, DISCUS chief economist. He proceeded to explain that, as with bourbon, high-end and super premium brands are propelling the whole category. While revenues from “premium” single malts (the least expensive brands), fell by 13.4%, high-end and super premium rose by 6.8% and 6.3%. respectively. This came as little surprise just days after the Scotch Whisky Association announced that the Scotch industry is worth more than £5 billion in the UK, which outpaces two of the UK’s giant industries: computers, and iron and steel.
A small but increasing role is played by America’s boutique brands. In 2010, there were 109 independent distilleries operating; today there are more than 700. With sales of about 3.5 million cases last year, these producers account for 1.7% share of the spirits market’s volume. Ozgo noted that estimated supplier revenues was between $400 and $450 million, a sum he calculated based on data from the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau, which indicates taxes paid.
The information presented at the briefing skirted the ongoing debate around the increasingly contentious terms “craft” and “handcrafted,” which have generated class action lawsuits against false claims. DISCUS uses the term “small distillers,” which it defines as the 712 producers turning out less than 50,000 cases (the average in that group being an astonishingly small 3,000 cases). The data, however, also takes into account seventeen distilleries that produce an average of 80,000 cases.
When, after the presentation, this reporter asked about the “handcrafted” debate, Frank Coleman, DISCUS senior vice president of public affairs, noted, “Let them fight about it. Some of the finest craft products in the world are made by large companies. [Glenmorangie master distiller] Bill Lumsden is making handcrafted whisky.” It is a distinction almost unique to whisky that makes the category even more intriguing.