At the annual Distilled Spirits Council of the United States (DISCUS) industry review on Tuesday, February 4, the usual graphs and numbers on domestic sales of distilled spirits and export sales of American spirits were presented, and they told a great story about American whiskey producers. American whiskey is solidly on its way back, after thirty years of steeply declining sales. (see graphs 1 and 2). I started writing about whiskey in the mid-1990s, and much of what there was to write about back then was how the decline in whiskey sales was slowing down (I referred to it as “the glide path” to emphasize that it was a gradual decline, but I must have forgotten that glide paths always end on the ground!), and optimistically noting that there were some small niches in the overall category that were showing growth: single malt Scotch whisky, and small batch bourbon. Everything else was dropping.
Now things have turned around, and the DISCUS numbers were rosy indeed, especially in the export market for American whiskey. Exports of bourbon and Tennessee whiskey topped $1 billion for the first time, and represented 2/3 of total U.S. spirits exports. The top six markets for export growth (by dollar sales) were Japan, Germany, France, the UK, Spain, and Panama, while Canada remained the single largest export market by far. DISCUS attributed this export growth to economic recovery, a recognition of American quality, a drop in tariff barriers in key markets, and a continuing strong interest in classic cocktails. They also noted the Department of Agriculture’s promotion of American spirits overseas.
Here at home, total spirits sales were up 4.4%, to $22.2 billion, and a lot of that stemmed from the growth in sales in the “High End” and “Super Premium” categories, the most
expensive bottles. It was noted that whiskey provides substantially higher revenues per standard 9-liter case (an average of $133, compared to $85 for vodka), and the whiskey category’s growth of 6.2%. In volume, total spirits cases sold were up 3.9 million cases, and whiskey’s 3.1 million case increase was 80% of that growth. It’s not all American whiskey, either. While total whiskey volume was up 6.2%, Irish was up 17.5%, “Blended” (which includes flavored whiskey; more on that shortly) was up 14.3%, single malt scotch up 11.6%, bourbon/Tennessee/rye was up 6.8%, Canadian up 2.9%, and blended Scotch whisky was up 2.0%.
Flavored whiskey continued to grow strongly, with 1.4 million additional cases sold, accounting for 45% of the total whiskey category growth. Straight whiskeys, however, accounted for 80% of the revenue growth, so you can bet that the distillers won’t abandon them in a rush to flavors. There was talk of how distillers are being cautious about introducing the rainbow of flavors that has typified vodka sales, and open speculation over whether vodka has gone too far with flavors, jumped the shark; it seems doubtful to me that the bottom of that well has yet been plumbed, but whiskey is going to be a different case. Don’t expect birthday cake bourbon anytime soon.
Where is all this growth coming from? It appears that a good chunk of it is coming from the decline in sales of beer, particularly traditional major brands. The folks from DISCUS saw this as a triumph of their focus on increasing accessibility (by encouraging Sunday sales where restricted and urging modernization of control state systems) and encouraging cultural acceptance of spirits. As spirits become easier to buy, as people don’t have to make a special trip out of their way to buy them, people are choosing them more often than they have in the past. But a lot of it, clearly, is coming from the increased appreciation for whiskey, and the increased innovation and choice presented by whiskey makers, both from the traditional regions and from the increasing number of craft distillers.
You can see the full report at the DISCUS website here.