A few weeks into the fall season, consumer preferences for spirits shift. Popular summer categories fall to darker, aged spirits — particularly whiskey.
Whiskey has long been on the rise. In the United States, whiskey is the top-selling spirit category for on-premise consumption, with American whiskey, Canadian whisky and Irish whiskey collectively constituting an impressive 94 percent of on-premise whiskey sales, according to CGA Strategy. Scotch, however, is the top-selling whiskey category globally, according to Expert Market Research.
According to a report from Expert Market Research, the global whiskey market reached a value of $66.5 billion in 2022 and is expected to climb to $85 billion by 2028. In the U.S., whiskey sales were up 9.4 percent in 2022 compared to sales in 2020.
Whiskey is an important cultural and economic commodity around the world. In the U.S., bourbon whiskey is known as “America’s Native Spirit,” having been officially granted the prestigious designation of a "distinctive product of the United States" on May 4, 1964, by the U.S. Congress. As of this year, whiskey and bourbon distilleries employ nearly 6,000 employees around the country. In Kentucky alone, the $9 billion bourbon industry creates 22,500 jobs with an annual payroll topping $1.23 billion. Statewide production plus consumption creates more than $286 million in annual tax revenue for state and local governments.
But it’s not just bourbon that’s so coveted. According to the Alcohol and Tobacco Trade Bureau (TTB), there are currently 41 distinct styles of whiskey produced in the U.S., each contributing cultural and economic significance, with more on the way.
The state of whiskey is positive, but what’s behind its growth march? Let’s dive into three trends that are driving the category forward.
Premiumization: The Rise of Luxury Whiskey
In many ways, premiumization is happening across all industries. According to a 2023 New York Times article, “Big companies are prodding their customers toward fancier, and often pricier, versions of everything from Krispy Kreme doughnuts to cans of WD-40.” But nowhere else is it as prevalent as the beverage industry, particularly with spirits.
According to a recent report from Maximize Market Research, the premium spirits market is expected to reach $315.70 billion by 2029. Brands are tapping into this growing segment of the market, especially as consumer spending habits shift as the pandemic impact subsides and younger generations enter the market. A report from CGA shows that 54 percent of 18- to 34-year-olds are likely to choose a premium drink versus just 35 percent of those over 55.
Whiskey is one of the leading categories in the premium tier. Already pricier than other spirits, growing interest in American whiskey styles globally has led to a hike in premium offerings and pricing.
"I expect to continue to see growth in premium categories as trends tend to indicate that new demographics of consumers, especially those coming into legal drinking age, are drinking less but better,” said Melissa Rift, the master taster for Old Forester, in SevenFifty Daily’s “The State of Whiskey” report. “I also hope that we continue to see growth in multicultural demographics for whiskey consumers since everyone deserves to feel included in this great industry."
In an article from Drizly, David Ozgo, the chief economist for the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States said, “Americans have gained a new enthusiasm for American whiskeys.”
Limited-edition releases and artisanally crafted products allow consumers to engage with a brand’s story, its heritage and the craftsmanship that comes with it. That story, plus the labor behind its production, is reflected in the price.
“Whiskey in general sells at a higher price point than vodka does, so you’re buying more expensive products,” Ozgo adds. “It has caused the category to take off.”
The Collector's Craze: Coveted, Hard-to-Find Whiskeys
In recent years, whiskey collecting has emerged as a popular hobby and investment amongst consumers. This has led to a spike in value for coveted, hard-to-find whiskeys. In the same spirit as the tulip mania that gripped the Dutch Golden Age, a plethora of vintage bottlings have boggled eyes at auctions around the world.
Here’s an example: In December 2018, Christie's auction house unveiled an exceptional collection of pre-Prohibition American whiskeys for auction, hidden away for years in a clandestine 1920s cellar concealed behind deceptive bookcase doors. Notably, Lot 750 from the auction featured 24 pints of 1914 Hermitage Bottled in Bond 9-year-old whiskey, which commanded a remarkable price of $24,500. Numerous other lots in the same auction achieved comparable valuations, showcasing the enduring appeal of these vintage whiskeys. Shortly after, a bottle of Macallan 1926 60-year-old Scotch whisky made headlines after fetching $1.9 million at auction, more than three times its initial estimate.
The trend shows no sign of slowing down. A 2022 wine and spirits auction market report from Sotheby’s reported a record year of spirit sales, with over $30 million achieved — an increase of 40 percent over the previous year, showing the increasing demand for the spirits category in the secondary market.
The top spirits sold were:
- Port Ellen
- Pappy Van Winkle
- Hanyu Ichiro
Whiskey Evolution: New Takes on Traditional Styles
Traditional whiskey styles are quickly evolving. New technologies and methodologies have ushered in a new era of whiskey production, creating an explosion of new blends and traditional styles in new markets.
In SevenFifty Daily’s whiskey report, Christoph Dornemann, the bar manager at Arnaud’s Restaurant and the French 75 Bar in New Orleans, said, “Innovation and influence are pushing people to try to produce new styles of whiskey. I believe the future will see an increase in styles entering the market from around the world with grains not traditionally associated with American or European whiskeys such as rice [and] sorghum.”
One of the best examples of this is American single malt whiskey. The category is growing exponentially across the U.S., led by a coalition of craft distilleries looking to step outside of traditional American whiskey production.
Formed in 2016, the American Single Malt Whiskey Commission is on a mission to address the growing need for American-based whiskey producers to define the category to protect, educate, promote and ultimately grow it. In July 2022, the TTB announced an amendment to federal law 27 CFR part 5 to include American single malt whiskey as a distinctive product with official standards of identity, to be codified into U.S. law.
“It’s a necessary step given the critical mass that we have here, with over 200 distilleries making single-malt whiskey in this country,” Steve Hawley, the cofounder of the American Single Malt Whiskey Commission, recently told the New York Times. “That’s more than all of Scotland.”
That designation is currently still in progress but will be the first new spirit category recognized in years.
Tracie Franklin, a whiskey educator, spirits judge and founder of Get Spirited Consulting, told SevenFifty Daily, “The future of whiskey is getting more diverse, creative and cooperative. With the increased supply from contract producers, brand owners are becoming more diverse along with the population of whiskey enthusiasts. I am also incredibly excited to continue to watch and support the growth of the American single malt category … From Washington State, Nantucket, Kentucky or Texas, single malt is starting to make some noise.”