The buzz about booze

The drinking habits of American diners are changing

By Jim Duncan


n1411p38009hTrends this decade suggest that millennials are changing America’s drinking habits as significantly as any generation in 50 years. Just as baby boomers gravitated to beer and wine instead of the hard liquors of the Mad Men generation, millennials seem to be prioritizing hard liquors over beer and wine.

Fortune magazine reported in January that the spirits industry had its third consecutive year of big growth, with the volume of spirits sold at retail locations rising 2.4 percent in 2016 after growing 4.5 percent the previous year. Sales now total $25.2 billion in the United States, according to the Distilled Spirits Council. Fortune also noted a longer term for this trend. “It (2016) was the seventh consecutive year that spirits stole more market share from brewers. The spirits industry now commands 35.9 percent of the total alcohol market vs. 47 percent for beer and 17.1 percent for wine.” To put that in context, beer made up close to 60 percent of the alcohol market in the 1990s.

The trend is not limited to the U.S. In Britain, The Mirror reported that the number of pubs in the UK was decreasing at an alarming rate — 21,000 have closed down since 1980, and 29 more fold each week. Wine drinking and American-style cocktail lounges are blamed, particularly because they are far more apt to be smoke-free than pubs, and that appeals to younger drinkers.

In Iowa, some trends are running in opposite directions. Craft beer sales have been nose diving for three years, while new craft breweries keep opening. The Des Moines Register recently reported on 14 new Iowa breweries opening or expanding this year. Even after drinking a few of Peace Tree’s Blonde Fatales (so named for its 8.5 percent alcohol content), most people still realize that product growth is not sustainable when demand dips.

The spirits industry is growing in similar fashion to the craft beer industry in Iowa a decade earlier. Drinkers seem to like a local story. Iowa distillers such as Cedar Ridge, Mississippi River and Templeton Rye have been growing. Dehner, Broadbent and Iowa Distilling Company have joined their ranks.

Both Canadian and American whiskey makes are adding new flavors to their spirits.

Both Canadian and American whiskey makes are adding new flavors to their spirits.

One current trend in spirit sales makes it tough on the new kids. Whiskey sales in the U.S., and Iowa, are rising much faster than vodka sales. Nationwide whiskey sales grew by 7.7 percent in the last two years. Vodka sales gained 2.4 percent in 2016 after three years of decline. It still accounts for one out of every three bottles of booze sold in America, but its market share is losing ground to whiskeys. Whiskeys also command higher prices. This is tricky for new distillers because it takes years to age a whiskey, while clear spirits are ready to market much sooner.

This may be changing soon, according to Des Moines sour beer brewer, and wine and spirits expert, Marcus Walsh. “Technology could change whiskey making very soon. Science has figured out how to simulate the effects of 30 years of barrel aging, and expert tasters are not able to tell the difference,” he said.

The drag on vodka sales is also attributed to millennial tastes. “It’s rather bland and tasteless compared to whiskey,” says restaurateur David Baruthio, a partner in Ankeny’s new Whiskey House & Bourbon Grill. “I think younger people find that appealing,” he said.

WH&BG stocks some 480 whiskeys, according to Baruthio. “We even have Japanese whisky, one bottle of which cost more than $1,000 wholesale,” Baruthio added.

That’s more significant internationally than in Iowa where it’s hard to find Japanese whiskies in retail stores. According to Forbes’ lifestyle columnist Karla Alindahao, Japanese whiskies have supplanted Scotches as the world’s top-rated spirits in international competitions.

In the U.S., the booze buzz surrounds U.S. whiskeys bourbon, Tennessee and rye, which jumped collectively 6.8 percent, with revenue up 7.7 percent to $3.1 billion last year. Irish and Canadian whiskies also grew significantly, while Scotch lagged. U.S. whiskey makers are now moving into a field that many think sunk vodka — flavored spirits. They are moving with more restraint though. While vodka saturated shelves with many odd flavors like bubble gum, wedding cake and jelly belly, whiskey makers in the U.S. and Canada are following up the success of cinnamon, caramel and honey spirits with fruity flavors that are associated historically with booze making in America.

George Formaro of Orchestrate Hospitality is researching Civil War-era drinks such as apple whiskey as well as brandy, rum and infused spirits. Chris Diebel at Bubba, which also stocks an array of upper-shelf whiskeys, touts the restaurant’s pecan and bacon infused spirits and its “banana bread Manhattans.” Mississippi River Distillery partner Ryan Burchette says the company’s new Mother Nature liqueur is gaining fans for its combination of pears, sugar and corn spirits.

Saison partner Mike Crownover warns that whiskey makers need to be wary of flavors. “They really are meant to be consumer directly, like cinnamon-flavored ones usually are. They otherwise combine flavors that are already too strong for mixing in cocktails. I prefer accenting the ‘oakiness’ of a barrel, like we do with our double-barrel-aged Templeton Rye Manhattans,” he suggested. ♦


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