News

There is a light

By Rob Allanson
It was 10 years of progress for distilled spirits in America. Yes, the recession that closed out the decade walloped consumers globally, but the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States’ findings presented at its annual industry review recently were encouraging. “There’s a light at the end of the tunnel, we just don’t know how long the tunnel is,” said Peter Cressey, president and CEO of DISCUS, America’s national trade association.During the past decade, distilled spirits’ revenues grew 66 per cent to $18 billion, a rather staggering figure given that the 1990s closed at $11.2 billion.Annual growth over the past decade averaged 5.2 per cent, except from 2008 to 2009, when revenues were nearly unchanged, largely because of people trading down. According to David Ozgo, DISCUS’s chief economist, consumers historically return to trading up after a recession. “More growth is preferred, but given the state of the economy, that’s a fairly good result,” he said.Last year’s revenue was flat despite spirits’ volume growth being slightly up, which is a result of spirits gaining market share of the alcohol business.Compared to beer and wine, spirits are at the highest point since the mid-1980s.As a general trend, super-premium spirits grew in volume at a gangbuster pace in 2008, but volume actually fell by 5.1 per cent in 2009. It was the value brands that drove the spirits industry’s growth last year. Whisky, Ozgo told me, “fell nicely into this pattern.” In the blended whisky subcategory, for instance, value brands performed extremely well, with volumes up 5.8 per cent. Even premium whiskies were up by 0.9 per cent, which is notable given the extensive trading- down and that whisky is often subject to that. The volume of value brands of American bourbon and Tennessee whiskey increased by 6.3 per cent and premiums were up by only 2.3 per cent. The Canadian value category was up 2.1 per cent, while premium fell by 4.3 per cent.Interestingly, blended Scotch is the only whisky category that saw the value segment decline (by 5.3 per cent). High-end blended Scotch was down 7.1 per cent and the volume of super-premiums closed out 11.2 per cent behind 2008’s depletions. Highend bourbon and Tennessee whiskeys were down 3.6 per cent and super-premium was down 0.6per cent. This is consistent with high-end and super-premium segments of other spirits categories.Single malts, however, are an exception, as the premium segment clocked in with a double- digit volume growth. The high-end and super-premium segments were up 1.1 per cent and 1.3 per cent, respectively.“It’s interesting that while most high-end and super-premium whiskies declined, there was still growth in the single malt category,” Ozgo told me. “I think the reason for that is with premium whiskies, there tends to be more of an overweight to on-premise, where high-end brands get almost 50 per cent of their volume in general. Also, single malt aficionados are collectors. They buy for themselves or as gifts. It’s not dependent upon them wandering into a restaurant, so there’s a modicum of protection.They’re still able to grow.” Irish whiskies, which generally skew to the higher end, are another remarkable deviation from the norm. Super-premiums are down 3.1 per cent but high-ends are up by 13 per cent, giving the overall category a growth rate of 10.2 per cent percentage points.With American whiskeys accounting for $1 billion in exports, DISCUS has focused on educating global consumers.Frank Coleman, DISCUS’s senior vice president, noted the organisation’s export program that showcases the unique characteristics of American whiskies in emerging markets in Asia.“The export story is good, but we continue to fight the tendency to protect markets with high tariffs and other non-tariff barriers,” he said.With all the innovation afoot in the whiskey market, especially with the proliferation of American micro-distilleries, it’s easy to believe that those endeavors would fall victim to the economy’s wrath. These distilleries’ success indicates otherwise.“The fact is we’ve gone through a recession, and the number of micro-distillers remain constant. We don’t hear about them going out of business like other small businesses,” said Ozgo. “The development of micro-distiller is a net positive for the whole industry.“The fact that these guys exist means there’s a lot of interest in distilled spirits in general. They exist because the industry is growing enough to have niche players. New brand development is key to the industry.”