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The Spirit Beverage business in the USA is going through a series of trends, reshaping the industry; some of which started years ago or are having a second go around. Overall the alcohol beverage business has grown considerably but has changed in ways many of which the architects of the post-prohibition liquor industry could not have imagined. It is similar to the authors of the US Constitution, though granting the right to bear arms to all citizens, during the days of single-shot muskets; they could not have imagined modern USA society’s craving for automatic weapons of mass destruction and murder.

COVID Pandemic was “Good” for the Spirit Beverage business

To illustrate this compelling trend, the following is an Excerpt from MarketWatchMag.com:

Spirits sales in the nation’s 17 control states gained further momentum last year on the heels of the historic 2020 Covid-19 sales surge. The powerful growth of super- ($24-$40 a 750-ml.) and ultra-premium (over $40 a 750-ml.) spirits brands fueled dollar sales, which rose 9.8% on a 4.6% volume gain, according to the National Alcohol Beverage Control Association (NABCA) and Impact Databank. “People are trading up significantly,” says NABCA senior vice president of trade relations David Jackson. “People are drinking higher-quality spirits. The greater the price, theoretically, the healthier the market.”

The big category and innovation winners are Tequila which is currently the strongest growing the category, Bourbons from Kentucky and elsewhere, Seltzers for whatever millennial reason, RTDs (Ready To Drink) which is like buying a half-gallon of liquid detergent, of which 80% is water and coming up strong on Tequila is Believe it or not Rum.

The Hip-Hop Effect

There was a time, about 2 decades ago, when you could go into a bar, as the bartender or mixologist for Hennesy neat, which would be poured into a palm-sized snifter, which would be polished with a clean cloth and inspected in the light by the bartender prior to the pour. The pour would be served separated from the liquid of your preference, referred to as a back pour; which could be seltzer water, still water, club soda, tonic, juice, etc.

Where you are in a classic cocktail bar or most any upscale bar in Brazil, the Bartender would pour the Cognac into the snifter, then place the snifter with the Cognac pour on its side above a larger snifter with steaming hot water. This was done so the heated vapors would warm your pour so you could enjoy the olfactory stimulating sensation of breathable essence of Cognac dancing in your nostrils.

To make a long story short, nowadays hip hop ballers have their VSOP served with Coca-Cola or a variety of artificially fruit-flavored liquids poured over ice and most likely sometimes sucked through a straw; like a big gulp.

Hip Hop culture factors which gave rise to this degenerative but very expensive cocktail consumption behavior, include Hip Hop ‘partying’ pillars like Big Baller Bottle Service, in which an alcohol buffet, with every mixer available, is laid bare for participants to mix their own indiscriminate concoction. This in addition to the endless flow of sounds from DJs with the likes of Snoop Dogg and other popular Hip Hop culture-defining stars yapping about “Gin and Juice” and drinking Cognac straight from a .750ML bottle, in music videos, turned cocktail culture into a lack thereof. All of these are yet other signs we are in the last days before Armageddon.

Feminism’s Radical Influence on Legacy + New Spirit Beverage Brands

OK I accept the fact, that many will categorize me as a sexist miscreant or worse, because of the words I will keystroke in this part of the article, but here I go anyway. We are most definitely living in a time of the Rise of women in entrepreneurship, big business, all levels of politics and government as well as entertainment and sports; all of which is a good thing. This and the growth of same-sex relations, on both teams, have fostered a trend where many, if not most women have taken control of their own adventures in imbibing.

In response, the spirit beverage industry has up the flavor-infused game infecting legacy brands of all categories Whiskey, Cognac, Rum, Vodka, Gin, Tequila, etc. This trend of sugar-sweetened and flavored spirits has birthed the creation of new concoctions some of which are dominating the industry, I hate to say it Fireball Cinnamon Whiskey with its dangerous amounts of propylene glycol, is the number spirit beverage by sales volume one overall in many states and #6 in sales by volume in the USA. Considering the honey or apple-flavored whiskeys, the passion fruit or mango flavored tequilas, and blueberry or cranberry flavored vodkas, clearly the industry is now fully catering to both immature and female taste preferences. I wrote it.

The Emergence of the Premiums, Super Premiums, and Ultra Premiums

The spirit beverage industry has gone through a transformation over the past 3 years, of course, mostly COVID pandemic driven. Though the lion’s share of spirit beverage consumers, most likely, are oblivious to the most prevalent trend currently impacting liquor consumption in the USA. Due to the social distancing and eventually social restrictions, which saw the On-Premise spirit beverage and overpriced food aka cuisine consumption business, was severely limited, if not completely obliterated.

Consequently, consumers have lately had a lot more money to spend when they went to their fav beverage stores to stock up on their Home Bars. The Winners are the Premiums, Super Premiums, and Ultra Premiums spirits. This trend is predicted to be one that will continue to grow, for some time to come. Hey Once You’ve tasted Johnny Walker Black, you ain’t never going back.

The Rise of Rum

Following years of decline, the rum category grew 4% in the U.S. market, with depletions increasing from 22.4 million cases in 2019 to nearly 23.3 million cases last year, according to Impact Databank.

Rum has had a lot of help including:

  • The not-so-temporary, pandemic-related, transition of On-Premise consumption from bars + restaurants to Home backyards and bars
  • Innovative and good-performing brands are being acquired by much bigger companies brand, with a much bigger marketing budgets
  • The aforementioned growth of Premiums, Super Premiums, and Ultra Premiums have given rise to new brands such as:
    • Equiano Rum is the first-ever blend of a 10-year Cognac Barrel Aged Rum from the African island nation of Mauritius and an 8-year Bourbon Barrel Aged Rum from Barbados. Equiano Rum has a truly compelling anti-slavery human rights social cause marketing agenda.
    • Another breakaway hit from St Lucia is Chairman’s Reserve
    • Then there is also the boost to top-selling and legacy Rum brands.
  • The expansion + surge of the online marketing of spirit beverages
  • RTD aka Ready To Drink cocktails in single-serve and multiple pour bottles, into which rum category leaders the Philippines’ Tanduay, Bacardi, and Malibu have jumped into RTD in a big way.
  • These insights are from Rum On the Rise published in MarketWatchMag.com
  • This month’s Market Watch print edition has a Rum outlook update in its May 2022 edition with an article Rum Renaissance; which emphasizes two key factors in the new life of Rum are Aged Expressions and High Volume Flavors.

Sex Sold, Now Celebrity Sells

Remember when liquor and beer brands would parade scantily clad, sexy babes around newspapers, magazines, and TV ads; as well as live events. Well, those days are mostly over. In today’s Alcohol marketing environment Sidney Frank would never have had the success he had with Jagermeister due to the Jagerette Girls; which enabled him to become a billionaire because of his brainchild Greygoose Vodka. There would not have been any Courvoisier, Miller Lite, or Budweiser models, posters, or calendar competitions. I could go on but it will only make me long, even more, for those aspects of the so-called good old days.

This new direction is not just because our society is a lot less heterosexual or because women are now making a whole lot more marketing decisions in today’s marketing of ABV beverages; although those factors do figure in, certainly.

The most overwhelming factor which has led to the demise of Sex Selling is our society’s pop culture obsession with celebrities. Some celebs have such universal star power, that if they are associated with a newly or recently launched Spirit Beverage Brand, it is all but guaranteed to be an On and or Off-Premise success. Most notable examples include but are certainly not limited to:

  • Three billion-dollar Casamigos exit, enjoyed by George Clooney, Randy ‘Mr. Cindy Crowford’ Gerber + another partner. I wonder if any of the Mexican distillery workers and owners benefited from that success?
  • Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson and his Teremana Tequila, one of the hottest in the super-hot Tequila category.
  • One of the first Celebs in the Spirit business was Sean Combs, who partnered with Diageo’ to market the awful Ciroc Vodka, which is actually more of an Or D Vie, than a Vodka, estimated to have a market value of 500 Mil USD.
  • Another Hip Hop impresario Jay Z is marketing bottom-shelf Cognac D’USSE, in partnership with Bacardi. His Ace Of Spades Champagne should have caused another French Revolution.
  • Other notables include:
    • Matthew McConaughey and his Wild Turkey Long Branch Bourbon
    • Old Dead er ah I mean Head Dan Aykroyd and his Crystal Head Vodka
    • NFL Hall of Fame Quarterback and Broadcaster Terry Bradshaw’s namesake Bradshaw Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey
    • Kendall Jenner, I guess mostly markets her 818 Tequila, to teenage girls who sneak out of their bedroom windows to go hang out, with boys who score alcohol by paying the neighborhood drunk to buy it.
  • There is a slew of products with staying power or good potential backed by Hip Hip Stars and sports celebrities Gen Xers + Millenial stars like:
    • Drake’s Virginia Black Whiskey,
    • Labron’s Lobos Tequila and
    • 50 Cents Effen Vodka;
    • Then are the has-beens and never been with stupid stuff like Lil Jon’s Junk ah er I mean Crunk,
    • Nicki what’s her name Myx ‘No Chance’ Moscato
    • and the dumbest of them all DipShit’s er ah I mean DipSet’s Sizzurp, an ode to Cognac mashup Hypnotic, Alize and Mystique. What’s old is just old.
  • I would be remiss if I did not mention my favorite Celeb back spirit beverage, the one, and only Aviation American Gin, CEO’d by the One and Only Deadpool aka by his stage name Ryan Reynolds; who can be reached by email at Ryan@AviationGin.com. I just love me some Gin and luvs me some Ryan Deadpool.

Craft Spirits from Bathtub to Top Shelf

Chicago, where I am forced to dwell, by the powers of the Universe, has had significant success in the Craft Spirit boom, not to be confused with the much bigger Craft Beer Explosion. Craft Spirit brands are distinguished from other new spirit brand startups because they are distilled, matured, and bottled in-house.

Chicago’s big Craft Spirit Winners include in order of success:

  • Few Spirits is a Super Premium brand from Evanston on Chicago’s northern border and home to Northwestern University.
  • Koval Distillery of Chicago’s trendy Ravenswood neighborhood, is a real enigma, due to its Chicago Market success. Launched by a wife + husband team of college professors, within two years Koval’s many spirits of many categories plus its Liqueurs were on every upscale retail shelf throughout the region. Koval does have a tasting room and offers distillery tours, a staple of the Craft Spirit business. I’m betting Koval is mob-connected.
  • CH Distillery specializes in clear spirits Vodka, Gin, Rum, and Aquavit, all of which are well-respected spirits. But the genius move of CH was to acquire the Mallot brand, which is one of the most awful tasting spirits ever poured. But Millennials love it and can’t get enough of it.

Craft Spirits are not limited to Chicago producers, as a matter of fact, there are thousands of Craft Spirit brands on the market, which did not exist a decade ago.

Seltzers On-Premise Surge

Alcohol-enhanced seltzers have enjoyed massive growth recently as consumers embraced their easy-drinking functionality. New players and established brands alike jumped into the category, creating a flurry of activity in this emerging and surging RTD segment. Along with gaining a strong customer base at the retail level, seltzers quickly started appearing on-premise, both on beer lists and as an ingredient on cocktail menus, and that’s accelerating as more restaurants and bars reopen after Covid-19 closures. Throughout 2021, alcoholic seltzers continued their meteoric growth and many brands are focusing on the on-premise as a key sector moving forward.

Brands like White Claw, Truly, and High Noon dominate the craft seltzer category, but big-name players like Bud Light and Smirnoff also have seltzers that are doing well, even on-premise. From Seltzer’s On-Premise Surge, MarketWatchMag.com, May 10, 2022.

RTD A New Take On An Old Craze

Recently, I called on the only spirit beverage store in a Macy’s; the Macy’s State Street Store, Chicago. The Manager stated he was phasing out completely all spirit beverages, to focus on its core wine products. However, he is increasing his RTD aka Ready To Drink brands, mostly in single-serve cans. The store caters to a very transient commuter clientele. They come through, go to the cooler, grab an RTD can, and go.

In this article I have mentioned RTD numerous times, it is an integral trend of the current spirit beverage marketplace; both single-serve and multiple-pour bottles. However, RTD is not new, in fact, it has always excited some brands like the two-decade-gone Heublein brand which was exclusively RTD. Then there were the short-lived canned wine and spirit coolers, which would be right at home in today’s RTC Category.

Direct To Consumer Delivery Locally + Across State Lines No Less

When prohibition was ended in 1933, nearly 89 years ago, the US government set up the So-Called 3 Tier Distribution System, consisting of:

  • Tier 1: Producers aka Manufacturers aka brands, locally licensed Federally Approved
  • Tier 2: Wholesale Distributors, State Licensed.
  • Tier 3: On + Off Promise sellers to the consumers, Locally + State Licensed.
    • However, there are 17 states which do all Off-Premise Spirit Beverage sales statewide.
  • Actually, due to the proliferation of imported brands, there is actually another 2nd tier; that of the Importer, Federally Licensed; making for a 4 Tier System for imported brands.

The wholesale distributor category was set up to appease and include the mobbed-up players who distributed alcohol throughout the years of active prohibition. The wholesale distributor, though still a pillar of the USA Alcohol beverage industry, is slowly being weakened or minimized due to state governments changing laws and the feds not standing in the way of what is essential;y technology-driven progress.

First middleman tech started to take orders for alcoholic beverages and deliver them to consumers from Off-Premise retailers. In some cases within a very short period of time of an hour or two. Drissy comes to mind as an early and still successful player in that business.

Nowadays there are some states which allow alcoholic beverages to be shipped into their states both direct to stores and or consumers; taking a little power away from the most one-time Mobbed Up Wholesale Distributors. Provi and SevenFifty, which enable that business model, recently merged and unveiled their combined eCommerce Platform. These combined tech-enabled capabilities now enable brand manufacturers to ship directly to On and Off Premise sellers; both within and across state lines, with some limitations depending on locale.

So between Direct to Consumer delivery, Seltzers, RTDs, Flavored everything, Craft Spirits, Celeb brands, the Rise of Rum, and the massive growth of all things Premium, Super Premium, and Ultra-Premium this is the stuff of which “Hot Fun in the SummerTime’, is made. Have a great summer, y’all!!!