10 Beverage Trends to Watch in 2017-18

As consumer tastes continue to evolve, surginging beverage-alcohol categories such as bourbon, IPA and rosé have begun to splinter off into subcategories. Different takes on the classics have emerged, including local focuses or reimagined recipes, while countries and regions not normally known for these styles have entered into the competitive fray. With all that in mind, here are 10 trends defining the alcohol industry now and into the next year.

1) The Rosé Category Broadens

Rosé continues to transition from a warm-weather wine to a year-round top seller. And as the category attracts more attention and expands, consumers will look beyond traditional fresh and fruity rosés from Provence.

For example, the Mulderbosch cabernet sauvignon rosé from South Africa is a popular imported rosé in the U.S. “It’s uncommon to have a cabernet sauvignon rosé, but that’s our point of difference,” explains Mulderbosch winemaker Adam Mason. “We think it’s a slightly richer rosé, not in the steely style,” and it’s also darker in color than most.

That it’s a South African rosé—not exactly commonplace—is a unique point of variety, Mason says. He also believes that the $13 to $14 suggested retail price of Mulderbosch rosé is a sweet spot. “Once consumers are staring at a wall of rosé, what informs their decision is price.”

Offbeat rosé is on the menu at Molyvos, an upscale Greek restaurant in New York. Wine director Kamal Kouiri showcases a dozen rosés from Greece. “They run the full range of style, from dry to fruity to sparkling, covering any palate,” he says.

“Some people think rosé is only made in Provence and Bordeaux, but others are now looking for new and different rosés,” Kouiri notes. “These wines represent the pride of variety in Greek winemaking.” Greek rosé, he adds, “is something you can really enjoy while getting a sense of place.”

Rosé continues to transition from a warm-weather wine to a year-round top seller. And as the category attracts more attention and expands, consumers will look beyond traditional fresh and fruity rosés from Provence.

2) IPAs Continue to Diversify

No doubt the IPA is the most popular craft beer style. American consumers love bold flavors, and the bitter, fruity, increasingly juicy India pale ale remains king.

What’s more, the ever-expanding IPA category is segmenting. There are now session IPAs, black IPAs, red IPAs, white IPAs, double IPAs, triple IPA—a style to match nearly any palate. And that increasingly includes regional expressions.

West Coast IPAs were the first regional variant to go big. This super-hoppy style was what first attracted many new drinkers to microbrews and is what people often think of when they imagine IPAs.

Meanwhile, New England IPAs have taken the eastern seaboard by storm and are expanding westward. These hazy, yeasty beers have the complexion of orange juice and extreme fruity, citrus flavors.

The beer that took this from a new style to a full-blown trend is Heady Topper from The Alchemist Brewery in Stowe, VT.

“When I started brewing hazy IPAs, people loved the flavors and certainly didn’t mind the haze that was present in a number of them,” says John Kimmich, The Alchemist brewer/cofounder. “We have spent many, many years educating the beer-drinking community on the reasons why cloudy is okay. It was not always easy; people used to slam our beers in reviews on the appearance side.”

Those days are over. Heady Topper is commonly ranked among America’s top craft beers. It’s inspired a regional IPA movement that, as rumor has it, includes some brewers scraping yeast off the bottom of Heady Topper cans in an attempt to replicate the famously hazy beer.

Other IPA regional variants have emerged. The Northwest IPA of Oregon and Washington “tends to be fuller bodied and have bigger malt backbones than the drier, less malty and less sweet West Coast-style IPAs,” writes Aubrey Laurence of TapTrail.com.

As craft breweries continue to fight for consumer attention, expect more IPA takes to emerge, with other regions in the U.S. claiming certain styles as their own.

“I think a part of what makes craft beer so special is the little differences that can develop regionally,” says Kimmich. “There are certainly quite a few IPAs to choose from nowadays. I think you will see the cream thrive, while the less skilled will be pushed aside. You cannot brew a mediocre IPA anymore and get away with it for very long.”

“We’re seeing an upswing in sessionable beers. Anything English, and pilsners. Every brewery has a pilsner now. Five years ago, nobody had a pilsner.” — Jeff Browning, brewmaster for Brewport, a 15-barrell beer pub in Bridgeport, CT.

3) The Return of Lagers

No doubt there are also drinkers fed up with all these hoppy, bitter, hazy IPAs. While such people remain in the minority, there are rumblings of IPA fatigue.

“It’s already showing,” says Jeff Browning, brewmaster for Brewport, a 15-barrel beer pub in Bridgeport, CT. “We’re seeing an upswing in sessionable beers. Anything English, and pilsners. Every brewery has a pilsner now. Five years ago, nobody had a pilsner.”

Which points to another beer trend: the return of lagers. Ales such as IPAs dominate the American craft market, because consumers started to prefer the more-flavorful ales to their smoother, cleaner lager. But this advantage in flavor is fading fast.

“Now you have breweries like Jack’s Abby [of Framingham, MA] that are making ale-quality lagers,” Browning says. “Buyers and drinkers are taking note.”

4) Classic Beer Styles Reemerge

The resurgence of lagers goes hand in hand with another beer trend in 2017: Brewers are bringing back classic styles that had fallen out of the public eye over time.

“Something I’ve noticed is definitely the call for more unique styles, including older styles that haven’t been brewed for a while,” says Zach Gaddis of Staples Corner Liquors in Crofton, MD. “Altbiers, dortmunders, kvass and lots more.”

Consumers are always looking for something new and different, Gaddis notes. “And some of these crazy styles are filling that void. Hardly anyone brewed a gose style beer a few years back, and now everyone has one,” he adds.

 5) Unusual Mash Bills in Whiskey

Like IPAs, brown spirits are booming and also looking to attract consumers with new and different flavors. For whiskey, that increasingly means unusual mash bills.

Distiller Gene Marra finds Kentucky bourbons too sweet. So the owner of Cooperstown Distillery in New York makes bourbon with wheat, rye and even oats in the mash bill to achieve a flavor profile lighter on sweetness and with more emphasis on tertiary notes.

“We think that oats are the answer to why our bourbon is so great,” Marra says. “We love the complexity and added creamy dimensions that the oats impart. We don’t just want sugar and honey in the mouth, and burnt sugar in the finish—we want vanilla, clove, allspice, burnt caramel, crème brûlée and more obscure notes. That’s what you get from the oats.”

Gene Marra, owner and distiller of Cooperstown Distillery in New York, dislikes Kentucky bourbons for being too sweet. To achieve a flavor profile lighter on sweetness and with more emphasis on tertiary notes, he makes bourbon with wheat, rye and even oats in the mash bill.

Unusual mash bills are also part of the strategy for the newly opened and aptly named Rabbit Hole Distilling in Louisville, KY. Its Kentucky straight bourbon recipe is 70% corn, 10% malted wheat, 10% malted barley and 10% honey malted barley. The distillery also makes a straight bourbon, finished in sherry casks, with a mash bill of 68% corn, 18% wheat and 14% malted barley.

“One of the reasons why we got into this business was to add some variety,” explains Rabbit Hole founder/whiskey maker Kaveh Zamanian. “You look at all the mash bills on the whiskey shelf and you see a lot of monotony. So we took inspiration from craft beer and tried to come out with some new recipes in addition to the old classics.”

 6) Young Whiskeys with Flavor

One issue with the growing demand for brown spirits is that new distilleries have been releasing products too soon. These companies will bottle whiskeys aged from one to three years old in an attempt to recoup startup costs more quickly. It’s difficult, of course, to sit on aging stock for five to 10 years for a new distillery with bills to pay.

But whiskey without enough time in barrels typically lacks fully matured flavors. Hence the rise of thin, grainy young whiskeys that taste unappealingly of cereal.

Some distilleries, however, have found balance between youth and flavor. The secret is in forward-thinking production techniques.

Rabbit Hole, for instance, produces a two-year-old bourbon with plenty of flavor. Beyond its unusual mash bill, which Zamanian says adds to the character, the spirit goes into barrels at 110 proof rather than the traditional 125. “We believed that this would allow more flavor to come forward sooner,” Zamanian says.

Rabbit Hole also ages in special barrels obtained from Kelvin Cooperage of Louisville, KY. This boutique cooperage chars with wood fire instead of gas.

“We think the combo of all that allows the bourbon to have more sweetness and flavor at such a young age,” Zamanian explains. “If the flavor wasn’t there, we wouldn’t release it. We didn’t want to take something to market too early and get a bad reputation.”

Prohibition Distillery in Roscoe, NY, makes the 14-month-old Bootlegger bourbon, which tastes older than its age. Distiller Robert C. Mack believes that the 100% corn mash bill allows the whiskey to age better. Prohibition Distillery also ages the bourbon in five-gallon barrels—well below the traditional 53-gallon barrel—meaning more oak contact for the juice.

Sheffield, MA-based Berkshire Mountain Distillers recently released a four-year-old bourbon (72% corn, 18% rye, 10% barley) finished in Islay Scotch casks for three to eight months. The peaty notes from the barrels provide a strong backbone for this young bourbon to taste beyond its youth.

Rabbit Hole Distilling owner/whiskey maker Kaveh Zamanian believes using boutique barrels lends more flavor to his younger whiskeys.

 7) Vodka and Gin Get Local

As vodka and gin look to benefit from the craft movement, the two white spirits are promoting their regional origins to attract consumer attention.

The new brand Calamity Gin calls itself a “Texas Dry” gin.

For instance, the new brand Calamity Gin calls itself a “Texas Dry” gin. It’s made with wildflowers from the Lone Star State, such as Texas Bluebonnets. 

Up north, Bully Boy Distillers of Boston released its Estate Gin, which contains regionally indigenous ingredients that reflect New England “character and terroir.”

Seersucker Gin trademarked the phrase “southern style gin.” The San Antonio, TX-based distillery behind the brand wants the term to connote a gin that emphasizes citrus, honey and mint rather than juniper notes.

St. George Spirits in Alameda, CA, makes its Terroir gin from Douglas fir, California bay laurel, coastal sage and other botanicals, to develop flavors the company describes as “forest-driven and earthy.”

“Gin now takes provenance to literal level,” says Andrew Mansinne, vice president of brands, MGP Ingredients, a supplier of distilled spirits and specialty wheat proteins and starches. “These new gins are saying, ‘This is where I’m from, and these are my ingredients’.”

Vodka has also embraced the regionalization movement. Till Vodka, a new brand from MGP Ingredients, places great emphasis on its Kansas origination, and that it uses wheat culled from the Sunflower State. “When we talked with consumers about Till Vodka, what really resonates with them is the idea of authenticity,” Mansinne says. 

“Whenever we told them that we buy local Kansas wheat for our vodka, their response was, ‘Tell me more’.”

Mansinne believes this and the bottle’s upscale packaging will allow Till to standout in the challenging and crowded craft vodka market. “With our provenance in the heartland we have a strong story to tell,” he says. “It’s compelling.”

Belvedere makes its vodka from rye grown in central Poland. The luxury brand has been comparing its rye fields to the Champagne vineyards of France. The idea being that optimal production locations and methods result in optimal vodka—and that’s what modern consumers and mixologists care about.

 8) Gins Downplay the Juniper

The shift in gin towards craft brands and regional ingredients has in turn shifted the flavor profile away from the piney essence of juniper berries found in the London dry style of the spirit. More gins are masking this traditional flavor.

Some consumers believe that “most gins are very juniper-forward,” says Ari Anderman, Tanqueray gin brand manager. And while plenty of people enjoy juniper, there are those who avoid the category because they think it’s dominated by one pronounced flavor.

“Heavy juniper scares people,” explains Mike Howard, president of Southwest Spirits & Wine, makers of Calamity Gin. “You have to mask it.”

Calamity Gin features sweet floral tones with citrus notes and a bit of bitterness. But there’s still juniper as the backbone. This is still gin, after all. “We wouldn’t want anyone to think that we think we’re above the roots of traditional gin,” Howard says.

 9) Big Brands Seek Craft Angles

To better compete with craft producers, many big brands have upped the emphasis on their unique qualities. Phrases like “hand-picked,” “hand-selected,” “hand-labeled,” “artisanal,” “super premium” and “authentic” have become common even for the largest of brands and the most ubiquitous of products. Other brands have highlighted their storied histories as a component similar to “craft.”

“Authenticity trumps craft,” says Colin Campbell, New York market manager for Brown-Forman Corp., in describing Jack Daniel’s Old No. 7, which dates back to the 19th century. “Obviously we see the movement towards craft and welcome all the little distilleries, but there’s still a lot to be said about longevity.”

Jack Daniel’s in recent years has also launched its own craft variants: Gentleman Jack, Single Barrel, Single Barrel Barrel Proof and Jack Daniel’s Sinatra Select. It’s a balance, then, in producing spirits for the new wave of whiskey connoisseurs, while maintaining emphasis on flagship products, and finding ways to marry both strategies.

All of the brand’s premium whiskeys start out as Old No. 7—the recipe never changes, Campbell says. “Most people had a little bit of fun with Old No. 7 in college, but then they circle back around to it years later and see its true craftsmanship.”

Patrón tequila, too, has become adept at this craft/mainstream balance in recent time. While obviously a big brand, the tequila portrays its production as “small-batch on a large scale.”

The company makes the tequila through traditional methods but in larger quantities. This includes crushing the cooked agave with a tahona stone, “though we obviously don’t use a donkey anymore to turn the stone,” says Patrón brand rep Jessie Fink.

 10) Craft Beer Goes Global

This remains a small trend at best, but more foreign breweries are shipping craft beers into the U.S.—and beyond the usual suspects. Everybody knows about the brews of England, Ireland, Scotland, Germany, Belgium, France and even Japan. But craft beer is gradually growing beyond these countries and America into a global phenomenon.

Australian Brewery recently launched in the U.S., as did the Italian craft brewer Birra Antoniana. Chilean craft beer has made inroads. Molyvos, the Greek restaurant in Manhattan, carries six craft beers from Greece, from both Santorini Brewing Company and Siris Microbrewery.

Wine Director Kamal Kouiri of Molyvos, an upscale Greek restaurant in Manhattan, is showcasing rosé and craft beer from Greece.

Molyvos restaurant carries six craft beers from Greece, from both Santorini Brewing Co. and Siris Microbrewery. “There’s a movement overseas with young brewers,” explains Kouiri.

“It started with young winemakers who have caught up in countries that were behind the rest of the world in winemaking,” Kouiri adds, “places like Israel, Malta, Slovenia, Turkey and Slovakia. Now you’re seeing the same with breweries and distilleries. These are all new boutique places started by young people.”

Craft beer drinkers in America are forever looking for unique flavors. Brews from unusual countries might just be the next trend in taste that piques their interest.

Kyle Swartz is managing editor of Cheers magazine. Reach him at kswartz@epgmediallc.com or on Twitter @kswartzz. Read his recent piece Ted Danson Talks Mixology, Favorite Cocktails.

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