Brown spirits continue to boom in America. Although consumer education lags a bit—many people still don’t know the difference between bourbon and whiskey, or Scotch and whisky—the interest in distilled spirits remains high.
This is clearly great news for distillers, distributors, retailers and on-premise operators. The depth of consumer interest has spurred new brands from around the world in recent years. Product innovation also has reached new heights.
Here’s a look at seven trends that are defining the American market for whisk(e)y in 2020.
1) Younger Spirits Tasting Better
“Young” and “good tasting” rarely go together when describing whiskey. Particularly in today’s craft boom, when a number of cash-hungry, new-wave distilleries rushed product onto shelves with unmellowed whiskey that was still sharp and raw. That’s hardly a way to build a brand: charging $65 and up for an off-flavored whiskey that needed more time in the barrel.
But at the same time that these bad apples pushed out products, other distilleries put in the time to figure out how younger whiskey could taste better.
The result has been a boom of bourbon, less than five years old, that comes across the palate as being much older. How did some producers accomplish this unlikely feat?
The craft movement has brought rising levels of distilling expertise, knowledge and innovation. Add all that up, and suddenly the smarter distilleries can make younger whiskey that’s well worth bottling.
Among the newer producers leading this charge is Rabbit Hole. Owner/founder Kaveh Zamanian says he never intended to release younger whiskey. But when tasting through early batches, he liked the results enough to bottle. Expertise and innovation came through in the end.
“With over 200 years of combined industry experience, and several veterans of the industry involved in training of our team, there is no question in my mind that our distillation expertise is a factor in our success,” says Zamanian. “It’s one thing to produce a good batch of whiskey; it’s another to do it with precision and consistency batch after batch.
Better production techniques created a better whiskey.
“Wholeheartedly, I believe that our proprietary cooking process coupled with the use of malted grains brings out more flavors and creates a much more interesting whiskey, which makes age less of a factor because the flavor really comes through in the glass,” Zamanian adds.
“We also put the liquid in the barrel at 110 proof and never chill filter our products, both of which are choices that preserve more flavor. Last but not least, we have always used toasted and charred barrels. We don’t take short cuts and definitely don’t sacrifice quality for bottom line. It’s the combination of all of these factors.”
Rabbit Hole is certainly not alone among top-level craft distilleries that have found flavors earlier through innovation and expertise. As the level of knowledge in the industry continues to expand, look for more brands to bottle quality products earlier.
“I’ve never been too hung up about a whiskey’s age. It’s about maturity,” says Wes Henderson, cofounder and chief innovation officer of Angel’s Envy. “So what if it’s young? If it’s young, and a distillery’s transparent about it, and the whiskey is good, then that’s great.”
Another factor that’s driving this trend is the continued popularity of high-rye mash bills such as Bulleit, Four Roses and MGP. Because rye achieves flavor faster—100% ryes can reach maturity in two to three years—this has allowed high-rye bourbons to mature faster as well.
“You can’t do that with a wheated bourbon, because they’re too soft,” says John Little, CEO and master distiller at Smooth Ambler Spirits. “People in this business are learning that products that have more rye can produce mature notes faster.”
2) The Next Evolution in Oak
As brands continue to innovate, look for more distillers to flex their creative muscles in employing oak.
Firestone & Robertson Distilling Co. recently began a program of aging in numerous kinds of oak: port, sherry, muscatel, Cognac, tequila, rum and more. Beyond releasing oak-specific expressions in the future, this also provides the distillery’s blender with a bounty of flavor options to piece together the best blended products.
In other words, unusual oak is no longer just for finishing.
“I think brands across the spirits category will start to experiment with more unique types of wood in the initial aging and not just in the finishing process,” says Henderson of Angel’s Envy. “There are unlimited possibilities of what kind of woods can be used, and it’ll be interesting to see what brands are choosing to work with as innovation grows across the category.”
On a simple level, it comes down to the whiskey category already being saturated with barrel finishes that have become too familiar for today’s consumers.
“True innovation in wood finishing is becoming more difficult to do since we first introduced varietal wine (Chardonnay Finish 2006) and non-oak barrel (Maplewood Finish 2009) finishes to the market,” says Chris Morris, master distiller at Woodford Reserve. “Since so many varied types of finishes have been used in the industry I think the next evolution we will see are more blends of finishes like our Four Wood (2011).”
3) Approachable Scotch Brands
Many younger consumers are hesitant to buy Scotch because the price point poses a significant barrier. Entry-level bottles can cost $40 and higher. Add in the diversity of Scotch, which can be confusing, and it’s no wonder when younger consumers reach for the likes of Bulleit Bourbon instead.
“We know there are many fans of blended whiskies and bourbon that shy away from single malt because they find the language intimidating and the variety in the category hard to navigate,” says Brian Kinsman, master blender at William Grant & Sons. “Particularly, they are unsure about what the liquid will actually taste like. It’s a lot to ask of people to spend $50 on a bottle of something they’re not even sure they’re going to like!”
Producers such as William Grant & Sons have sought to improve Scotch’s approachability. The company last year released Aerstone. This new brand has two expressions: Sea and Land Cask. The goal is to give consumers a simpler choice.
“If you know whether you prefer smooth or smoky malts when you walk up to a bar, then you’ve got a great foundation from which to explore further,” says Kinsman.
Sea Cask is smooth, while Land Cask is smoky (taking its name from the Highland malt). The kicker is the cost.
“We’ve also tried to lower the risk for people with price,” says Kinsman. “Both Aerstone Sea and Land Cask are priced at $28.99.”
Look for more brands to enter the market with better approachability in terms of both understandable flavors, and entry-level price points.
4) Age Statements Matter Less
We’ve been writing this for years: age statements have never mattered less to consumers. Quality comes first nowadays—trumping whatever number is on the bottle.
“When it comes to Scotch, the age statement is an indicator of quality and rarity, but it is not the only factor at play,” says Rachel Barrie, whisky hall of famer and master blender at BenRiach, The GlenDronach and Glenglassaugh.
“Location (whether in a valley, on a hill or by the sea), the geography, fermentation, distillation and type of oak used all play a part in creating quality and flavor.” Interestingly, Barrie adds, “non-age-statement whiskies allow a master blender to experiment more with the whisky stocks, and the outcome can be high-quality single malt Scotch whisky with a distinctive expression of character.”
Another factor behind age statements disappearing is the sheer lack of stock. As the thirst for brown-spirits spreads worldwide, many brands do not possess enough aged product to satisfy consumer demand. Instead, companies have released innovative, high-quality blends that help put new bottles onto retail shelves.
Consumers don’t seem to mind one way or the other.
“You can argue both sides of this issue, but the relative success of non-age statements proves that consumers aren’t completely fixated with numbers,” says Jim Brennan, senior vice president of marketing at Edrington Americas. “Our Glenrothes Whisky Maker’s Cut has been a really pleasant success for us. As for blends, I think this year we will see some good innovation and The Famous Grouse’s Cask Series will lead the way. I predict we will see some growth in the category.”
To his point about both sides having merit, the Glenrothes did also bring back age statements in 2018, zigging where other brands have zagged.
5) Single Barrel Picks
One way that retailers have recently differentiated their offerings has been through store-pick single barrels. These programs are a win-win: They grant retailers opportunity to pick their own barrels—often by visiting distilleries, where they can deepen bonds with the brand teams—before offering customers a product that is not available anywhere else.
“Retailers love to have unique offerings to attract and develop a loyal clientele base. Store barrel picks allow them to do this,” says Morris of Woodford Reserve. “They are also a useful tool in building a store-focused ‘Whiskey Society’ around to that same end.”
On-premise operators also benefit from barrel programs. Buffalo Wild Wings, the largest sports bar brand in the U.S., announced in August that it was releasing a limited amount of Single Barrel Select Bourbon from Buffalo Trace Distillery. The bourbon was available at locations across Florida, Georgia, Colorado, Nevada and California as long as supplies last.
Buffalo Trace Master Distiller Harlen Wheatley selected each barrel from the Single Barrel Select series, according to David McPhillips, director of beverage strategy & innovation for Buffalo Wild Wings. The Single Barrel Select Bourbon complements the chain’s barbecue-based wing sauces and its new brisket platform, which includes savory entrees such as a smoked brisket burger.
What’s more, the exclusive, limited-time bourbon offering enables the chain to hold itself to a high standard as a sports bar, McPhillips says. “We’re showing guests that we’re trying to be a bit different and they can expect us to keep innovating across our menu.”
6) Growth in Blends
Thanks in part to wine, “blended” is no longer a dirty word in the minds of consumers. It has evolved beyond the old meaning of “cheap.” Instead, the term “blended” likely means nothing to modern drinkers.
For the same reason that some brands show age statements while others do not, the surest way to appeal to consumers today is through quality. People do not care how old a whiskey is—or what it’s made of—so long as it tastes great.
One brand that has helped establish this newer trend is High West. Purchasing whiskey from various distilleries and combining them into unique blends, this fast-growing brand has released some of the most popular expressions on the market today. And while other companies may not aggressively source ingredients this way, it’s likely we’ll see more blends hit shelves as new high-end releases.
Blending has become a way for Scotch brands to release new products, even when existing stock does not support another age-statement release.
It’s another layer of innovation, producing new products and flavors for consumers to buy. Still, Henderson of Angel’s Envy cautions against distilleries leaning too much into this strategy, and becoming blinded by the flavor possibilities.
“Businesses can get on the gerbil wheel or innovating for the sake of innovating,” he says. “Don’t say something unless you have a reason to say it. You don’t have to come out with a new whiskey release every six months ago.”
7) Terroir and Provenance
Another way that some brands have chosen to stand out is by showcasing local ingredients in their yeast, mash bills, oak selection and more. Given the emphasis nowadays on localness in the broader craft market, we see this movement only expanding in whiskey in 2020 and beyond. And it comes at a time when many brands are arguing for a sense of terroir in whiskey, similar to the wine world.
“Terroir is definitely a component that lends to the uniqueness of a whiskey,” says Michter’s master distiller Dan McKee. “For example, like grapes, grains grown in different regions, climates and soils will affect the makeup of the grain. This is very impactful on how flavor profiles are created.”
Some writers and other industry professionals have argued against whiskey terroir. They believe that terroir is lost when the original grains go through such an extensive, dramatic manufacturing process as distilling.
“Think about it. You’re putting ‘of the earth’ into a fermented stew, which is then heated with catalytic effect in a pressurized, closed environment made of metal copper, and then distilled and taken apart in cuts and finally put into a barrel,” says Robin Robinson, longtime whiskey writer, consultant and former brand ambassador for Compass Box Whisky Co.
“I don’t see how there can be any ‘of the earth’ left,” says Robinson, who recently published on this subject as part of his new book, The Complete Whiskey Course. “As soon as you light the fire under the pot, that’s the end of terroir.”
Still, a growing number of whiskey makers say it’s possible to capture the unique flavor of a region in the bottle.
“Our work with local farmers, maltsters, cooperages, and breweries allows us to celebrate every part of the Pacific Northwest culture and agriculture,” says Chris Riesbeck, global commercial director for Westland Distillery. “We treat raw materials with the respect they have always deserved but rarely received,” he notes.
“When you buy a bottle of Westland you aren’t just appreciating the work being done by our production team,” Riesbeck adds. “You are engaging, supporting, and promoting an entire community built around the provenance of our region.”