While Covid-19 shut down most of the world in 2020, whiskey aged in rickhouses all the same. The market for American brown spirits hardly cooled off. The boom in consumer interest continued throughout the pandemic, fueled in part by so many people staying home and needing a drink. This affected American whiskey trends.
The category was already red hot before the health crisis. We remain in a new golden age for brown spirits, which has fueled massive expansion in craft distilling and innovation.
So what will consumers want next? As always, many emerging trends have already showed signs of growth in years past. With that in mind, here are 10 whiskey trends to watch in 2021.
Store Pick Single Barrels
These special whiskeys, selected by retailers or clubs as one-off bottlings, enjoyed a banner year in 2020. Which may seem odd, since sampling barrels was no easy task in the middle of a pandemic. But the industry evolved, and store pick single barrels trended as they connected more with the mainstream consumer.
We expect this to continue in 2021. One reason is because store pick single barrels are rare spirits that are easier to find than the “white whale” whiskeys that drive the secondary market.
“Chasing the unicorn whiskeys has become frustrating,” says Nick Conti, a Connecticut retailer whose three stores include Sav-Rite Liquors, Greens Farms Spirit Shop and Ye Olde Wine Shoppe. “People are bidding up the prices of the unicorns, which have become almost unobtainable. Whereas store pick single barrels are even more limited—there’s only 150 barrels or so from each pick—but they’re actually available.”
“These are trophies that I can have at home right now,” Conti adds. “And they help create camaraderie among whiskey friends. You want to share these bottles with friends, tell them to buy the same store pick bottles as you, rather than brag about a unicorn bottle that your friends cannot find.”
Single barrels also allow stores to offer limited-edition bottles that other competitors cannot. It’s a simple, fun, creative way to differentiate. Retailers pick their own bottles while flexing their whiskey palates.
“It’s become a very busy business,” says Woodford Reserve Master Distiller Chris Morris. “I’ve heard that these bottles are flying off of shelves. Even on-premise accounts have continued to purchase these bottles from us.”
“It’s nice networking for us, too,” Morris adds. “We really appreciate barrel picks because they let us know more retailers personally, which I value, because that way I can get input personally.”
Store picks truly are about individulization.
“Consumers are excited about American whiskey and are hungry for one-of-a-kind products,” says Kaveh Zamanian, founder of Rabbit Hole Distillery. “The craft distilling movement sparked an incredible renaissance, but retail shelves remain packed with sourced whiskey. More often than not, it’s the same liquid in a different bottle, different name, Old Brand X or Old Brand Y, promoting nostalgia and the illusion of differentiation. So, in the backdrop of this monotony of sourced liquid, single barrel picks offer enough differentiation to seduce and intrigue.”
“Also, in an ever-expanding American whiskey category that is yet to clearly define the nomenclature/language and terms of the category for consumers, single barrel expressions are easy to understand and promote at the retail level,” Zamanian adds.
As this trend grows, so too does the creativity of the retailers behind the bottles. Dominic Aprea, owner of Tippins Market in Ann Arbor, MI, is considered a pioneer of single barrel store picks. He believes the next evolution in this category could be small-batch barrel finishes.
“One batch for one [retail] customer,” Aprea explains. For instance, Tippins recently purchased a Cognac cask for single barrel use. The store also recently worked with Mammoth Distillery, a boutique supplier, on a 14.5-year-old, 134-proof Alberta rye finished in an ex-Bordeaux red wine cask.
“It’s one of a kind,” Aprea says. “I think more independent distilleries like Mammoth will start making one-off finishes to give it a subtle dynamic flavor and still keep the mass intrigue. Because it’s all about how interesting a whiskey sounds to people.”
Cask Strength Whiskey
In the same year that low-cal alcohol and no-ABV beers took off, cask strength whiskeys also gained ground in 2020 among consumers. How does 140-proof bourbon find a home with so many consumers drinking 4%-ABV hard seltzers?
“Cask strength is one of those trends that started out from the premiumization movement,” explains Susan Wahl, vice president of American whiskeys for Heaven Hill Brands. “Straight from the barrel, uncut and unfiltered have all become so important to the consumer. The consumer wants to be able to taste all the esters and fatty acids.”
This is convenient for distilleries positioning for growth.
“We’re looking to expand our whiskey portfolio with cask strength as another labeling opportunity,” says Alan Dietrich, CEO of Crater Lake Spirits. Consumers filling out their whiskey shelves now have another bottle to buy from their favorite brands.
The pandemic also made it easier for producers to create these expressions.
“Because of the slowdown in some markets due to Covid, we now have more barrels that we can do cask strength with, because we’re not immediately selling every drop of whiskey that we make,” says Dietrich. “Sitting on barrels during the pandemic has allowed us to catch up.”
As more consumers add these flavorful cask strength whiskeys to their collections, one problem does arise.
“Cask strength can be hard because it’s not federally regulated,” says Nicole Austin, general manager of Cascade Hollow Distilling Co, maker of George Dickel Tennessee Whisky. “There’s no set definition. It’s still open season for what ‘cask strength’ might mean. And that can create consumer confusion.”
“I certainly think that expressions with minimal dilution are interesting,” she adds, “but cask strength can also be used to mask errors.”
Bottled in Bond
Created by the Bottled-in-Bond Act of 1897, this style is all the rage in 2021. Law requires that a BiB spirit be made during one distillation season, by one distiller at one distillery, and then aged in a federally bonded (i.e. supervised) warehouse for at least four years, before bottling at 100 proof.
How many consumers can repeat all that offhand? Probably a fair amount of true whiskey nerds, but the broader drinking populace may omit a few details of the 19th century legislation. Yet, Bottled in Bond whiskeys are growing in number. Why?
“The Bottled in Bond category was originally created to address consumer mistrust,” says Austin of Cascade Hollow Distilling. “And consumer trust is still just as relevant today.”
“Bottled in Bonds also reflect good value,” Austin says. The last two George Dickel Bottled in Bonds came out with suggested retail prices between $35.99 to $39.99.
Bottle in Bond also taps into the “significant interest today in whiskey history,” says Wahl of Heaven Hill. And she agrees with Austin that the category “resonates with consumers, because transparency matters: who produced it, who bottled it, the age and the proof.”
“Taters” and the Secondary Market
What does “Tater” mean? This pejorative term describes whiskey fans who will wait in any line, drive any distance and spend any amount of money to buy the absolute trendiest of whiskey brands.
We all know diehards like that. And we know that these folks—fueled by social media and showing off their collections, or “hauls”—have multiplied to become a rising influence in whiskey culture.
By why “tater”? What do potatoes have to do with whiskey? Or is it because the term rhymes with “hater”? The answer is that nobody really knows. As with many memes, tater’s derivation remains a mystery. Probably it sprouted as in inside joke in an online community, and then blossomed into a full-blown, well-known term—and a prominent group.
“It’s impacted pricing, you can’t deny that,” says Wahl of Heaven Hill. “But it’s not across the board. It’s mostly affecting allocated products, and at the retail level.”
Which has given rise to retailers pricing their bottles with a hefty markup to begin with, matching the secondary market.
“I don’t blame the retailer,” Wahl says. “When you only get one or two bottles of an allocated product, and it’s a supply-and-demand situation, it makes sense that you sell it for what you think you can get for it.”
As for the secondary market itself, which operates through (barely) coded language and images on Facebook and other forums, many distillers take it as a compliment.
“I love that it exists and that so many people care that much about whiskey,” says Austin of Cascade Hollow Distilling. “There’s room for all those people in whiskey.”
The retailers are more mixed.
“A lot of our single barrels end up on the secondary market, and there’s nothing we can do about it,” says Aprea of Tippins. “It is an honor as a store to see our stuff on the secondary market, but we always do try to get bottles to actual drinkers who can appreciate them. We try not to sell to people who are going to just flip them on the secondary market.”
Tippins knows fellow Michigan retailers who sell whiskeys at secondary market prices.
“You’re still not eliminating secondary market pricing, because the person who buys that bottle of Weller Full Proof will still just sell it for more,” Aprea says. “So you’re still fueling the fire.”
“It’s a tricky game to play,” he adds. “Retail margins are small. So if you’re selling a $65 bottle that becomes $200 on the secondary market, maybe you should just sell it for $200. You’re burning bridges but making money. We don’t do that, because we’re a long-term business, and we treat people like family.”
Conti in Connecticut also refuses to retail at secondary prices, but points out how there has always been a secondary market for other popular items. “Sneakers, watches, cars, game consoles and more” he says. “It’s just newer in whiskey. And there’s always been a big secondary market in wine. Nobody says boo about the secondary market in wine.”
“So I’m not bothered by the secondary market,” he adds. “It’s unfortunate when you see some people take advantage of it, but I love seeing when my store picks get flipped.”
More Innovation in Barreling
The modern wave of whiskey innovation has included an explosion in creative barreling. At first, this presented as a nearly infinite array of finishes. Now, more distilleries have dialed into barrel production.
“Distilleries are still marrying different kinds of casks across the categories, but I think you’re now seeing less of that and more nuanced takes on using barrels,” says Wahl of Heaven Hill.
For instance, the popular 2020 launch of Elijah Craig Toasted Barrel. This is Elijah Craig Small Batch dumped and then re-entered at barrel proof into a second, custom-toasted new oak barrel designed with Independent Stave Company. Made with 18-month air-dried oak, the finishing barrel is first toasted and then flash-charred using a moderate toast temperature and time.
“The point is to make the bourbon sing with more complexity of flavors,” Wahl explains. “Elijah Craig Toasted Barrel is a great-tasting whiskey with another layer of flavor, but without losing any original bourbon flavor. I think that sort of barrel-finishing is a shift and a change.”
Agreeing with her is Rob Arnold, master distiller at Firestone & Robertson, producers of TX Blended Whiskey.
“If we can move away from just Char 3 or Char 4, and as we get into different seasoning barrels vs. just kilning or the standard six-to-nine months, we’re going to create more diversity of flavor,” Arnold says. “Our barrel program uses a variety of chars, seasoning lengths, toasted and lightly charred. The idea is for barrels to be less commodity-like. Any little variable you can add will have flavor impacts.”
TX also runs an extensive barrel-finished program.
“Moving forwards, we’re going to focus on wineries like Kenwood in Sonoma.” Arnold says. “We’re going to explore expressions like single-vineyard barrels, tap into that, ways to innovate while maintaining the traditional part of the process.”
To that end, Arnold “worries about people who put whiskey in every type of barrel that they can buy. I don’t want whiskey to look like craft beer, where the soul of a beer can be lost with over-innovation, like too many adjuncts going in. We can have the same issues. At some point, you start to risk something with too much innovation.”
The threat of over-innovation—which caused problems in craft beer with product oversaturation, and brews moving too far from their core flavors —has become a recent refrain among spirits industry veterans. But that will not stop distilleries from flexing their creative muscles in 2021.
“There are some limits to barrel finishing and what some might consider the novelty of it,” says Paul Hletko, founder of Few Spirits. “While there will continue to be barrel finish releases, some of the hype surrounding it may die down, while the truly wonderful releases will just get better and better. Even as brands hustle to capitalize on the trend with their own releases, brands whose finishing goes beyond gimmicks to focus on adding flavor will continue to excite aficionados.”
More Innovation in Blended Whiskeys
“Blended” is no longer a dirty word in American whiskey. As brands like High West and Barrell Craft Spirits release premium blended whiskeys to high praise, consumer sentiment has shifted. Look for this to continue in 2021, as more people clue into blending as a whiskey art form.
“Blending is mission critical for quality and concept, especially for smaller producers,” says Austin of Cascade Hollow. “In the past, blending was the real missing piece for American spirits. It’s become the lynchpin in helping the industry deliver high-quality spirits in the small to middle size.”
Consumers are catching on.
“Five years ago, there was not enough consumer understanding for blending to be relevant,” Austin says. “Now, people are more aware of the entire process of creating the final spirit, how through maturation and blending you can create a lot of different whiskeys.”
Morris of Brown-Forman sees a new blending trend emerging. “World blends, global blends, made from many whiskeys across different countries,” he says. “I’ve seen big players doing it.”
Woodford itself has experimented with premium blends in recent years.
“A number of years ago blended whiskey had a bad reputation because the U.S. used neutral grain spirits in these products,” Morris says. “But this is a changing landscape again. We’ve been doing that well with our Distillery Series, including our Four Grain release in 2020, which blends bourbon, rye, malt and wheat. In our Five Wood release this year, we blended together different finishes: Oloroso sherry, Amontillado sherry, Ruby port and Tawny port.
[Editor’s note: The fifth ‘wood’ was the original American oak used to age the whiskey, pre-finish.]
“Anyone can put whiskey in a barrel and then blend it,” Morris adds. “Now we’re starting to get into more finesse.”
Helping fuel this rise in blended whiskey is another sea change in consumer sentiment. Hardly anyone seemingly cares anymore whether a whiskey—or parts of it—were sourced.
“People originally thought that sourced whiskey meant lesser quality,” says Aprea of Tippins Market. “That’s been put to rest. What’s helped is more companies listing on the bottle where the whiskey was sourced. Transparency is more sought after by consumers, and those companies will excel.”
In another twist, consumers have come to embrace those distilleries that put out the best sourced spirits. “There’s more appeal now for MGP,” says Aprea.
Some distillers do believe that consumers will become more aware and sensitive to sourced products.
“As consumers become more educated and discerning, I believe they will care,” says Zamanian of Rabbit Hole. “At this point in time, probably not, because the average consumer doesn’t know the difference between DSP (distillers who actually produce whiskey at their permitted distillery), NDP (non-distilling producers) or CDP (contract-distilling producers) and there are no federal guideline requirements for a DSP designation on the bottle, as is with NOM designation on bottles of mezcal or tequila.”
“Right now, we’re in the wild west phase of American whiskey,” he adds. “Everyone wants to get in the game and sourcing is an easy and relatively inexpensive way of doing it, but in time, discerning consumers (the key word being discerning), discerning consumers who care about originality and quality are going to demand diversity of flavor and differentiation.”
More Growth in Whiskey Cocktails
Mixology was a huge movement before Covid-19. Then the pandemic moved and accelerated this trend. Rather than imbibe cocktails from their favorite bartenders (a sad loss from the health crisis), consumers whipped up their own mixed drinks while stuck at home.
Naturally, this affected the whiskey industry. More people became fluent in cocktails in 2020, expanding the amount of brands that consumers felt comfortable mixing. In other words, the good stuff was no longer for sipping only.
“A lot of tried-and-true whiskey drinkers have gotten into cocktails and have gotten sucked down that rabbit hole,” says Aprea. “More people are realizing how different whiskeys are elements of cocktails, how whiskey really shines in cocktails. And so they’re drinking better whiskey in cocktails.”
This will continue in 2021 as mixology continues to move into the home. Savvy brands will tap into this trend.
“Emphasizing whiskey cocktails is so important to the industry and to our distillery,” says Rick Edwards, national ambassador for Stranahan’s Colorado Whiskey. Like many leading whiskey brands, Stranahan’s employs a head mixologist, Lucas Townsend.
“You have to lean into your whiskey cocktail program,” Edwards adds. “You have to keep creating different flavors to attract in different whiskey consumers.”
Distilleries will also release new products that reflect this consumer movement.
“It’ll be super interesting to see who steps into the space with barrel-aged cocktails,” says Aprea. “The idea makes sense: Let’s bottle a cocktail ourselves and get more exposure for our brands while reaching the non-whiskey drinkers.”
For instance, High West recently released two premium bottled, barrel-aged cocktails.
Younger Whiskey Tasting Better
Common knowledge was that younger whiskeys typically tasted worse than those aged at least five years. In immature spirits you’re apt to find grainy flavors with a raw bite. These are hardly palatable, not worth bottling. Not if you want consumers to return to your brand.
But this stigma has changed in recent time. Many craft distilleries have released whiskeys on the younger side that taste well beyond their age. What’s behind this magic?
“As the industry grows, and smaller distilleries and organizations develop, the educational base, the level of research, is growing as well,” says Morris of Woodford Reserve. “And these are growing to levels that did not exist in the early days. A lot of people newer to the industry have found their legs. Their institutional knowledge has grown.”
“Experience is growing, too,” he adds. “When you’ve had your doors open for five, six, ten years now, you know how to run your equipment better.”
In other words, production has improved as newer distillers perfect their methods. We see no reason for this movement towards quality in younger whiskeys to slow anytime soon. Especially as more newer distilleries seek profits during earlier stages of their lifecycle.
Wine has terroir. Beer has terroir, as hops taste differently across the world. Why can’t whiskey?
This remains among of the more-argued topics in American whiskey. Expect more brands to explore whiskey terroir in 2020, marketing it as a point of differentiation. At the same time, those who oppose the concept (like veteran whiskey journalist Robin Robinson) will unlikely back down.
“I think you’re going to see a lot more brands focus on grain variety and origin,” says Arnold of TX, which highlights the Texas terroir of its grains. “We’re still in the early stages of a program we’re calling ‘Seed to Sip’. It’s a platform that provides the full transparency and characteristics of the grains that go into our whiskey. You can’t have terroir without the transparency side.”
Momentum seems to be on the side of distillers who are pro-terroir, as their numbers multiply.
“Your climate and environment have a huge impact when it comes to aging,” says Dietrich of Oregon-based Crater Lake Spirits. “People understand that Oregon whiskey is different than Kentucky whiskey, so why not understand that western highlands whiskey is different than the more-humid lowland American whiskey?”
This can include the angel’s share from heat and humidity—plus local ingredients.
“Whiskey terroir approaches the level of detail and artistry that wine has,” Dietrich argues. “But we’re still in the beginnings of recognizing how different climates have different impacts. We’ll be spending years figuring out the impact and how detailed it really is.”
Perhaps signaling a broader shift in sentiment, even the larger distilleries have gotten behind the idea.
“There’s terroir even here at Heaven Hill,” says Wahl. “We’ve always been transparent about our mash bills, but nobody can take those and reproduce whiskey exactly the same way as we do it here. That’s what it’s all about. Our grains, soil, equipment: it’s can’t just be reinvented as a mash bill that’s out there somewhere else.”
Wahl also sees another reason behind the emergence of the terroir trend.
“The trend of regionality in whiskey—especially in Kentucky, Tennessee and Texas—it’s as much about whiskey as it is tourism,” she says. “It’s also about getting more people out to those areas.”
But not every distiller is onboard.
“I understand why people want to talk about terroir, because it connects a whiskey to a place,” says Austin of Cascade Hollow. “But when you say ‘terroir’, the assumption is a direct line between place and flavor, and I don’t think that’s applicable when there are too many processes in between with whiskey.”
“We’re distilling,” she adds. “That’s a separation process. And I think it’s going to be a struggle to make terroir relevant to consumers if you can’t say that a certain soil creates a certain flavor.”
American Single Malt
The fight continues for this burgeoning category to achieve definition at the federal level. While some industry members are skeptical of the mass appeal of American single malt, the sheer number of distilleries producing this style—and producing it well—speaks to a level of consumer demand.
“You can now find American single malt being made in almost every state,” says of Edwards of Stranahan’s, a pioneer in this space.
The question is: when will mainstream consumers embrace this category?
“I don’t think that American single malt will ever be the leader of all whiskey categories, but with the historic popularity of global single malts, that’s what’s driving the category in the U.S.,” says Dietrich of Crater Lake Spirits, which produces the American malt Black Butte Whiskey.
“I think eventually we’ll see the American Single Malt category with smaller sub-categories within it,” Dietrich says. But first, “I’d like to see sections at liquor stores specifically for American malt and single malt.”
Likely that would require the TTB to finally approve official definitions for American single malt, something that the category currently lacks. “We’re likely two years away from that right now,” Dietrich says. Delays are due to Covid-19, and the industry working to make permanent their federal excise tax reduction.
Efforts torwards the latter proved succesful. As part of end-of-the-year legislation approved by Congress and signed into law by President Trump in 2020, the Craft Beverage Modernization & Tax Reform Act officially became permanent. This keeps distillers on the same financial footing as wineries, breweries and importers in regards to the federal excise tax, whereas before, the distilleries paid a higher tax, comparatively.
It’s another big win for a category that has enjoyed a lot of winning in recent years. 2021 should be no different, as brown spirits continue to boom in America.