I recently saw an article stating that Rum is going to be the “Next Big Spirit”. Writers are always looking for the next big trend in spirits, expecting a phenomenal growth spurt like Bourbon’s growth over the past decade. I don’t think there will be a “next Big Spirit”. To understand my reasoning, you have to look at what has happened to Bourbon.

Bourbon has had tremendous growth over the past decade. But what people don’t seem to understand is that the growth is not as big as the marketing people would have you believe. The fact is that Kentucky has just recently passed the mark for the number of barrels in the warehouses that it had in 1970. In the 1970s and 80s, Bourbon sales shrunk to dismal lows. Some folks thought Bourbon and other whiskeys were going to be dead to the market with only a few people drinking it and only a few brands surviving. Recent growth in Bourbon sales seems very big now, but that is because the growth started from such a low point. 

Rye whiskey was even worse. The decline of rye whiskey drinkers started in the 1940s as Bourbon overshadowed it as a domestic whiskey and Canadian whisky siphoned off the traditional rye drinkers in the northeast where the rye market had been strongest. When I started in the business in the early 1990s, I remember Jimmy Russell stating that they only made rye whiskey one day a year and there were people in the company that did not want to make it at all as consumers just were not buying it.

In the 1970s and 80s, Vodka and other white spirits were the spirits of choice. When people went to bars they were drinking Bloody Marys and Screwdrivers. Tequila was also growing with Tequila Sunrises and Margaritas being popular. There was a huge growth in these spirits. A growth bigger than what we are seeing in the whiskey market now. In fact, that growth of vodka and Tequila was more impressive as they were relatively unknown spirits before 1970. This started to change in the 1990s as people re-discovered whiskey and the decline in sales stopped and began to grow, but it was still way below what whiskey sales were in the 1950s. It took over a decade to get whiskey consumption back to the levels of the 1950s. 

In reality, the market for whiskey was unnaturally low in the last decades of the 20th century and what we have seen is more of a bounce back to normal. The real growth for Bourbon is just now starting and rye whiskey still has a long way to go before it gets back to where it was in the 1930s and 40s but it is getting there as more and more distilleries are producing excellent rye whiskeys.

So what is the next big spirit? Is it Brandy? Or Rum? Maybe a return to Vodka? I don’t think there is going to be one as far as the existing spirits are concerned. The sales for all distilled spirits will continue to grow as new markets, such as China and India, open to American whiskeys and other spirits. They will sell more rum or brandy or gin, but I don’t expect their share of the market to drastically increase. Or decrease. I believe the spirits market has returned to its natural balance after the disruption of the 1970s and 80s. 

Photo Courtesy of Michael Veach