10 Alcohol Trends to Watch in 2017-18

Consumer taste continues to evolve. Recent industry-defining beverage alcohol categories like bourbon, IPA and rosé have begun to splinter off into subcategories. Different takes on these styles have emerged, including regional focuses or reimagined recipes, while countries not normally known for these beverages have entered into the competitive fray.

With all that in mind, here are 10 trends (established or emerging) that will define the alcohol industry in 2017.

1) The Rosés Category Broadens

Rosé will remain hot in 2017 as it continues to transition from a hot-weather wine a year-round top seller. And as the category attracts more attention and expands, consumers will look for more than typical sweet Provence rosé.

Like the Mulderbosch Cabernet Sauvignon Rosé from South Africa, a top-ten selling imported rosé in America. “It’s uncommon to have a cabernet sauvignon rosé, but that’s our point of difference,” explains Adam Mason, winemaker, Mulderbosch. “We think it’s a slightly richer rosé, not in the steely style.”

It’s also darker in color than most. Still, Mulderbosch did not want to be way off the rosé bell curve. The company made sure their offering remained light like those of Provence that have set the market.

Mulderbosch makes a dry rosé, but Mason believes U.S. consumers are comfortably up to speed on that style. And that it’s South African rosé, not exactly common, should not be a consumer turnoff. If anything it’s a unique point of variety. And, at the end of the day, “once consumers are staring at a wall of rosé, what informs their decision is price,” Mason says. He believes the $13-14 SRP of Mulderbosch rosé is a sweetspot.

Offbeat rosé is on the menu at Molyvos, an upscale Greek restaurant in Manhattan. Wine Director Kamal Kouiri is showcasing a dozen rosés from Greece. “They run the full range of style, from dry to fruity to sparkling, covering any palate,” Kouiri says. “Some people think rosé is only made in Provence and Bordeaux, but others are now looking for new and different rosés.”

“These wines represent the pride of variety in Greek winemaking,” he adds. “Greek rosé is something you can really enjoy while getting a sense of place.”

2) IPAs Continue To Diversify

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

While the IPA craze continues, it’s also segmenting. There are session IPA, black IPA, red IPA, white IPA, double IPA, triple IPA — whatever your palate prefers, there’s a style to match. And that increasingly includes regional variants.

West Coast IPAs were the first regional variant to go big. This super-hoppy style was at the forefront of the current craft boom and was what first attracted many new drinkers to microbrews. The shamelessly hoppy West Coast IPA is what many people think of when they imagine IPAs.

But what’s a west-coast trend without an east-coast competitor? 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. 

“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 and co-founder. “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 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 America 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 of The Alchemist. “There are certainly quite a few IPA’s 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.”

3) Unusual Mash Bills in Whiskey

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

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.

“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, Kentucky. Its Kentucky Straight Bourbon recipe is 70% corn, 10% malted wheat, 10% malted barley and 10% honey malted barley. They also make 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.”

4) 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.

“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

“It’s already showing,” says Jeff Browning, brewmaster for Brewport, a 15-barrell 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 emerging beer trend: the return of lagers.

Ales like IPAs dominate the American craft market. Consumers prefer the more-flavorful ales to their smoother, cleaner counterpart: the lager. But this advantage in flavor is fading fast.

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

The cleanness of lagers is an alternative to the yeast bombs of New England IPAs. “Every day I hear another person tell me they’re sick of hazy, yeast-filled beers,” Browning says.

5) 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. People are always looking for something new and different. 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.

6) Young Whiskeys With Flavor

One of the issues with the brown spirits boom has been new distilleries releasing products too soon. These companies will bottle whiskeys between one-and-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-ten years for a new distillery with bills to pay.

But whiskey without enough time in barrels normally lacks fully matured flavors. Hence the rise of young whiskeys that taste negatively of cereal: thin, grainy spirits that leave consumers wishing they hadn’t splurged $50 on that craft bottle.

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

Rabbit Hole produces a two-year-old bourbon with plenty of flavor. Beyond its unusual mash bill, which owner/whiskey maker 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.

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

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

Elsewhere, 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 an excellent backbone for this young bourbon to taste beyond its youth.

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.” By this phrase, the Texas-based distillery behind the brand means a gin that is lighter on juniper, with more emphasis on citrus, honey and mint. 

St. George of California has a Terroir Gin made from Douglas fir, California bay laurel, coastal sage and other botanicals, for 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. “These new gins are saying, ‘This is where I’m from and these are my ingredients’.”

Vodka has also embraced the regionalization movement. Like Till Vodka, a new brand from MGP Ingredients. The spirit places place 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 Vodka has been comparing farm fields in Poland that produce its rye to the Champagne vineyards of France. The idea being that optimal production locations and methods produce optimal vodka — and that’s what modern consumers and mixologists care about.

8) Gin Hides Juniper

The shift in gin towards local ingredients has come at the cost of juniper flavors. More gins are masking this traditional flavor.

Some consumers believe that “most gins are very juniper-forward,” says Ari Anderman, Tanqueray 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

As the craft boom continues, most big brands have upped the emphasis on their craft qualities. Phrases like “handpicked,” “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, 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.

“I remind you, all our premium whiskeys starts 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 excels at portraying its production as “small-batch on a large scale.” Everything is still done through traditional methods, just multiplied many times over, including crushing agaves with a Tahona stone. 

“Though we obviously don’t use a donkey anymore to turn the stone,” says 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 America (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 Americainto 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.

“There’s a movement overseas with young brewers,” explains Molyvos general manager Kouiri. “It started with young winemakers who have caught up in countries that were behind the rest of the world in winemaking. 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 Beverage Dynamics magazine. Reach him at kswartz@epgmediallc.com or on Twitter @kswartzz

2 Comments

  1. Coterie Hospitality | 10 Alcohol Trends to Watch in 2017-18 Reply

    […] Beverage Dynamics has listed a great overview of current and upcoming alcohol trends. […]

  2. Why Age Whiskey at Sea? | StateWays Reply

    […] magazine. Reach him at kswartz@epgmediallc.com or on Twitter @kswartzz. Read his recent piece 10 Alcohol Trends to Watch in 2017-18. Feature photo courtesy of Ocearch / R. […]

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