Straight American whiskey remains in a new golden era — with no end in sight for these sunny times.
The category continued recent trends with 6% growth in the U.S. last year (according to the Beverage Information and Insights Group). Straight American whiskey totaled 22.515 million 9-liter cases in 2017, bringing brown spirits back to sky-high numbers last reached two decades ago.
The success in 2017 followed similar growth in recent years. The category increased 7.2% increase in 2016, after a 5.5% gain in 2015.
Why such impressive growth? American straight whiskey taps into many modern trends.
The category goes hand-in-hand with the broader craft movement sweeping through all alcohol. High-end bourbons and ryes showcase the best of artisanal ingredients, distilling, aging, blending and finishing.
Moreover, many of these whiskeys have fun, interesting and/or historic backgrounds. Consumers today love to learn about what they are drinking. Brands of American straight whiskeys often come from backgrounds that delight drinkers nearly as much as the delicious spirits themselves.
Like Bulleit Bourbon. The brand dates back to 1830, and was brought back to life, after many silent decades, in 1987 by the founder’s descendent Tom Bulleit. Acquired by Diageo as part of Seagram in 2000, the brand has since experienced explosive success. Last year it grew 11.2% to 1.195 million cases — which landed the brand in the top five selling American straight whiskeys — following a 32.7% spike between 2015-16.
One spot above Bulleit as the fourth-best selling in the category, Maker’s Mark continues to show the time-tested quality of its branding and flavor. First bottled in 1958, Maker’s Mark has always worn its trademark red-wax. The brand rode the brown-spirits wave to 12.2% growth last year to reach 1.686 million cases, after a +5.2% performance in 2016.
Rounding out the top-five sellers are three other historic brands. Number-one Jack Daniel’s, the top-selling American whiskey in the world, moved 5.231 million cases last year for 1.1% growth. The brand, founded in 1875, can claim a 23.2% share of all sales in the category in the U.S. On spot below it is Jim Beam, with a 22% share: half a tick up from 2016, when Jack Daniel’s had it beat 24.4% to 21.5%. Jim Beam grew 8.8% last year to finish with 4.962 million cases.
In the third spot is Evan Williams, which traces its brand name back to a Welsh immigrant-turned-distiller in Louisville in 1783. The brand expanded 6% in 2017 for a total of 2.431 million cases.
Other Brands Find Success
Growth was hardly contained to the top performers. Throughout the list of brands we covered there were examples of boom times for brown-spirits sales. Including many newcomers.
Like Rebel Yell. This line of whiskeys launched in 2014. Success soon followed. Last year Rebel Yell grew 13.4% to reach 110,000 cases, after the brand saw a +49.2% in 2016.
Another young brand, Angel’s Envy launched in 2010 and has quickly gathered a loyal fan base. The brand achieved 75,000 cases last year thanks to 53.1% growth, a year after it saw +22.5% in case sales.
Other classic brands have enjoyed gains during this modern whiskey resurgence. Woodford Reserve, which traces its distilling roots back to 1865, had a very good 2016, growing 17% to finish with 469,000 cases. The brand has successfully partnered up with the Kentucky Derby, while also releasing a bevy of new and experimental spirits to please the rising numbers of connoisseurs.
Slightly younger, Four Roses first launched in 1888. Like some other classic brands (including Jack Daniel’s Old No. 7) the exact origin of its name has been lost to time. Nevertheless, Four Roses continues to mean quality, to the tune of 16.7% growth in 2017 for 175,000 cases. This follows a +30.4% performance in 2016.
Not quite as old, Basil Hayden’s came about in 1992. Known for its lighter-bodied style (it’s 80 proof), this Jim Beam brand followed a +38% performance in 2016 with 29% growth in case sales in 2017. That equaled 178,000 cases last year.
Another product of the 1990s, Knob Creek continued recent growth with +10.5% in 2017 for 420,000 cases.
Ezra Brooks, founded in 1960, was also a winner in 2017. The brand grew 18.3%, up from +14.1% in 2016, for a total of 258,000 cases.
Some bigger brands did experience declines despite the boom times felt by much of the rest of the category.
Early Times was down 4.5% to settle with 493,000 cases. This is the first instance in quite some time that the brand has finished below half-a-million, and it was as high as 564,000 as recently as 2012. The brand shrunk 0.6% in 2016.
Another brand in the top ten best-selling straight whiskeys, Ten High declined 3.3% to finish with 445,000 cases in 2017. This comes one year after the Sazerac brand experienced flat growth, 0.0%.
Other brands that slipped in 2017 include Old Crow (-5.2% for 344,000 cases), Ancient Age (-3.7%, 340,000 cases) and Heaven Hill Bourbon (-1.4, 275,000 cases).
What does the future hold for straight whiskey in America? Plenty of sunshine is ahead. The biggest problem in the category today seems to be not enough aged stock to meet demand. The runaway success of the straight whiskey category has given rise to a budding trend: the rise of blended bourbons.
Strapped for stock and desperate to get new products onto shelves, many brands have recently released new blended whiskey products. These help meet the seemingly endless thirst U.S. consumers have today for their country’s signature brown spirit.