2014 Spirits Year In Review

2014 Was Pappy's Year
2014 was Pappy’s Year

2014 was a wild and wonderful year for spirits. While some categories saw explosive growth (yes, we’re looking at you, American whiskey), old standards like vodka saw their marketshare begin to crumble. Gin and tequila had their moments, but neither had the breakout year that they should have. The story of the year, of course, was whisk(e)y, but the demand was so great that the cream of the crop got harder and harder to find, and in their place came a sea of flavored whiskey.

American Whiskey Ruled The Year

The whiskey boom – more specifically, the American whiskey boom – was massive. Drinking bourbon became cool, and anything American, old, and expensive flew off the shelves. You couldn’t say the word “Pappy’s” without getting everyone’s attention. Companies like Wild Turkey struggled to keep up demand (especially with their rye), and even Maker’s Mark considered lowering their proof to be able to stretch out their whiskey stocks.

And while the great whiskey shortage of 2014 never came to pass, it seemed harder to get a bottle of ultra premium American whiskey than to get tickets to a Foo Fighter’s club show.

Scotch Whisky Says “You Don’t Need To See My ID”

Even though the boom over American whiskey was the real story, Scotch whisky makers started to really feel the pinch of their success with shrinking stocks of older whiskies (even 18 years ago no Scotsman could have predicted how popular their product would become). A big part of this success was the king of Scotch, Johnnie Walker, which outpaced even its own ability to produce older malts and had to adjust their line to accommodate.

Across the board, Scotch whisky makers responded to the supply crunch with a ton of non-age stated releases, some of which were designed to hide young malt, but others reveled in the freedom of being able to use a wide range of malts in their blend. The best of the bunch were Talisker Storm and Highland Park Dark Origins.

Flavored Vodka Goes Bust

Aside from the boom of whiskey, the other big story was the bust of flavored vodka. Flavored vodka went from the unstoppable, invincible, will sell no matter what, to yesterday’s news. The peak and fall not only impacted flavored offerings but took a bite out of the core of many notable brands, sending both Smirnoff and Absolut scrambling. By the end of the year most drinkers couldn’t order that rainbow frosted cookie dough crunch vodka anymore, and instead yelled “Fireball!”

Flavored Whiskey Fireball to the Rescue

Flavored whiskey tried to step in where flavored vodka left off, but the category quickly showed that it wasn’t going to be anything like flavored vodka. While the sheer number of new flavored whiskey options made our heads spin (and our palates cringe), very few found any real traction in the marketplace. When the dust settled, it was Fireball that decimated everything else in its path. Yes, there were some flavored whiskey hits, including both Jack Daniel’s Fire and Jim Beam’s Kentucky Fire, but nothing could stop Fireball (not even Finland).

Moonshine Explodes (Just Don’t Ask Too Many Questions)

The amorphic category of “moonshine”, which encompasses everything from corn whiskey to neutral grain spirits, exploded in 2014. Unfortunately, with no real official definition of what moonshine is exactly by the TTB, a wide variety of products hit the market, many of which were just flavored vodka dressed up in a mason jar (we kid you not, there was even French Toast Moonshine). How they are made and where were often not disclosed, or they were put behind so much smoke and mirrors, that you never knew exactly what you were buying. For many, moonshine was close enough to whiskey that it felt cool, so those jars sold.

Drink, Heck No, I’ll Sue

In a bizarre twist of events, 2014 seemed like the year that litigious imbibers felt obligated to sue. Beyond some legitimate claims over companies saying that their spirit came from one place (when it was coming from another), the core of many suits was questioning if large scale spirits can say they are “handmade”. Perhaps the most unlikely target of all this was Maker’s Mark, who reportedly settled (but had a good case that it was, like most of these, nothing more than a frivolous lawsuit).

On the other side of the equation, we saw the first victim of what surely will be a long and tough craft whiskey war, with Balcones Whiskey and founder Chip Tate in a virtual shoot out at the OK corral. Chip seemed to survive it, but Balcones won’t, and this won’t be the only craft whiskey company to end in a battle, courtroom, or tears.

The Healthy Bartender

With the craft cocktail revolution now truly national, more bartenders have started to think long term. The term “career bartender”, which was once an unimaginable term, became commonplace. In 2014, bartenders really began to think of health, wellness, and longevity in an industry that never really considered itself anything more than hedonistic. Influential groups like Barma on Facebook brought together well-respected influencers like Sean Kenyon, Todd Richman, and Patricia Richards who mentored bartenders from around the world with advice on balance and wellness. Belvedere also made a massive move in this space with their Drink, Eat, Live program, the first of any major brand to truly say “we care”.

Big Bets on Tequila

While 2014 wasn’t as explosive a year for tequila as maybe it should have been, big companies made some major moves to show that they believe in tequila’s future. First, Pernod Ricard snapped up a majority share of buzz brand Tequila Avion. Then, Diageo did some tequila shopping of its own, picking up the tiny but well regarded Peligroso Tequila, and then gobbling up the other half it didn’t own of Don Julio from Jose Cuervo.

Aside from purchases, 2014 was a big year for high-end tequila. Although it had been around for a while, Don Julio’s 1942 became buzz worthy, selling like a hot commodity. Standout, high-end releases like Tequila Avion Reserva 44 and Patron’s Roca line showed that just how significant the demand was for high-end tequila.  The year for tequila ended with spirits all-star P. Diddy throwing down his tequila battle cry with the announce of his high-end DeLeón Tequila.

Hey Millennial, Will You Like, Instagram, and Tweet with Me?

In 2014 more millennials came of drinking age, and brands spent a lot of time and a great deal of money trying to attract them.  For Diageo, the focus was YouTube with Smirnoff’s long form mini-movie/commercial, The Party, with millennial friendly Adam Scott and Alison Brie, and Nick Offerman’s My Tale of Whisky, which managed to make buttoned up brands like Oban and Lagavulin seem downright cool.  Beam Suntory’s Laphroaig also got in the game asking their new customers to interact with them on social media under the moniker #OpinionsWelcome (which they then set to Christmas carols).  Nothing came close to Bacardi’s effort in this space with the mega island concert extravaganza Bacardi Triangle, a party for two thousand bloggers, influencers, tweeters, instagrammers, youtubers, tumblers, and even G+ ers, all with hopes of reaching millennials where they live (which is online).

Auld Lang Syne 

While the year may have been lacking in standout, blockbuster products, it was one of the most fascinating years in spirits to date. More people were exploring their horizons, trying new things, and learning about spirits than ever before. Drinking spirits became woven deeper into the fabric of our culture with whiskey firmly implanted as spirit’s rock star.

For us here at Drink Spirits, we saw an amazing 80% growth in our traffic and passed the major 1 million user reach through our site and social networking channels, a number almost unimaginable when we started over 4 years ago.

What does 2015 have in store? Take a look into our crystal ball with our 2015 Spirit and Alcohol Trend Predictions.