America’s Spirits Business Is Booming

Distilled Spirits Council, "Economic Briefing," Feb. 2017.
Source: Distilled Spirits Council, “Economic Briefing,” Feb. 2017.

The U.S. drinks business is booming, despite the finger-wagging by neo-prohibitionists. Last year’s liquor volume sales climbed 2.4 percent to 220 million cases, and the revenues were up 4.5 percent to $25.2 billion, according to data released by the Distilled Spirits Council.

Does this means America is on a bender? No. In fact, Americans are not drinking more per capita. Binge drinking is down as is underage drinking.

The growth of the sales of spirits volumes partly reflects that more Americans are adding spirits to their intake. Some 28 percent of Americans call spirits their first choice for tippling, according to a Harris poll. Robert Simonson’s recent book, “A Proper Drink: The Untold Story of How a Band of Bartenders Saved the Civilized Drinking World,” well tells how cocktails have gone from low-quality and uncool to top-notch and chic over the past 20 years.

And when Americans drink spirits they increasingly are drinking pricier stuff from the top-shelf. High end and super premium sales are growing for nearly every category, as the table below shows.

Source: Distilled Spirits Council of the United States, “Annual Briefing Support Tables,” Feb. 2017.
Source: Distilled Spirits Council of the United States, “Annual Briefing Support Tables,” Feb. 2017.

Rising sales and revenues also also reflect continued export expansion. U.S. spirits exports increased 6.8 percent, despite the dollar being strong relative to many foreign currencies. Canada, the U.K., Australia, Spain, Germany, and Japan were the top export markets, each purchasing more than $100 million in hooch.

What will the future bring for drinks sales? Certainly, the neo-prohibitionists pose a threat. They continues blaming alcohol as an evil and advocating higher taxes and more restrictions on access. To date, the domestic market has ignored their macabre tales. Indeed, over the past decade states and localities have expanded access by permitting liquor tastings at distilleries and paring back Sunday sales restrictions. 

Internationally, things are a bit more difficult to predict. Certainly, the world is falling in love with American whiskeys—as well they should. However, our teetotaler President Donald J. Trump’s threats to renegotiate trade deals adds a wildcard into the mix. If he can cut America a better deal or partners with Congress to enact policies to weaken the dollar, drinks sales could climb. But exports could suffer if Trump greatly antagonizes foreign leaders or pulls a Brexit-type maneuver, sales could fall—which would hurt American distilleries and anyone with drinks stocks in their portfolios. Time will tell.


ICYMI: The Economist Tells the Early History of IPA Beer


The Economist’s December 24, 2016 copy carries an enjoyable short history of the India Pale Ale:

Beer is for drinking. But beer is also an occasion for conversation—and, if good enough, a subject for it, too. That is where India Pale Ales, or IPAs, come into their own. Few beers incite and enrich conversation as much. Their distinctive character—the “firm bitterness [that] lingers long and clean” in one, the “complex aromatic notes of citrus, berry, tropical fruit and pine” in another—spur discussions that spill over from tap rooms to websites with ease. The plethora of craft brewers that has sprung up over the past few decades provides ample scope for arguments about the relative merits of local brews and far-flung ones—with far-flung, these days, meaning from more or less anywhere on Earth.

And then there is the beer itself. A child of Britain’s industrial revolution and imperial expansion that rose to world-straddling greatness, IPA went on to be humbled by its upstart rival, lager. It had all but vanished when plucky supporters restored it to life and once more put the world at its feet. Here is a beer with a back story.



American Craft Beer Comes to Mexico

Carmen Beer CoWhen you think of Mexican beer, light lagers like Corona, Pacifico, and Negro Modelo probably come to mind. But American-style craft beer also has been gaining market-share for years. With 60 million potential customers and $20 billion in annual revenue, the Mexican beer market is an appealing target.

Some U.S.-made stouts, ales and other hearty beers currently are imported to Mexico. Most full-flavored microbrews, however, are being produced by local breweries.

As best anyone can tell, the craft brew trend began in the mid-1990s. Which brewer came first is unclear. Some say it was Pepe y Joe’s brewpub in Mazatlán. Others point to Cerveza Cosaco microbrewery in Hidalgo or Cervecería San Angel in Mexico City.

Small brewers got a boost in 2013 when the Mexican Federal Competition Committee banned some of the most egregious protectionist practices of big brewers. No longer would the big boys be permitted to lock bars and retailers into exclusivity agreements that shut out smaller competitors. Starting a small brewery in Mexico remains a challenge, but perhaps 300 of them have sprung up.

Continue reading “American Craft Beer Comes to Mexico”


Outlaws of the Lakes: Bootlegging and Smuggling from Colonial Times to Prohibition

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I picked up a copy of this book at the airport in Traverse City, Michigan, where, funny enough, I was attending a conference on alcohol regulation. Boy, I am glad I did.

Edward Butts did a fine job of putting together 23 chapters on drinks smuggling around the Great Lakes. The tales of mischief and intrepid dealing start in the 1690s when the scoundrel Antoine Laumet de la Mothe de Cadillac smuggled brandy about Lake Huron and Michigan. Butts carries the reader forward to the 1930s and the mayhem wrought by Al Capone, the Purple Gang, and other brutes who would do anything for a buck—be it selling toxic drinks or murdering those who interfered.

The cast of characters is quite something: Joyous Jenny, Gentleman Charlies Mills, and the “Pistol Packin’ Parson” J.Q.L. Spracklin. The structure of the book as a collection of free-standing yarns means you can pick it up and dip into it whenever you like. Keep it on your nightstand, in your desk at work, or on a shelf in your loo.

Outlaws of the Lakes is an enjoyable piece of amateur history, and has some great illustrations in it. For anyone interested in true crime tales or the lesser-known aspects of Prohibition history, this book will be a treat. Copies can be purchased online here.