LOUISVILLE, Ky. — Producers of spirits have new bragging rights in the age-old whiskey vs. beer barroom debate.
New figures show that spirits surpassed beer for U.S. market-share supremacy, based on supplier revenues, a liquor industry group has announced.
The rise to the top for spirit-makers was fueled in part by the resurgent cocktail culture — including the growing popularity of ready-to-drink concoctions — as well as strong growth in the tequila and American whiskey segments, the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States said.
In 2022, spirits gained market share for the 13th straight year in the fiercely competitive U.S. beverage alcohol market, as its supplier sales reached 42.1%, the council said.
After years of steady growth, it marked the first time that spirit supplier revenues have surpassed beer — but just barely, the spirit industry group said. Beer holds a 41.9% market share, it said.
"Despite the tough economy, consumers continued to enjoy premium spirits and fine cocktails in 2022," Distilled Spirits Council President and Chief Executive Officer Chris Swonger said.
Overall spirit supplier sales in the United States were up 5.1% in 2022 to a record $37.6 billion, the group said. Volumes rose 4.8% to 305 million 9-liter cases.
Seemingly unfazed, Brian Crawford, president and CEO of the Beer Institute, insisted that beer "remains America's number one choice in beverage alcohol."
"It's interesting to hear liquor companies boast about making money hand-over-fist while simultaneously going state-to-state hunting for more tax carveouts from state legislatures," Crawford said in a statement.
Benj Steinman, president of Beer Marketer's Insights, a leading beer industry trade publication, said the beer industry saw unprecedented growth in the 1970s, growing at a pace of 4% annually. As recently as 2000, beer's share in the alcohol market was 58%.
Over the past several decades, beer's growth has essentially been flat. Meanwhile, liquor has flourished, especially over the past two decades.
"I think there's just a long arc on these things," Steinman said.
Steinman and Bart Watson, chief economist at the Brewers Association, a craft beer industry trade group, agreed there are several reasons for the shift to spirits.
"Some of it's just the younger generation coming up, looking for a lot of variety," Steinman said. "They sometimes like spirits. Cocktail culture is another thing."
Watson cited data showing that liquor has become 20% cheaper relative to beer in recent decades.
"Price is a particularly large part of the story," he said.
Another factor is advertising and marketing. Watson pointed to the success of spirits in its outreach to women. Steinman said distilled spirits now advertise freely, something they didn't do generations ago.
"They've increased their availability. They've increased their ability to advertise. They've had a lot of legislative and policy wins that have enabled growth for distilled spirits," Steinman said.
MARKET SHARE MILESTONE
For spirit producers, reaching the market share milestone was worth toasting.
At Baltimore Spirits Company in Maryland, the head distiller and the manager of its cocktail bar said they are pleased with the rise in the consumption of spirits.
Eli Breitburg-Smith, head distiller and co-founder, said the distillery founders saw a space in the market to make rye whiskey as consumer demand was growing.
"We did see that it was going to be on the rise," he said. "Now, I don't know that we thought it would be overtaking beer or anything like that, but we felt like there was a good space in the market for new whiskey, original whiskey, and people that ... were making a unique product."
Gregory Mergner, the general manager of the distillery's cocktail gallery, said he didn't anticipate spirits rivaling or surpassing beer for market share.
"As ubiquitous as beer is. I don't think anybody could have foreseen whiskey overtaking it," he said.
The spirit sector's rise has coincided with a growing thirst for high-end, super-premium products.
That trend slowed overall in 2022. But it remained strong because of growth in the tequila/mezcal and American whiskey categories, the Distilled Spirits Council said.
More than 60% of the spirit sector's total U.S. revenue last year came from sales of high-end and super-premium spirits, mostly led by tequila and American whiskey, said Christine LoCascio, the group's chief of public policy and strategy. Those high-end products fetch the highest prices.
"While many consumers are feeling the pinch from inflation and reduced disposable income, they are still willing to purchase that special bottle of spirits choosing to sip a little luxury and drink better, not more," LoCascio said.
Within the spirit sector, vodka maintained its status as the top revenue producer at $7.2 billion, though sales were flat in 2022, the group said.
In the tequila/mezcal category, sales rose 17.2%, or $886 million, totaling $6 billion, it said.
Sales for American whiskey were up 10.5%, or $483 million, to reach $5.1 billion, it said. The American whiskey category includes bourbon, Tennessee whiskey and rye whiskey.
Brandy and cognac sales were down 12.3%, with revenues totaling $3.1 billion.
Mixed cocktails were the clear leader as the fastest-growing spirit category.
Sales for mixed cocktails, including ready-to-drink spirit products, surged by 35.8%, or $588 million, to reach $2.2 billion, the council said.
Meanwhile, spirit sales volumes in restaurants and bars — referred to as on-premise sales — continued to recover from pandemic-era shutdowns but they remained 5% lower than 2019 levels, the council said. Those sales represent about 20% of the U.S. market.
Off-premise sales volumes at liquor stores and other retail outlets remained steady in 2021 and 2022, after experiencing sharp gains during the pandemic restrictions in 2020, it said.
Meanwhile, there is a crossover strategy brewing in the alcohol market.
Steinman said that even the big players in the beer industry "are playing in all these different growth arenas, including spirits."
Molson Coors changed its name in 2019, going from Molson Coors Brewing Co. to Molson Coors Beverage Co. Watson noted that the No. 2 canned ready-to-drink liquor product, Cutwater, is made by Anheuser-Busch InBev.
For beer producers, the reversal in market-share rankings is no reason to cry in their suds.
Watson cautioned that the market share trend could flip, calling it "likely at some point we'll see beer grow again at the expense of other segments."
Salter reported from St. Louis. Associated Press photojournalist Julio Cortez in Baltimore contributed to this report.