Booze just topped beer in sales volume for the first

When it comes to Americans’ drinking preferences, booze has now eclipsed beer — at least in the sales department.

That’s the finding of a new economic study from the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States (DISCUS), a leading trade group for the liquor industry. The study noted that spirits accounted for a 42.1% share of the beverage alcohol market in 2022, based on supplier revenue, while beer had a 41.9% share. Wine came in third, with a 16% share. 

It’s the first time that spirits have topped beer, according to the DISCUS data. But the two-decade trendline shows this has been a reality waiting to happen, said DISCUS president and chief executive Chris Swonger. 

“Year after year, the spirits sector has slowly gained market share,” said Swonger in a statement. 

Indeed, in 1999, beer ruled the roost, with a 56% market share versus a 28.2% share for spirits, according to DISCUS. But by 2010, beer’s share had dropped to 49.8%, while the spirits share had increased to 33.3%.

In dollar terms, the 42.1% spirits share in 2022 equated to $37.58 billion, DISCUS said. That’s an increase of 5.1% from the 2021 figure of $35.76 billion. 

DISCUS said that its findings were based on data from the Beverage Information Group and industry financial reports.

A leading beer-industry trade group casts some doubt on DISCUS’s numbers, however.

Erin Donar, a spokesperson for the National Beer Wholesalers Association (NBWA), said that while the NBWA hasn’t reviewed the current DISCUS report, she noted that the “full beer and alcohol numbers for 2022 are not yet available so (the DISCUS) data is likely incomplete.” Donar added, “Generally, alcohol data is notoriously difficult to track.”

Still, it’s hard to ignore the trendline in the DISCUS report, which acknowledges that beer had previously had the sales edge over spirits, as previously mentioned. And that begs a question: What’s behind the boozy surge over the past two decades?

Lots of factors, according to Swonger and industry professionals.

Swonger said the story is very much about the rise of two particular spirit categories — American whiskey (including bourbon), which was up 10.5% in revenue in the past year alone, and tequila/mezcal, which was up 17.2%. The latter category has become especially hot, with celebrities ranging from Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson to Sammy Hagar promoting tequila and mezcal brands. 

Speaking of pop and celebrity culture, Swonger said it’s worth noting how some television series have helped create buzz for booze — and booze categories — over the past couple of decades. He pointed to “Sex in the City,” which made the vodka-based Cosmopolitan a sensation for some time.  

Another critical factor: the growing “premiumization” of spirits. That is, consumers are willing to trade up and spend more for higher-end brands and offerings.

Dave Phinney, a wine-industry veteran who launched his Savage & Cooke spirits brand about five years ago, said he’s often surprised at the consumer demand for pricey booze. When Phinney recently rolled out his Guero line of whiskey, priced at $100-$200 a bottle, he wasn’t sure there would be much interest. 

Phinney quickly found out otherwise. “It was gone in two weeks,” he said of the sales success.

Robin Robinson, a spirits-industry consultant and spirits educator, said he thinks it’s just time for booze to rise to the fore.

Robinson noted that wine became more popular in the ‘70s, especially after American wines were judged worthy of global attention in a famed 1976 competition known as the Judgment of Paris. Then, it was beer’s turn, with the rise of the craft-beer movement in the ‘90s.

And now? People can’t get enough of liquor, especially brown spirits such as bourbon and rye. 

“It doesn’t surprise me,” said Robinson of the DISCUS report.


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