It has been a tumultuous couple of years for the whiskey category in all its guises, price points, age (and non-age) statements and controversial –albeit largely successful – attempts to expand its core demographics. While the overall narrative could be summarised as a dark spirits tide raising all sub-segments’ boats, it has been Bourbon’s and Irish varietals’ explosive momentum that has been the most widely covered, dissected and analysed. Almost as much, in fact, as Scotch whiskey’s relative demise under the weight of its strategic overreliance on the faltering emerging market mantra.
But beyond top line category dynamics, interlinked or viciously competing segments and the on-going debate on the merits –and limits- of innovation, which are the brands whose long shadow towers over the entire whiskey category?
Who holds the cask throne?
When analysed through a volume perspective, the industry’s default option, the top brands are only providing part of the category’s narrative- in other words, big volume does not mean big value and it can translate, in fact, in quite the opposite. Within that context, it should come as no surprise that Officer's Choice, an affordable, ‘other whiskey’ brand primarily focused on India is toping the global volume rankings.
But Euromonitor International’s latest research now also provides the value side of the story. According to that, the proverbial cask throne undisputedly belongs to Johnnie Walker. Accounting for more than $US 10 billion, Johnnie Walker is enjoying the advantage of both geographical and portfolio diversification – with higher end variants securing the critical mass necessary for occupying the top slot across whiskies.
Second place is taken by Jack Daniels which, at more than $US 5 billion , represents the increasingly more dynamic bourbon segment while its high energy, on-trade friendly associations and more casual character are fuelling its relevance across a very wide number of markets.
Third place is held by another Scotch representative, Chivas Regal, accounting for $US 3.5 billion and currently facing the inevitable hiccups stemming from its overreliance on Asian markets - and China in particular - through a series of higher end and luxury varietals.
Ballantine’s, roughly accounting for the same sales, comes in 4th place followed by Jameson at close to $US 3 billion. Jameson, not merely a representative of the booming Irish whiskey segment but rather the flag-bearer, driver and primary benefactor of its trajectory is also expected to be the most likely to climb upwards in the rankings in the short to medium term.
As the battle amongst the whisky segments heats up, its important to maintain a sense of perspective. And while volume metrics will always provide a solid base for insights, value figures are becoming ever more essential in the category’s quest for value.