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Four Key Trends For Spirits for 2018

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Whisky sour or whisky 2.0?

As bourbon and Irish varietals will continue spearheading growth through savvy positioning, approachability credentials, versatility and bold experimentation, it will be within Scotch where the battle lines are drawn and the fine balance between tradition and innovation will have to be struck.

Following years of complacent internal dithering and inflexible traditionalism that has seen Scotch lose relevance to millenial demographics, change is afoot. Allowing room for interpretation of centuries old regulations, utilising untapped cask types, providing transparency on proportional age statements , taking a shot on once sacrilegious canned and pouch formats and bringing singular grains to the forefront, whisky 2.0 could well be just around the corner. The alternative is less than palatable. World fusion whiskeys are tearing up the rulebook while following in the footsteps of microbrewing pioneers at the same time that adjacent categories are also vying for the diminishing attention spans of younger drinkers.

On the other hand, and as the Irish distillery boom reaches escape velocity, a ladder of products will become available, the establishment of a wholesale market will come closer while the debate on official guidelines and labelling rules will mature in parallel to the category coming of age. Beyond the usual suspects and the international disruptors, expect Japanese whiskies to make further inroads. Highballs hold the key that will open the floodgates for the segment but they could well prove to be a tonic for the entire category. 

Cognac’s democratisation and Brandy’s aspirations

Cognac producers will internalise the learnings of their recent Chinese misadventures and will accelerate diversification initiatives in both geographic and positioning terms. Further focusing on entry and medium level varietals, establishing mixability credentials and –perhaps belatedly- supporting cocktail culture, experimenting with hybrid barrel finishes and expanding the range of occasions will be keys to unlocking the category’s long term sustainable future.

On the other hand, and even though cognac will break away from its bling associations and expand beyond luxury stereotypes it will be the category’s lesser known siblings that will find themselves increasingly under the spotlight. More affordable, versatile , less pretentious and not overburdened by the stifling weight of tradition , American brandies and segments like Armagnac could soon mirror other sparkling wines’ rise as a legitimate alternative to champagne.

Vodka: Whiter shade of pale

The wider white spirits category will continue being caught in the crossfire of the disparate trajectories of booming gin growth rates on the one hand and vodka’s stalling performance on the other, as authentic narratives, natural botanicals and micro-distillery driven offerings will retain the limelight on the former. As the ripple effects of the saccharine waves washing over vodka and the resulting flavour fatigue begin to subside, transparency, a shift of focus back towards provenance, a return back to vodka’s unpretentious positioning and high energy roots and its evolution through hyperlocal campaigns and glocal iterations will begin to stem the tide in its still haemorrhaging core markets. Since the downward pressure is ultimately cyclical, the roaring performance of the past decade will not be back, however pockets of opportunities will begin to resurface.

As for English gin, seemingly impervious to downward pressures and riding high on the back of its nostalgia-tinged offerings and international expressions, learning from vodka’s cautionary tale will become essential. Nevertheless, as ever more obscure and radical botanical tinctures are beginning to overcrowd the segment, flavour fatigue and lack of equity will surface as key risks with the potential to derail its performance if not moderated.

Local going global

While whiskies, cognac, English gins and vodkas will be the usual suspects dominating most of the headlines, niche local specialties will also reach escape velocity beyond their respective domestic markets. Artisanal positioning, rebranding for an international audience, flavour sophistication initiatives and on-trade seeding trials will be the key drivers for expansion.

From baijou taking educational initiatives around the globe from Western Europe to Africa, to shochu capitalising on its approachability and lower abv to enter key western metropolitan cities to mescal hanging on tequila’s coattails to build its own premiumisation narrative, once niche segments will increasingly move from the sidelines to the role of the protagonist- first in trendsetting mixology menus and eventually in retailer portfolios.

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