The Distilled Spirits Council of the United States just held its annual economic briefing. The digital conference included ample data suggesting a strong rebound for the industry in the wake of COVID-era lockdowns. And for the 13th straight year, liquor gained market share within US beverage alcohol, rising to 42.1%. That figure marks a significant milestone: for the first time, spirits supplier revenues have surpassed that of beer.
“Despite the tough economy, consumers continued to enjoy premium spirits and fine cocktails in 2022,” according to Chris Swonger, president and CEO of the trade association abbreviated as DISCUS. “Cocktail culture continues to thrive in the United States supporting jobs in the distilling, hospitality and agriculture sectors.”
Swonger went on to note that stronger spirits sales have helped recovery in US hospitality. It’s an industry that’s still struggling to regain its footing from 2020. According to the US Bureau of Labor and Statistics, hospitality industry employment remains down by 750,000 jobs compared to pre-pandemic levels. And while sales of spirits at on-premise establishments are on the rise, they are about 5% lower than they were in 2019.
“The recovery of hospitality businesses is trending in the right direction, but we urge legislators at the federal and state levels to seek ways to support these businesses as they continue to recover,” added Swonger. “Measures to modernize the marketplace by providing spirits consumers with greater access and more choices will continue to spur economic growth.”
Continued premiumization amongst agave spirits—as well as American whiskey categories—was instrumental in helping liquor finally take the title from beer. According to DISCUS chief of public policy & strategy Christine LoCascio, “more than 60 percent of the spirits sector’s total revenue was from sales of high-end and super-premium spirits, mainly led by Tequila, [bourbon, and rye],” she notes. “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.”
Another key mover in the market has been the robust performance of ready-to-drink, canned cocktails (RTDs). But as discussed during the economic briefing, there remains a disparity in terms of how spirit-based RTDs and malt-based RTDs are taxed and regulated. Despite the fact that they often possess similar levels of alcohol, most state governments continue to make it more difficult to purchase—and more expensive to buy—a pre-mixed tequila-and-soda versus a malt beverage flavored with agave syrup. Pushing to keep that discrepancy in place is the beer wholesalers lobby. But it might become an increasingly untenable position as the biggest players in beer, including ABI and MolsonCoors, increases their holdings in the spirits space.
A few more key stats related to growth in 2022, by category:
- Tequila/mezcal sales were up 17.2%, or $886 million, totaling $6.0 billion
- Vodka sales were flat at $7.2 billion.
- American whiskey sales were up 10.5%, or $483 million, totaling $5.1 billion
- Brandy & cognac sales were down 12.3%, or $428 million, totaling $3.1 billion
- Cordials sales were up 2.6%, or $73 million, totaling $2.9 billion