Investment in product innovations such as flavoured whiskies and RTDs has borne fruit for non-Scotch whiskies, according to a new just-drinks/IWSR report, while US, Canadian and Irish whiskies have also capitalised on the growing popularity of cocktails.

The global reach of Scotch whisky and the world renown of some of its brands underline its pre-eminence in the international whisky market, but a new just-drinks/IWSR report suggests there are a few areas of the drinks market where non-Scotch whiskies score rather better than their illustrious competitor. 

Moreover, the areas concerned include some key growth engines of the spirits market, such as cocktails and premixed drinks, and therefore represent a genuine opportunity for other whiskies to steal a march on the category leader. 

“Non-Scotch whiskies have proven far more successful in adapting themselves for use in cocktails,” the just-drinks/IWSR Global Market Review of non-Scotch Whiskies states. “The sweeter taste of US, Canadian and Irish whiskies tends to lend itself to cocktail usage. Scotch and Cognac tend to struggle in the cocktail space. That bodes well for the future as cocktail consumption is growing in most markets.”

Another area where non-Scotch whiskies are doing well, according to the report, is in ready-to-drink spirits (RTDs). In this sector, US whiskey brands have proved particularly adept. “US whiskey has proven a very popular base for ready-to-drinks (RTDs). This is a major factor behind the category’s success in markets such as Australia and Germany.” 

The leading US brands, Jim Beam and Jack Daniel’s, have enjoyed success in the RTD sector, though the report states that Brown-Forman was a little slower to embrace this area of the market. Moreover, early concerns that RTDs would cannibalise primary full-strength brands have proven unfounded. In fact, the evidence is that they are “highly complementary”.

US whiskey producers have also been active in the development of flavoured variants. The report singles out Red Stag by Jim Beam as a “particularly successful new entrant” in this sub-category.

RTDs and flavoured variants offer potential to access consumer segments which the classic brown spirits have often found difficult, namely younger adults and women, giving whiskies from the US, Canada and Ireland a further boost, while bartenders are also coming to value these flavoured versions for cocktails. 

The successful introduction of flavours is therefore reinforcing US whiskey’s relatively young consumer demographic when compared with most of the other major brown spirits categories. This is reflected in the fact that US whiskey has performed moderately well in the domestic US market in spite of the difficult economic conditions, benefiting from an ongoing shift from beer towards spirits among younger consumers. 

According to the report, investment in innovations such as flavoured variants and RTDs has not prevented the US and Canadian whisky sectors from continuing to develop upmarket, niche products to compete with products such as single malts in the Scotch sector. 

In particular, the last few years have seen significant growth in whiskies produced by craft distillers in the US, and the report’s authors believe this is a category to watch. “Many of these craft distillers are introducing new styles of US and Canadian whiskies. While none of these have achieved any real critical mass, they are helping to fuel the growing consumer interest in whisky.” 

The report continues: “There is a growing connoisseurship surrounding US whiskey. Consumers are seeking out interesting new styles or seemingly out-dated styles such as rye or wheat whiskey. Even ‘new make’ whiskies are appearing on the market. This is serving to create a halo effect for the broader US whiskey category.” 

Innovation at both ends of the market has helped US whiskey to continue growing both in its domestic market and internationally even in the midst of the global downturn. Global sales rose by 1.3% in 2010 to reach 29.8m nine-litre cases, only marginally down on the five-year compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 1.45%. IWSR data suggests sales are growing particularly strongly at the high end of the market. 

International sales accounted for 31.6% of total category sales in 2009, against 30% in 2000. Growth in the UK, which became US whiskey’s third million-case market in 2008, joining Germany and Australia, has been offset by falling sales in Japan which was once a 2m-case market and is now below 700,000 cases.

Meanwhile, the Irish whiskey sector continues to be, according to the report, “one of the hottest categories in the global marketplace”.  

Irish whiskey has also bucked the recession, with sales rising by 5.87% in 2010 to reach a record 4.88m nine-litre cases (domestic markets only). Between 2005 and 2010, the category recorded a CAGR of 7.6%, in spite of the difficult economic environment in key Western markets.  

It could be argued that coming from a lower base non-Scotch whiskies, particularly in the international arena, have more to gain and less to lose than Scotch by investing in innovations such as flavoured products and RTDs. But their preparedness to do this, and the suitability of the products for such innovation and for use in cocktails, could yet give some of their famous Scots competitors food for thought.