What's coming up in dark spirits in 2020? - Predictions for the Year Ahead - comment

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The dawning of a new decade will bring plenty of surprises, creativity and optimism. As we welcome 2020, then, what will be the first likely trends in dark spirits? Category commentator Neil Ridley takes a look.

What does 2020 have in store for the dark spirits industry?

What does 2020 have in store for the dark spirits industry?

Ten years ago, I distinctly remember trying to fathom what the next decade would look like for the spirits industry. I was a little fresher-faced then, my beard containing only the merest flash of salt and pepper, as opposed to the 'over-seasoned' look it has now. However, despite my advancing years, I feel as excited and optimistic about the health of the business today as I did then.

The beginning of the last decade was a seemingly open book for the spirits industry - full of excitement; the unknown future an alluring place for innovators in the sector, who were beginning to wake up and shake up the business thanks to the power and social connectivity of the internet and the emergence of a younger, category-curious group of consumers: the Millennials. As we'll consider later, a few of those innovators are still very much around now, joined by a like-minded collection of new pioneers in the world of spirits NPD.

Today, however, they seek the approval from not just ageing Millennials, but the even more curious Gen Z; a generation in possession of a different set of values altogether, most notably caring less about alcohol consumption and more about the planet's future preservation than its past glories. With that in mind, the first big thought that must be embraced by every single spirits company over the next decade is about giving their brands not only a personality truly aligned with the future but, perhaps more crucially, a distinct social conscience. It's no longer merely a desirable asset to play on in marketing, it's a fundamental brand truth expected by the younger consumer. 

  • India - The next big frontier for dark spirits

Nowhere is the importance of youth market influence more prevalent than in India. Over 600m people -  more than half of the country's population - are under the age of 25. This presents a huge opportunity to more forward-thinking drinks brands and a distinct headache for those who have focused solely on tradition. On a visit to Delhi last year, I was struck by how clearly a more driven, tech-savvy youth is embracing Western drinks trends at a phenomenal rate. At the time of my visit, craft beer was the drink of choice amongst those 'in the know', with an increased awareness and appreciation of American cultural cues via Bourbon brands such as Jim Beam, Maker's Mark and Buffalo Trace. Blended Scotches such as Teacher's were also making a small-yet-significant dent, albeit at a higher price point to the domestically-produced IMFL brands. 

Beam Suntory is the first to seize the initiative here, with the release of Oaksmith last month laying down a category game-changer in the all-conquering domestic whisky market: a melding together of Scotch, Bourbon and Indian grain spirit by Suntory's highly-regarded Japanese master blender, Shinji Fukuyo. It's a space that I suspect will grow quickly, despite the challenging taxation restrictions on Western spirits. Those who manage to negotiate these successfully will be able to channel Indian drinking preferences towards more Western dark spirits, including greater volumes of Bourbon, rum and potentially Cognac, given the flavour profiles and inherent mixability. 

  • The second French Revolution IS coming… honestly - Calvados, Cognac and Armagnac

Seasoned readers of this column will probably be rolling their eyes at this point, given that Armagnac has cheekily made its way into my yearly predictions for three years running now, despite never actually delivering on the commercial promise I truly believe it has.

However, all that might be about to change.

Pioneering French brand owners such as Maison Ferrand have consistently been creatively applying artisan brushstrokes to Cognac, gin (with Citadelle) and rum (Plantation) in recent years. The approach is clearly winning the attention of the on-premise channel. I fully expect an Armagnac house to follow Maison Ferrand's lead in 2020 and shatter the ceiling that has somehow held the sector back from greater exposure in the past, by creating a more contemporary feel, look and serve. In Normandy, similar alchemy is stirring, with the maverick drinks company 30&40 starting to make waves with its innovative twist on Calvados.

  • Rum's Spicy Appeal Is Real

As I wrote late last year, whilst I am at odds with the recently-touted premise that "Rum is the new Gin", I do believe genuine change is afoot and 2020 will be a critical year for both spirits. A greater appreciation of consistency and transparency amongst connoisseurs is leading to increased demand for premium rum in the UK, parts of Western Europe and the US - especially in the spiced category. As I mentioned in November, however, the key is balancing this with the wider-held trend towards less-sweet drinks. Crack that flavour balance and the spoils are there for the taking.

  • Credibility at last in the no-/low- dark spirits sector?

Despite some previously lamentable hiccups - which I looked at back in June - this year will begin to test the durability and viability of credible dark non-alc spirits. Leading the way here are Pernod Ricard's Celtic Soul, Three Spirit's NightCap and Dutch VOC's Fluère Spiced Cane Dark Roast. Each one brings a novel and worthy back-story to the table, alongside decent tasting liquid and eye-catching serves, as opposed to 'mocktails'. What is clear, however, is that the wider non-alc spirit category is already feeling somewhat congested, so expect 2020 to separate the wheat from the chaff. 

  • Premium Irish whiskey comes of age

As reported on just-drinks this week, Irish whiskey has once again experienced strong growth in the US with exports rising 11% in value during 2019. We can expect this upward trajectory to continue, with Pernod's Irish Distillers division leading the charge. Alongside the continued affection for Jameson (especially its innovative extensions such as the Caskmates series,) as well as a broader focus on the recently-repackaged Powers, 2020 will also be an exciting year for the premium and super-premium end of the sector.

Led by greater innovation, provenance and, perhaps most importantly, a greater availability of quality aged stock, brands such as Midleton Very Rare have already proven that single pot still Irish whiskey can very much hold its own against the upper echelons of both Scotch single malt and Japanese whisky. Across the border in Northern Ireland, a continued focus on consumer education through the Blackbush Stories programme will hopefully see Bushmills once again rising among the ranks of essential Irish whiskeys this year.

  • Scotch single malt 2.0 and the rise of premium blends

With last year's changes in production rules allowing greater maturation possibilities, new innovations in Scotch are surely just around the corner. In the premium blended sector, Compass Box, still led by maverick whisky maker John Glaser (the undoubted trailblazer of the last decade), will continue to be the benchmark for pushing the boundaries of what can and can't be done. The recent experimental release blending Scotch and Calvados together, called Affinity, has proven Glaser's continued knack for category disruption.

Conversely, it's also the rise in fortunes of some of the more traditional brands that excites me. Late last year saw Chivas Brothers' Royal Salute step out of the shadows with three outstanding new expressions - The Treasured Blend, Snow Polo and 52 Year Old Single Cask Finish. Releases like these will really kickstart an innovative renaissance for the brand, which continues to have a strong presence in Asia.

In the world of single malt Scotch, we can expect to see a lot more from a new breed of emerging brands, offering consumers the three essential pillars for success: genuine quality, transparency and value for money, which it can be argued have become a bit lost in the brand compasses of a few of the category leaders of the last decade. With this in mind, 2020 will be a big year for Ian MacLeod's Tamdhu, a whisky whose steady progress of reinvention I have been following closely for the past year. The brand's robust, Sherry cask-led character is already gaining affection among malt connoisseurs across the UK, Scandinavia and Taiwan so far.

Finally, a few ghosts of whisky past are to reappear this decade. We can look forward to the reopening of Diageo's Brora distillery, which is scheduled for later this year, and then Ian MacLeod's Rosebank in 2021. The iconic Port Ellen on Islay, meanwhile, has just had its plans approved. It will be fascinating to see how each one of these lost classics is received by the wider whisky community, given just how far things have moved on in the decades since they were closed down.

Whatever may happen, it's a tantalising prospect indeed.

Expert Analysis

Opportunities in the Global Spirits Sector: Analysis of Opportunities Offered by High Growth Economies

Opportunities in the Global Spirits Sector: Analysis of Opportunities Offered by High Growth Economies

This report brings together multiple data sources to provide a comprehensive overview of the global spirits sector as part of our global series. It includes an analysis on global spirits sector with c...


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