This month, we've charged our category commentators with predicting the year ahead for their respective sectors. Here, Neil Ridley tells us how he sees 2018 panning out for the global brown spirits category.

I've been writing these sort of forecasts now for the last decade and largely speaking, it's about as easy to predict exactly which trend is going to gain some serious traction as it is to predict which nation will be the next prime target for a vitriolic barrage of Tweets from Donald Trump.

But, here goes anyway. 

Whisky - No, it isn't the 'new' gin. But, it is scandalicious

Earlier this week, I read an article in a daily newspaper, with some amusement it must be said, highlighting the next big spirits trend. "Hot on the heels of gin… it's… whisky."

Wow. That's not much of a prediction really, is it? There's no mention of which kind, or which area of innovation is leading this groundbreaking growth, other than 'they drink it in (UK TV programme) Peaky Blinders, and so should you".

Truth be told, the trajectory of Scotch has been tantalising over the past few years, but gin it is not. The sector's regulatory structure (which I examined at the end of last year) still means that it's going to take a miracle for Scotch to suddenly become the new flavour of 2018, especially for the casual, trend-savvy, Millennial consumer.

On the other hand, it just might be the case for a few international distillers, which are making headway in the UK.

Last year, I visited the Stauning distillery in Denmark and was mightily impressed with what it has achieved in the ten years since it was established. With a heavy focus on rye whisky, Stauning seems to have really captured something different to other producers - and it hasn't gone unnoticed by the big boys, Diageo in particular, which has invested heavily in the distillery, upscaling production significantly.

If the seeds can be sown this year and future outturn can translate into a more affordable, accessible product, then we can expect Stauning and Scandinavian whisky to be a serious player.

Honourable mentions must also go to Starward in Melbourne and Paul John in Goa, both of whom have also been making a lot of friends amongst whisky drinkers and have a real chance to break through with more mainstream spirits consumers this year, with their genuinely contemporary look, feel and taste. 

Rum - The authenticity issue rages on

I've also been reading about how 2018 is unquestionably dark rum's year, but I still remain unconvinced it is set to hit the heights as the spirit to watch.

The latest spate of he-said-she-said between Bacardi and Pernod Ricard over the authenticity of their respective versions of Havana Club highlights just how much more the broader rum category needs to do to appear genuinely authentic in the eyes of the consumer. On the other hand, for those who tell a brilliantly compelling tale, and where the liquid provenance is also completely transparent - and really straightforward to understand from the perspective of the consumer - I think there's plenty to suggest that premium dark rum could potentially tantalise the ardent single malt drinker this year.

And, this brings me on to…

…Yes, Armagnac.

To those that know me, or have read anything about my love of this spirit, then you'll be familiar with me talking it up every January as a potential game changer. And, you know what? I'm going to do it again this year. 

It's not fair to refer to Armagnac, as some people often do, as 'the little brother of Cognac'. Not only does it pre-date Cognac by several hundred years, but right now, I can't think of another spirit which comes close to containing as many craft/authenticity/broad flavour cues to ignite not only the mixology world, but also those current consumers who are tired of hearing the same hackneyed heritage storyline from their beloved whisky brands, alongside the rapidly rising prices and disappointing new products.

If it doesn't happen this year, expect me to be saying the same thing next year. Or, at least, until someone starts to pay attention.

Beware the Social Media rogues

My final prediction relates to the way brands and consumers are going to be influenced by social media in the near future. The glossy, filter-heavy tones of an Instagrammed cocktail or whisky bottle are undoubtedly beautiful and inspirational to look at. However, some pages are not what they perhaps appear to be. Dig a little deeper and the genuine influence of some of the more prominent accounts new-to-the-scene is merely a veneer. 

I recently saw just how easy it is for someone to quickly appear to have an immense following, simply through gathering paid-for followers. Not only does this mislead consumers, but brands need to be aware that they do themselves no favours when associating with a potential house of cards.

This will be the year where the Micro Influencers are really taken seriously; those with genuine passion, skin in the game and a targeted list of between 5,000 and 10,000 like-minded followers, grown organically over half a decade or more.

Drink up, folks -  it's nearly February!