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Top Retailers Assess Bourbon’s Bull Market, And See Plenty Of More Room To Run

October 10, 2018

The U.S. Bourbon market has added 1 million cases a year since 2013, and reached the 21-million-case mark last year on 3.5% growth. Those gains are being driven by a new generation seeking authenticity and craft, while aspiring toward more upscale Bourbons—trends that make retailers confident the growth will continue.

“You’ll see higher-quality offerings become the most popular releases as stocks continue to mature,” predicts David Othenin-Girard, spirits buyer at California-based K&L Wine Merchants. Long-term drinkers also are premiumizing, according to Alex Poreda, director of sales for the Florida-based ABC Fine Wine & Spirits chain. “Guests will have a go-to, like Beam or Jack, that they’ll drink in a cocktail during the week,” he says. “Higher-end brands like Woodford or Maker’s are becoming their Saturday night bottles.”

Retailers are also expanding their activity on bespoke Bourbons to generate even more excitement within their customer base. At ABC, Poreda has found success with Maker’s Mark Private Select—a program that allows retailers to select and customize Maker’s Mark expressions using different barrel staves to alter the flavor profile. “It creates demand from Bourbon drinkers overall and Maker’s Mark customers in particular,” Poreda says. Recently, ABC sold out of a 200-bottle release of Maker’s Mark Private Select within 48 hours.

Maker’s Mark is just one of many players offering such exclusive releases. Illinois retailer Binny’s Beverage Depot has long worked with Buffalo Trace, for example, to bring exclusives to market. “We’re able to get more extensive batch releases, as opposed to just straight single barrel one-offs,” says Binny’s specialty spirits buyer Brett Pontoni. “Those exclusive releases have customers visiting the store once a week just to see if any new products have hit the shelves.”

At Acquistapace’s in West Covington, Louisiana, co-owner Adam Acquistapace travels frequently to taste barrels for exclusive bottlings. The store carries up to 25 exclusive-barrel spirits at a time, with a clear focus on Bourbon. Exclusive offerings from Blanton’s, Russell’s Reserve, and Elijah Craig perform particularly well. Acquistapace’s holds bottles for its regular customers, who often share with each other and compare notes, generating excitement and community around the program.

Single barrel whiskies have helped diversify the selection at the New Hampshire Liquor Commission’s 80 stores, according to NHLC chairman Joseph Mollica. Some 200 single barrel whiskies have been listed by the NHLC over the years, including Jack Daniel’s Single Barrel and Four Roses 100 proof. Bayway World of Liquors in Elizabeth, New Jersey, has offered its “Whisky Peddler” private-barrel selections for more than a decade, and owner Fred Leighton estimates that the store has collaborated on more than 50 products over the years. “It’s a big commitment, but it’s fun,” he adds.

Non-Kentucky Bourbons, meanwhile are also benefiting from the Bourbon boom, as well as the trend toward craft. At Twin Liquors, the 91-store chain based in Austin, Texas, co-owner and president David Jabour notes that Garrison Brothers Bourbon ($83) and Ben Milam Bourbon ($45)—both Texas products—are among the growth drivers at his stores.

Today’s Bourbon volumes still haven’t reached the highs of decades ago, giving retailers cause to remain bullish. But Poreda notes that there’s still a risk of the next generation embracing a different category. “People don’t always want to drink what their parents drank,” he says. “My children are teenagers. In another eight years, it will be interesting to see if they follow along, or go a different route.”—Shane English

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