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Upscale Brands Drive Growth For American Whiskey

February 19, 2019

Brands retailing at $25 and above are driving growth for American whiskey in the U.S. market. Super-premium Bourbons and Tennessee whiskies grew by an aggregate 12% to 6.1 million cases last year, according to Impact Databank. Since 2010, the super-premium segment has more than tripled in size, adding roughly 4.2 million cases. In the past three years, super-premium Bourbon and Tennessee whiskies have tacked on more than 1.8 million cases, and now account for about 27% of the total category, up from a 12% share in 2010.

Maker’s Mark has long held the top spot among super-premium Bourbons, and its depletions grew 9.1% to nearly 1.7 million cases last year, excluding its Maker’s 46 offshoot. Globally, Maker’s Mark sold over 2 million cases for the first time last year. “Our investments in capacity are enabling us to introduce the brand to consumers more broadly in international markets,” says Rob Mason, vice president of whiskey at Beam Suntory. Last October, Beam Suntory tested the waters with a higher-proof offering of Maker’s Mark—50.5% as opposed to 45%—in travel retail.

Beam Suntory’s small batch labels, most notably Knob Creek and Basil Hayden’s, are also advancing quickly. “Basil Hayden’s continues to accelerate, while Knob Creek has been bolstered by its rye variants,” says Mason. Last year, Knob Creek grew by 8.3% to 444,000 cases, and added Twice Barreled Rye and Cask Strength Rye to its limited-release portfolio. Twice Barreled Rye (50% abv) is finished in new American charred oak barrels and retails at $55. Knob Creek Cask Strength Rye ($70) finished second in Whisky Advocate’s Top 20 rankings for 2018.

Basil Hayden’s, meanwhile, shot up by 40% to 253,000 cases last year. Its recently launched Two By Two Rye label is a blend of 5- and 7-year-old Kentucky straight rye with 6- and 13-year-old Kentucky straight Bourbon. Two By Two joined Basil Hayden’s Rye, Dark Rye, and holiday specialty release Basil Hayden’s 10-year-old in the range.

Bulleit also continues to grow rapidly, rising by nearly 10% last year to 1.3 million cases. It’s also closing the gap with Maker’s Mark, which started the decade with more than a 700,000-case lead over Bulleit—a lead that’s now down to 320,000 cases. “We’ve been doing things around barrel programs and aging on Bulleit, and we’ll continue to innovate,” says Deirdre Mahlan, president of brand-owner Diageo North America.

Woodford Reserve continues to outperform the super-premium tier, rising by 21.3% to 569,000 cases last year and up 42% over the past two years. “We’ve sustained growth on the core Woodford label while also introducing new expressions,” says Erin Schlader, marketing director of brand-owner Brown-Forman. “There’s a real thirst for the innovation around the brand.”

Woodford portfoliomate Old Forester also has been a standout performer, rising by 18% to 223,000 cases last year. Recently, Old Forester completed its upscale Whiskey Row Series with 1910 Old Fine Whisky ($55), a double-barreled variant of Old Forester, and has also debuted its first rye label.—Shane English

U.S. – Top 10 Super-Premium Bourbon Brands1,2
(thousands of 9-liter case depletions)
Rank Brand Distiller 2017 2018E Percent
1 Maker’s Mark4 Beam Suntory 1,517 1,656 9.1%
2 Bulleit Diageo North America 1,217 1,337 9.8%
3 Woodford Reserve5 Brown-Forman 469 569 21.3%
4 Knob Creek Beam Suntory 410 444 8.3%
5 Gentleman Jack6 Brown-Forman 387 404 4.4%
6 Basil Hayden’s Beam Suntory 181 253 39.5%
7 Four Roses Four Roses Distillery 210 250 19.0%
8 Buffalo Trace Sazerac Co 172 186 8.0%
9 Elijah Craig Heaven Hill Brands 110 135 22.7%
10 Maker’s 46 Beam Suntory 99 102 3.6%
Total Top Ten 4,772 5,335 11.8%
Other Brands 698 790 13.3%
Total Super-Premium7 5,470 6,125 12.0%
1 at least $25 a 750-ml. bottle
2 includes rye and other straight whiskies
3 based on unrounded data
4 excludes Maker’s 46
5 excludes Double Oaked and Rye
6 Tennessee whiskey
7 addition of columns may not agree due to rounding


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