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Impact Seminar: Wirtz On Digital Transformation, Brown On American Whiskey

October 12, 2022

The digital revolution has swept through the drinks industry at increasing speed in recent years, with the distribution tier in particular moving rapidly to upgrade its capabilities. Danny Wirtz, vice chairman of Breakthru Beverage, addressed the topic at the recent 46th Annual Impact Marketing Seminar in a speech called “Digital Transformation of a Relationship-Driven Industry.” Wirtz’s presentation marked a first for the Impact Seminar. Danny is the third generation of Wirtz family members to speak at the event, following his grandfather Bill in 1983 and his father Rocky in 2011.

Wirtz noted that e-commerce sales are four times larger than in 2019 and that sales through platforms like Instacart, Drizly, and Gopuff will reach $1.48 billion this year. He pointed to the importance of data and digital workflows for wholesalers, adding that the distribution tier’s B2B platforms could continue to learn from wider B2C platforms. “In the near future, we will seamlessly deliver both raw data and curated insights that build upon how we reach the end-consumer and inform the decisions we make,” he said. “We will also connect our systems and tools to those of our suppliers and customers in a way that makes the 3-tier system less like a complex web of companies and more like a single, holistic network.”

While more remains to be done, Wirtz observed that the industry has come a long way from the days of the traveling salesman with today’s digital-first ordering systems. As an executive at one of the biggest wholesale players in the country, he also opined on the latest trends in the business from a consumer angle, discussing the rise of RTDs as a new entry point into beverage alcohol for Generation Z.

“Gen Z is entering the alcohol category via RTDs, not beer. Millennials are choosing spirit cocktails over wine on occasion,” he said. And CBD beverages and non-alcs are quickly picking up market share with the sober curious generation,” he said. “All of that is underscored by the changing dynamics of how and where consumers purchase alcohol. Luxury is no longer limited to the on-premise. Fine wine is selling at C-Stores.”

Campbell Brown, chair of the Brown-Forman board of directors, spoke on the topic “The American Whiskey Renaissance.” But he took care to note that he believes the upturn in Bourbon and other American whiskies is more than a short-term phenomenon. “When you think about booms, they happen quickly. They don’t last terribly long,” he said. “Renaissances tend to flicker and fade. I do believe it’s more of a step change. I think it’s really changing the way we look at partnership, innovation, how we go to market, and our ability to really introduce more and more products at a time.”

Assessing the current landscape, Campbell pointed to the successes of Bourbon in American pop and cocktail culture. “Bartenders have really shifted their interest into using Bourbon as a foundation for so many cocktails,” he said.

He also noted the rise of Bourbon and whiskey societies as a sign that consumer interest is strong. Additionally, he said, tourism has become a lifeblood for the industry, bringing fans into distilleries to create unique memories and experiences. “People travel all over the world just to have an ability to meet master and associate distillers,” he said. This embrace of Bourbon and American whiskey, whether happening in bars, distilleries, on retail shelves, or at home shows that, despite a decade of growth, there’s still ample thirst for American whiskies, and the rising ranks of U.S. distillers are committed to satisfying that demand.

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