The Basics History & Trends

The Modern Moderation Movement Is Real. This Is What You Need to Know About It.

Image: Suzanne Dias

Boozehounds, like 18th-century classical composers, love a good movement: the craft beer movement, the natural wine movement, the artisanal tequila turned mezcal turned alternative agave spirits movement. Give us a juicy trend with legs, one that promises to change the way we look at what’s in our glass, and we’ll be the first to fill that glass to the rim and raise a toast.

But there’s one movement that has many in the booze biz on high alert: the moderation movement. After a decades-long boom in consumption, new data shows that Americans are increasingly laying off the sauce—or at the very least, embracing it less heartily than they once did. In 2018, alcohol volumes in the United States dropped by 0.8%, a third straight year of decline.

That might sound like drops from a keg. But when you consider that sales growth across all alcoholic categories is slowing at a time when Americans are embracing wellness as an existential ideal, it signals a perceptible shift in our drinking culture. And it leaves those of us who make, market and write about adult beverages looking for answers. These are five things you need to know about the moderation movement.

1. People Are Still Drinking Plenty

To be clear: Never in history have more people drank more booze in more places than right now. Between 2007 and 2017, the number of on- and off-premise establishments selling alcohol in the U.S. grew by more than 100,000, or almost 20%. By 2013, after a decade of uninterrupted growth, three-quarters of American adults said they’d consumed alcohol within the last year. So yeah, everyone’s thirsty. Just a little less thirsty for beer.

Consumption of legacy beer brands like Budweiser and Miller has been dipping for years as an increasing number of drinkers turn to low-carb, low-calorie options such as wine and spirits. “It’s important to understand that beer is over 77% of total alcohol consumption in the U.S.,” says Brandy Rand, the chief marketing officer at industry tracker IWSR. “When the category slows, it impacts the entire industry. But overall, the alcohol industry is performing very well.” Whew!

2. … And They’re Drinking the Good Stuff

People may be imbibing less, but when they do they’re reaching straight for the top shelf. The focus for the spirits industry over the last decade-plus has been premiumization, a less-but-better approach that has booze companies releasing smaller amounts of more expensive (read: high-margin) products rather than pumping out oceans of standard beer, wine and spirits.

Which explains why the shelves at your local liquor store are bursting at the seams with new bottles and expressions. It also helps explain the birth of a new kind of booze consumer, one whose loyalties lies less with the label on the bottle and more with the liquid in it—and the story behind it. “Millennials continue to gravitate toward the vast array of spirits as companies create excitement in the marketplace with new products and experiences,” says David Ozgo, the chief economist for the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States.

3. Wellness Is More Than a Buzzword

Goat yoga notwithstanding, wellness is serious business. It’s estimated that the global wellness industry, which encompasses everything from spin gyms and silent retreats to athleisure makeup, is valued at $4.2 trillion. As wellness goes mainstream, its mind-body-balance ethos pervades all corners of American life. That includes the corner bar.

“People today have a high level of awareness when it comes to what they put in their bodies,” says Heidi Dillon Otto, a portfolio director for Distill Ventures, the makers of Seedlip, the world’s first nonalcoholic spirit. “They don’t want additives and sugary mocktails. They demand something as thoughtfully crafted as a good cocktail, just without the alcohol.”

Indeed, no- and low-alcohol drinks are one of the fastest growing segments in the bar industry. In Los Angeles, no stranger to healthy lifestyle trends, about a third of cocktail bars feature a nonalcoholic drinks menu, with more catching on every day. The big-box beer companies have been quick to jump on the zero-ABV train. Heineken, Peroni and Guinness have all recently launched booze-free beers in the United States, and the world’s largest brewer, Anheuser-Busch InBev, has vowed to make low- or no-alcohol beer products 20% of its global beer volume by 2025. (It currently accounts for 8%.) “Wellness isn’t a fad we expect to fizzle out,” says Dillon Otto. “It’s here to stay.” Put another way: Thy body is thy (Shirley) temple.

4. The Sober-Curious Are Here

A recent study by IWSR showed that 65% of Americans ages 21 to 44 said they were trying to significantly reduce their alcohol intake. Chalk it up to ripples from the wellness wave or yet more soul searching from Generation Meh, but the fact remains that more people today are experimenting with sobriety. The trend is so popular it’s garnered its own mini-movement: the sober-curious movement, which celebrates an alcohol-free lifestyle without the bad vibes of addiction, framing its approach as a path to a better, healthier, happier and decidedly drier you.

“We live in a culture where drinking is the default for so many things,” says Lorelei Bandrovschi, the founder of Listen Bar, an alcohol-free pop-up in New York City with big-name guest bartenders like Jack McGarry, Julia Momose and Pam Wiznitzer. Bandrovschi, who considers herself “drink-optional,” got the idea after she took a month away from booze and realized there wasn’t exactly a surfeit of nightlife options for the sober-curious set.

“People really love to go out and meet new people and be in fun, rowdy spaces,” she says. “Until now, we’ve been told that alcohol has to be part of those moments. We’re finally realizing that we’re the ones that create that fun environment, not the percentage of ABV in your cup.”

5. Cannabis Is the Green Elephant in the Room

Of all the factors contributing to the moderation movement, maybe the biggest is America’s love affair with weed. As of today, it’s legal to buy and consume recreational marijuana in 11 states plus the District of Columbia. Another 33 states and D.C. have approved medical marijuana. Those numbers are predicted to climb in the years and elections to come. What effect will that have on the adult beverage industry?

The short answer is: No one knows. “As more people grow comfortable with the concept of recreational marijuana, there’s a potential future risk,” says Rand. “Especially because cannabis is a plant and therefore seen as a healthier alternative to alcohol.” Rand is quick to point out, however, that consumers aren’t forced to pick their poison. “It’s important to not think of this as black and white. Not every dollar spent on legal cannabis is a dollar taken from alcohol.”

All the same, big booze is taking no chances. Last year, beer and wine giant Constellation Brands dumped $4 billion into Canadian cannabis company Canopy Growth. Heineken, A-B InBev and Molson Coors have also joined the green rush, paving the way for an explosion of new cannabis products, including marijuana-infused beverages that can be marketed as a healthier buzz than alcohol. “You can’t make wine, beer and spirits with zero calories,” Rob Sands, the executive chair of Constellation Brands, recently told CNN. “But we can make cannabis products with zero calories.”

Will they connect with consumers the way a glass of chardonnay with dinner or a cold pilsner at the ball game does? And if so, how long before Americans really start to bail on booze? Only time will tell, and since you have some to kill, might as well fix yourself a drink.