Closing out the decade, 2019 was a bumpy year for the cocktail and spirits industry, buffeted between the impact of White Claw and tariffs that threaten to send prices for our most beloved spirits—and the drinks we make with them—skyrocketing. As we say goodbye to 2019, here’s a look back at the last 12 months in drinks.
1. It Was the Year of White Claw
Hard seltzer—and in particular, White Claw—was the hit drink of the year, particularly among the youngest consumers. They somehow bridged the gap between malt beverages, light beer and Vodka Sodas, stealing headlines and market share along the way. Sales tripled during the course of the year, and White Claw’s market share in particular grew 11 percentage points from a year earlier. Looking ahead, expect a spate of other “spiked” and “hard” beverages, starting with a caffeinated flurry of boozy cold brews.
2. We Felt the Need for Speed
From canned cocktails to prebatched drinks on draft and boozy vending machines, bars focused on finding ways to speedily serve drinks to thirsty guests. This development is also closely tied to a move away from meticulously handcrafted (read: “slow”) drinks in a speakeasy-style setting toward more raucous high-volume bars designed to serve more people faster and often in a more casual environment.
3. Tariffs Took Aim
In October 2019, the U.S. announced plans to impose tariffs on certain European Union goods, including many alcoholic beverages. Single malt scotch and Irish whiskey were the subject of whopping 25% duties (although blended whiskies remained untouched), along with wines from some EU countries produced below 14% alcohol, such as sancerre or muscadet; and liqueurs and cordials from Germany, Italy, Spain or Britain, such as Aperol, Campari and amaretto. Will those price hikes be passed along at liquor stores and bars, or will consumers turn to domestic substitutes? That remains to be seen in 2020.
4. Pop Culture Concepts Abounded
There was “Game of Thrones” whisky and beer, as well as pop culture pop-up bars dedicated to “Stranger Things,” “Super Mario Bros.,” “The Big Lebowski” and, of course, “Game of Thrones.” While concept bars and bottles are not new, increasingly they’re focused around pop culture references familiar to younger guests, often with plenty of Instagram appeal.
5. Celebrity Tequilas Flooded the Market
Rita Ora (Próspero), Nick Jonas (Villa One), Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson (Teremana), Michael Jordan (Cincoro)—these are just some of the celebs that rolled out tequila brands in 2019, following in the footsteps of George Clooney and Rande Gerber with Casamigos.
Maybe the culprit is this 2018 “New York Times” article, which declared tequila as the ultimate red carpet quaff. Or perhaps celebs were inspired by Clooney and Gerber’s $1 billion payout when they sold the brand to Diageo in 2018. We’ll have to see what happens next. Perhaps a groundswell of celebrity vodkas, a la Kate Hudson?
6. The Sustainability Drumbeat Continued
Bars continued to promote environmental sustainability, ranging from finding innovative ways to omit disposable coasters or cocktail napkins under drinks to upcycling citrus. Yet in some ways, the movement began to feel insincere. Consider the elaborate second-line parade for plastic straws hosted during the 2019 Tales of the Cocktail, sponsored by Aardvark, a producer of paper straws. Perhaps in 2020, the movement will regain its equilibrium.
7. CBD Went Zzz
In 2018, CBD seemed poised to be the next hot cocktail ingredient, but that did not come to pass. Although CBD-laced drinks without alcohol continued to gain space on store shelves, in general, these have been nonalcoholic drinks intended to promote relaxation. In short, after dabbling with CBD cocktails, in 2019, most bartenders opted to keep the substances separate.
8. The Spritz Went Mainstream
The Spritz was the cocktail that everyone loved, and then loved to hate, after this “New York Times” opinion piece trashed the bubbly aperitivo as “not a good drink.” Despite the polarizing op-ed, bars like NYC’s Bar Pisellino and Dante embraced the Spritz. (Dante even declared “the Summer of Spritz,” devoting a menu and draft line to variations on the cocktail.) By fall, insiders may have been muttering that the Spritz was the new Mojito, but odds are they were grumbling the sentiment into a glass of Aperol and bubbles.
9. American Whiskey Showed Some Muscle
Bourbon and Tennessee whiskey sales continued to thrive, according to the Distilled Spirits Council of the U.S. (DISCUS), with rye whiskey a particular bright spot, growing upward of 15% and breaking the 1 million cases sold barrier for the first time. Bonus: Consumers are willing to pay more for these, particularly for limited-edition or luxury bottles. “This screams millennial buying patterns,” says DISCUS chief economist David Ozgo, meaning that the demographic is willing to spend for the cachet of high-end products.