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The American whiskey industry is growing by leaps and bounds. There are now more than 2,000 craft distillers in the US. New registrations of whiskey expressions are at a 50 year high. Consumer interest in American whiskeys, especially rare, ultra-aged, ultra-expensive expressions, is growing exponentially.
Moreover, the style of expressions is also growing rapidly and now features a broad range of cask treatments, innovative mash bills, especially ones that utilize historic or non-traditional grain varieties and new categories of whiskey, like American single malts and blended whiskey.
Recently, I sat down with Nora Ganley-Roper and Adam Polonski, co-founders of independent whiskey bottler Lost Lantern, to talk about the top trends in American whiskey for the coming year. Nora and Adam have visited more than a hundred distilleries across the country, this year, giving them a unique perspective on the landscape of American whiskey.
Through their work as an independent bottler of American whiskey, they get an unusual inside look into what distilleries across the country have in their pipeline, and often see emerging trends across the beverage industry before they become evident in bottled product.
Below are Nora’s and Adam’s top 15 trends to watch in the American whiskey category in 2021.
American Single Malt:
- American single malt will continue to become more widely available—and more affordable, like Balcones Lineage. There are over 150 single malt producers in the United States, but historically it has been more expensive and harder to find than Bourbon. We expect that to start to change in 2021.
- The federal government will either issue a new definition for American single malt, or decline to—either way, it will let the industry find its way forward. Currently, there is no official definition of “single malt whiskey” in the United States. Instead, American single malt whiskeys have to be shoehorned into other classifications, such as “malt whiskey” (when the whiskey is matured in new oak) or “whiskey distilled from a malt mash” (when the whiskey is matured in used oak). The American Single Malt Whiskey Commission has pushed the Alcohol & Tobacco Tax & Trade Bureau (TTB) to adopt an official definition of American single malt, and the TTB is likely to publish its final decision this year.
- A transition away from “craft.” People will stop talking about “craft Bourbon” and start talking about the rise of regional styles like “Iowa Bourbon,” “Nevada Bourbon,” etc. Distilleries like Cedar Ridge and Frey Ranch will lead the way.
- The top craft distilleries will be accepted as being on the same level as the major distillers —New Riff (pretty much already there), Wilderness Trail, Westland, Starlight among others.
- Heirloom rye will come onto the stage in 2021, as experiments distilled years ago start maturing. Keep an eye on New York Distilling Co., Dad’s Hat in Pennsylvania and Far North Spirits in Minnesota.
- Awareness of regional styles based on local botanicals/practices like mesquite-smoked single malts that capture the flavors of the Southwest (e.g. Colkegan and Whiskey Del Bac); New York empire rye, a revival of the tradition of cool climate rye (e.g. Kings Co. Distillery and New York Distilling Co.) and Pacific Northwest brewer-driven single malt (e.g. Westward and Copperworks) will grow.
- Texas will increasingly be perceived as a major whiskey region, at least on par with Tennessee. Whiskey tourism in Texas will grow rapidly once the pandemic ends. Brands such as Andalusia, Balcones, Garrison Bros, and Ironroot Republic will lead the way.
- More distilleries will experiment with matching casks with the type of whiskey they’re maturing. Expect more European oak, larger casks, casks from new local cooperages, lighter char levels on barrels and finishing casks unique to that region. Examples of distilleries already doing this are Ironroot Republic, Westland and Westward.
Terroir Driven Whiskey Expressions
- Farm Distilleries, and the concept of seed-to-glass spirits, will become more prominent. This will reignite the discussion of terroir in spirits. Keep an eye on Frey Ranch in Nevada and Whiskey Acres in Illinois.
- Tariffs will slightly help American whiskey at home, but hurt it dramatically abroad. Meanwhile, Scotch will continue to be very expensive unless the tariffs are reversed.
- If the Federal Excise Tax on alcohol reduction is not extended or made permanent, distilleries will be in a disastrous position. Many, likely hundreds, will close their doors.
- Craft distilleries will continue to suffer until the pandemic is over, but online business models will become even more accepted. Those who can adapt to an online model will find success, but it won’t make up for what is lost from a tasting room and local guests.
Collaborations and Blending:
- Already common with breweries, more distilleries will experiment with collaborating—both with each other and with emerging American whiskey blenders like Lost Lantern, Crowded Barrel, and others.
- Online purchases will continue to rise.
- Expect a growing availability gap between affordable, high-quality, widely available whiskeys, like McKenzie rye from Finger Lakes Distilling Co. and prestigious, hard-to-find releases. Whiskeys in the middle will struggle, but high-end and affordable releases will thrive in the pandemic and post-pandemic economy.