High-end brown spirits are driving the U.S. spirits market into brand new territory. At the retail tier, private-barrel releases of Bourbon as well as Tequila, Scotch, rye, and rum have helped add fuel to the premiumization craze. Wally’s Wine and Spirits, which has locations in Beverly Hills and Santa Monica, California, saw sales of super-premium spirits advance 10%-15% in 2018. “At the high end, I hand-sell a lot of bottles,” says Wally’s spirits buyer Ryan January.
Nationwide, dollar sales of super-premium spirits increased 10.5% on a 7.5% volume gain, according to the Distilled Spirits Council. Of the growth leaders, American whiskey was the largest in dollar sales at $3.6 billion on a 6.6% rise, while Tequila reached the $3 billion milestone on a 10.2% increase. Cognac also grew 14.2% to $1.8 billion, and Irish whiskey advanced 12% to $1 billion.
At Jacob Liquor Exchange in Wichita, Kansas, super-premium Bourbon led upscale growth trends with a roughly 8% increase last year. High-end Bourbon brands driving growth at the store include Willet Pot Still ($42 a 750-ml.), Eagle Rare 10-year-old ($39), and Knob Creek single barrel ($50). “Everyone is looking for all the high-end or allocated Bourbon they can get,” says April Wilson-Snow, Jacob Liquor’s store manager and director of spirits.
Super-premium spirits at Jacob Liquor are placed on the top shelves of their respective areas. The store also displays a special rack in the front of the store when Whisky Advocate announces its top 20 whiskies of the year. “If a brand has any accolades to post, we’ll feature those, but most of the time there’s no need,” Wilson-Snow says. “When you have staff that know and enjoy the products they’re selling, it’s easier for them to appeal to consumers.”
Wally’s specializes in high-end spirits and has a large private-barrel program. “I get offered a ton of barrels each year,” January says. “Out of the 40 companies that offer to sell me barrels, I maybe take on 10-15. Year to year it varies, but ultimately the product has to be phenomenal juice at a good price.”
An average barrel will usually yield 220-240 750-ml. bottles, according to January. Private-barrel releases of Scotch at Wally’s include Great King Street Wally’s Barrel Glasgow Blend ($60 a 750-ml.). Bourbons and ryes include Elijah Craig Wally’s Single Barrel Bourbon ($30), Knob Creek Cask Strength Wally’s Single Barrel rye ($59), WhistlePig 10-year-old Cask Strength Wally’s Single Barrel rye ($100), and Infuse Wally’s Broken Barrel Bourbon ($45).
Tequila barrel releases at Wally’s include Patrón Wally’s Barrel Añejo ($60 a 750-ml.), Herradura Wally’s Double Barrel Reposado ($65), and Código Wally’s Single Barrel Añejo ($125). Wally’s also carries Goslings Papa Seal Wally’s Single Barrel Bermuda rum ($225). Private-barrel releases at Jacob Liquor include selections of Buffalo Trace ($30 a 750-ml.), Knob Creek ($50), and Elijah Craig ($35). A special Maker’s Mark ($79) release is coming soon.
Look for top-shelf spirits to continue on their upward trajectory. “Bourbons are still hot,” Wilson-Snow says. “Then there’s the yearly spike in Irish whiskey in March. Whisk(e)y seems to go in cycles. Each has a different life span on how long or how much, but none of them are going into the dark.”