Rye Boom Gets Serious

Growth

Maybe you missed this, but new supplier data from the Distilled Spirits Council puts the rye boom in stark perspective.

Since 2009, rye whiskey volumes have grown 536 percent, from 88,000 9-liter cases to more than half million cases - 561,000 - in 2014. That’s an unprecedented increase, based on the twin booms in cocktail consumption and in all sorts of American whiskey. In value terms, this growth translates into a 609 percent jump from slightly over $15 million in supplier revenues in 2009 to more than $106 million in 2014. It also represents approximately $300 million in retail sales according to David Ozgo, Distilled Spirits Council chief economist.

“The growth of rye whiskey has been phenomenal, given that as late as 2000, Rye volumes were virtually nonexistent with only a handful of brands in the U.S. market,” said Ozgo. “By 2014, there were over 100 brands, and the sheer numbers tell the story. While it still represents a small share of the overall American whiskey category, its growth is skyrocketing.”

Ozgo attributed rye’s revival to those two main factors mentioned above. There’s been a growing interest in American whiskeys in general from 2009 to 2014, with bourbon and Tennessee whiskey volumes shooting up 28.5 percent and revenues up 46.7 percent, the latter reflecting consumers’ taste for higher premium quality brown spirits, and that’s helped push rye to the forefront. The revival of pre-Prohibition cocktails, in which rye played a major role, spurred the renewed interest in rye some time ago, but now that production of rye is up, a broader selection of brands is stimulating interest as well. Further, says Ozgo, Americans are embracing the heritage of spirits products, and rye has a long heritage, the original grain whiskey of the East Coast, exemplified by George Washington’s large rye distillery on his Mount Vernon, Virginia estate.

Now that the major distillers are starting to release the rye supplies they’ve built up in the past five years or so, more brands are available, with higher proof and a variety of mash bills - from those using the legal minimum of 51 percent rye to those made almost entirely with rye - giving consumers a chance to widen their rye experience.

On-premise, the boom has mostly been limited to cocktail bars, but chain accounts that ignore the boom are missing the boat, as the Millennial consumer, hard to attract and even harder to keep, judges a bar by the breadth of the brands and styles of spirits available. That’s at odds with the recent trend for tight and limited spirit lists at many operations, and the frequent lack of regional favorites being stocked misses a smaller but significant part of the rye boom - those emerging regional distillers whose wares get immediate attention as part of contemporary and especially Millennial consumers’ interest in locally-produced food and drink.

There is a whole generation of consumers who want to start out drinking American whiskey and not flavored vodka; miss them now and you might never get them back.