Sizing up the spirits market

SIPS

The two M's - Manhattan and martini - are hot

January 15, 2003|By Sara Engram | Sara Engram,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Ask Michael D. Hyatt how he would sum up the year gone by in the spirits market and he's got a quick answer, "The two M's - martinis and Manhattans." As managing partner at Wells Discount Liquors on York Road, Hyatt is one of many people in the area who keep a finger on the pulse of a vibrant beverage market.

If the two trends Hyatt refers to sound a bit retro, that doesn't mean drinkers are returning to an earlier era when gin and whiskey ruled the bar. Sure, martinis are all the rage - but not the classic gin, christened with a drop or two of vermouth and crowned with an olive or twist.

The new martini craze thrives not on gin, but on vodka and its smooth ability to mix with all kinds of flavors, from fruit to chocolate. Hyatt says he gets a lot of requests for ingredients and instructions for chocolate martinis. "Appletinis" are also a big hit.

As for Manhattans, this classic cocktail seems to be drawing some younger fans. Customers in their 30s and 40s are "are asking how to make them and buying better bourbon," Hyatt says.

Some beverage-industry observers expect vodka's growth in sales to slow this year, if only because it has dominated the spirits market recently. The last couple of years have seen a lot of new brands and flavors hit the market, from raspberry and pineapple to chocolate and vanilla. Some people expect a shake-out in this category as shoppers choose their favorites.

Bourbon has made something of a comeback in recent years, in part because of its appeal as the only spirit with roots in the United States.

However, despite a growth in "single-batch" bourbons and a new appreciation of this spirit, sales have not threatened vodka's hold on the market.

Rum and tequila have seen a big rise in popularity, in large part because, like vodka, they play well with other flavors.

Tequila consumption thrives on the ever-popular margarita, but a new appreciation of high-quality, 100 percent blue-agave tequila is winning over fans who don't want to cover the taste with too much lime juice.

Meanwhile, a host of new, high-quality rums has attracted the attention of a lot of spirits consumers. One new entry in the rum market is as notable for its packaging as its taste. Coyopa rum is a premium - and, at around $50 a bottle, premium-priced - beverage that will literally light up the bar.

Merely pick up the bottle and you'll be serenaded by a recording of steel-drum calypso music, while the label lights up with dancers like a mini-disco video. For a brief moment you might even think you've been transported to Barbados, where Coyopa is made.

Are you paying for the rum or the show? Surely both. But as the Coyopa folks say, this fine rum demands a spectacular bottle.

Last year also saw a new crop of "malternative" beverages, malt-based beverages with flavors ranging from lemonade and root beer to iced tea. Some new entries in that market didn't last through the year, but at least one new heavyweight contender will soon be on the market: Triple Black Ice, much like the successful Smirnoff Ice but triple-filtered to produce a crystal-clear beverage.

Like any healthy market, the beverage industry is busy bringing consumers new products and new pitches, including appeals to drink alcoholic beverages responsibly.

The alcohol industry as a whole has shifted toward wine and away from spirits. Hyatt says that at his store, wine's share of the business has grown to 70 percent, up from about 40 percent of sales a decade ago.

As for the 500 cases of liquor the store typically would sell to businesses to be distributed to employees or customers as holiday gifts, "That's gone," Hyatt says. Businesses now give bottles of wine or other gifts, but not hard liquor. On the whole, consumers are drinking less liquor than a decade or two ago, but they're drinking higher-quality stuff. As trends go, that's not a bad one.

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