Kentucky bourbon and Tennessee whiskey are more popular than ever, pushing distillers to keep up with demand. In 2014, exports of bourbon and Tennessee whiskey topped $1 billion for the second year in a row, setting a record at $1.02 billion, according to figures released Tuesday in New York by the Distilled Spirits Council of the U.S.
Whiskeys account for 70 percent of all U.S. spirits exports, which will hit a record high for the fifth year in a row, according to the industry's lobbying group.
"Bourbon and Tennessee whiskey is the story," said Christine LoCascio, the spirits council's senior vice president for international trade.
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Overall, U.S. spirits sales were up 4 percent in 2014 to $23.1 billion, with total volume up 2.2 percent to 210 million cases. The figures track sales by manufacturers to wholesalers and distributors.
At retail, sales were nearly $70 billion, generating more than $20 billion in taxes, the group said. For the fifth year in a row, liquor picked up market share from beer: spirits now account for 35.2 percent of all alcohol sold, compared with 47.8 percent for beer and 17 percent for wine.
Among the key factors cited by Peter H. Cressy, president and CEO of the spirits council: continued fascination with American whiskeys in the U.S. and abroad; innovations in flavors, especially flavored whiskeys; premiumization across all spirits categories; and growth of small distillers.
Total bourbon and Tennessee whiskey sales topped 19 million cases, up a phenomenal 7.4 percent, or 1.3 million cases.
For 2014, bourbon and Tennessee whiskey makers (Louisville-based Brown-Forman, parent of Jack Daniel's, is the largest in this category) raked in almost $2.7 billion in gross revenue, up $234 million, or 9.6 percent, from the previous year.
The biggest growth — 19.2 percent — was in the super premium category, the highest-priced brands, including Woodford Reserve and Knob Creek.
Those brands are the second-smallest segment overall but generate the biggest profits; revenue from the super premiums grew more than 19 percent to $325 million.
But other segments of the bourbon market also grew:
■ High-end spirits, the largest segment, which include Jack Daniel's, Maker's Mark, Jim Beam Black and Wild Turkey, rose by 5.7 percent, or 9.2 million cases, pushing revenue up 8.1 percent to $1.6 billion.
■ Premium spirits, which include Jim Beam White, Old Forester and George Dickel, rose by 8.8 percent, or 5.5 million cases, driving revenue up 10.1 percent to $566 million.
■ Value spirits, the smallest segment, which include Early Times and Old Crow, rose by 4.7 percent, or 3.1 million cases, pushing revenue up 5.5 percent to $181 million.
■ Sales of flavored bourbon and Tennessee whiskey, often looked down upon by traditionalists, grew by 140,000 cases. Overall, flavored whiskey, which includes popular products such as Fireball and Tennessee Honey, grew by 2.8 million cases to 6.6 million cases.
Spirits council chief economist David Ozgo said that the numbers show that flavored whiskeys continued their strong growth, to some extent drawing consumers from other categories but also attracting adult consumers who are new to distilled spirits.
Overall, sales of flavored products, including vodka, rum or whiskey, grew by 1.9 million cases, although sales of flavored vodka dipped, he said.
And the growth wasn't all at the big distillers, which in Kentucky are in the midst of a billion-dollar building boom.
According to Ozgo, small distillers continue to boom, too. In 2014, there were 712 distillers producing less than 50,000 cases each and 17 producing between 50,000 and 100,000 cases. In total, these distillers produced about 3.5 million cases in 2014, up from 700,000 cases in 2010, and are now 1.7 percent of the spirits market by volume, generating supplier revenue of as much as $450 million.
In Kentucky, the number of small distillers has grown by leaps and bounds in recent years. There are now nine craft distillers on the Kentucky Distillers Association's Kentucky Bourbon Trail Craft Tour, and more are expected to join this year.
Major Kentucky distilleries have invested or are investing more than $1 billion in expanded distilling capacity, more warehouses for barrels, and bigger visitors centers to cater to tourists, according to a KDA study released last year.