The beverage alcohol world continues to face major changes amid the twists and turns of the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic. As a result, 2021 saw a shift in the way that we consume, where we drink, and why we do so. From the innovations of restaurateurs and bar owners, to new approaches to marketing products, the industry is quickly getting back to business as consumers and hospitality workers get vaccinated and boosted.
Old trends came back in style, brands partnered up for gimmicky product releases, and more celebrity tequila brands popped up than ever before — but how many do we really need? 2021 was also the year of addressing serious allegations of sexual harassment within the industry as the Court of Master Sommeliers handed out repercussions and craft brewers were called out.
In this episode of the “VinePair Podcast,” hosts Adam Teeter, Joanna Sciarrino, and Zach Geballe reflect on the state of the industry over the last year. Listen in for a roundup of the most important trends, challenges, and stories from the drinks industry in 2021.
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Adam Teeter: From VinePair’s New York City headquarters, I’m Adam Teeter.
Joanna Sciarrino: And I’m Joanna Sciarrino.
Zach Geballe: In Seattle, Washington, I’m Zach Geballe.
A: And this is the “VinePair Podcast.” We’re basically at the end of the year, which is crazy. Really crazy. 2021: What is there to say about it? I know we’re going to talk about it a lot.
Z: I have a question for both of you. This is something that I always struggle with. Do you guys enjoy the various years in review? Some people go wild for their Spotify Wrapped or whatever. I sometimes don’t like to see my year summed up.
J: I don’t want to see it.
A: I don’t even check it, and I’m definitely not someone who posts it. It’s weird to look back. The year feels like it’s so long at points, and then it goes by so fast. It’s always so strange and then we are always excited to move forward to the next year. This year for sure. But I feel like this year’s been a weird one because of Covid. Last year, we felt like we were done with it all because of the vaccines and stuff. It was such an amazing New Year’s Eve in a lot of ways. I mean, Anderson Cooper got really drunk on CNN with his best boy, Andy Cohen. Everyone was getting drunk on New Year’s Eve last year because people were like, “Oh my God, it’s over.” We’re recording this at the exact time that New York City is going through a massive Omicron wave. So it’s kind of crazy, and it’s always tough to look back. But before we talk about the year in review, let’s talk about the week in review. Joanna, what have you been drinking?
J: Recently I had the pleasure and the privilege of having some Weller 12-Year.
A: Wow, where?
J: My brother was gifted a bottle from a friend in exchange for a television.
A: That’s a really nice friend. Did his friend give him his Netflix password and stuff in exchange?
J: No, he gave him a TV.
A: Oh! That’s an even nicer guy.
J: I had never had Weller before.
A: How was it?
A: I used to buy Weller for $20 all the time. It’s so crazy. I discovered it when I was first living in New York City at a bar called Back Forty. Josh and I both used to go buy it and then dump it into a whiskey decanter because we didn’t want anyone to know it was a cheap whiskey. Now you can’t even get it. It’s really crazy how that happened to that brand. It’s interesting to watch how Buffalo Trace has changed the packaging of it. It looks fancier now, and it didn’t look like that when I used to buy it. Anyways, that’s awesome. Zach, what about you?
Z: There are two things that have been on my list for the last week. One of them is non-alcoholic. My wife and I have become obsessed with this specific sparkling water. The brand is Nixie, and it’s their lime ginger flavor. It’s like if you had a Moscow Mule-flavored sparkling water without the booze. The lime and ginger both come through really clearly, and that’s such a great combination of flavors. We’ve been through so many sparkling waters in our house over the years. But we got like a case of this, and the next day, my wife ordered five more. I was like, “OK, sounds good.” We have slightly different tastes in sparkling water, so when it can align, that’s nice for both shopping and fridge space. It’s been a surprise hit for us. And then there’s the boozy side. When Caitlin and I got married, we bought a lot of wine for the wedding, unsurprisingly. As a lot of people do, we decided that we’re going to just offer a white wine and a red wine. We’re not going to try and have too many options for people from a logistical standpoint and just to keep things from being too chaotic for the service staff that were serving us. We’ve been slowly but surely making our way through both, although we have more of the white wine left over than the red. Which is not surprising because that’s how it went down at the wedding itself. So the other day we opened one of the three remaining bottles of the red wine, which is the 2014 “Ex Umbris” Syrah from Owen Roe here in Washington. It was nice in the sense of reminiscing about our wedding. We could tell Solomon, “Hey, we had this when we got married,” and he’s just barely old enough to kind of comprehend that. But it was also interesting because we were both like, we should probably drink these other two bottles pretty soon. It’s not past its prime, but it definitely doesn’t have a lot more life in it. We bought it to drink in 2017; it’s not like we bought it to drink forever. We bought other wines to drink in the future. But it is a good reminder for us that we need to actually drink some of the stuff that’s in our basement. That has been a little bit of a motivating factor. I’m sure we will get into those two bottles pretty soon. How about you, Adam?
A: I had two really cool experiences last week, but I’ll talk about one of them specifically. I was really lucky to have been gifted a white truffle.
Z: You didn’t even have to give anyone that bottle of bourbon for it.
A: I came home on Saturday evening, and there was this box in the common area of my apartment building. It was a white truffle addressed to me from Valtor Frissore, who owns Cogno.
J: Is this because of last week’s podcast when you said it was one of your favorites winemakers?
A: I don’t know. Valtor has always been a big supporter of VinePair, and he’s always sent me a Christmas gift. But it’s always been some fresh pasta, things like that. But this was a white f*cking truffle. So I then proceeded to call Keith, my brother and fellow Nebbiolo lover. And we got together on Tuesday night. We drank a ridiculous amount of Barolo. So we had Cogno’s 2011 Barolo “Ravera,” and that was the best wine of the night.
J: With the painting on it?
A: No, it’s the other one. It has a little bird on it. His daughter has updated it with her Bricco Pernice, which is the one with the bird that you and I had together. I had this really cool 24-year-old producer named Julia Negri. Kermit Lynch now brings it in, but her wine was really amazing. She makes it in a more Burgundian style; it’s much more fruity and more floral. That one was really delicious. We had a Brovia Barolo that was really delicious. But there was one that we were very confused by, and that was the Roagna Barbaresco Paje 2015. This is the hottest wine among somms in New York City. I happened to have a bottle and no one we had over — not just Keith — could not understand why it’s so popular. It’s fine; it’s very lean; it’s not what Barbaresco is known for. It didn’t have all those beautiful florals and it was very just high-acid and lean. I guess that is the best way to describe it. It almost felt like a Nebbiolo fronting as a Burgundy. I always wonder, is that why it became popular? I don’t know how that happens in New York. Do a bunch of people talk to each other and then a bunch of different beverage drinkers are ordering the same thing and it becomes allocated? I have no idea. But it was a wine that used to be very affordable on the market, and now it has become insanely expensive. I don’t get it. If it was the price it used to be, in the $50 or $60 range, I would have understood it. This is a nice wine for $60. It’s now upwards of $200, and I just can’t wrap my head around that. That was my experience, but it was really fun, and I want to do it every year. I want to buy a white truffle, I want to make fresh egg pasta. I made a butter cream sauce and just shaved the sh*t out of it, and it was amazing.
Z: What did you use just to shave it?
A: When I saw that it was the truffle, first I called Keith. Then, I immediately went to Amazon and Primed a truffle shaver. It wasn’t the sharpest blade, I will say, I probably got too cheap of a shaver. Next year, I’ll up my game. But it was a lot of fun. That was probably my big holiday moment.
Z: That definitely seems like it could be a nice holiday tradition moving forward.
A: It was cool. So let’s get into it: 2021
J: I joined the VinePair team in 2021.
A: That’s a highlight for all of us. What else do we think, besides obviously welcoming Joanna to the team? What stands out to you as one of the key moments in what happened in the world of drinks, restaurants, bars, etc.? Joanna, what do you think?
J: I was actually reading a New York Times newsletter this morning, and there’s an article about the many cultural moments involved in reassessing the past. We definitely saw that in the world of drinks, bringing back old trends and comforts. There is the Cosmopolitan revival, of course, and the Espresso Martini. I thought that was a fun drink trend and something that a lot of people were talking about. It was particularly interesting because a lot of people could participate in it in a way that a lot of drinks trends feel snooty or inaccessible. My mom knows the Cosmo, your mom probably knows the Cosmo.
A: Everyone’s mom knows about Cosmo.
J: Yeah, exactly. You got to do the mom test. So I thought that was a cool trend that we saw this year.
A: A quick anecdote: Naomi never has a cappuccino like espresso when we go out after dinner.
J: She likes amari.
A: Yeah, now we all know this. Last weekend, she was at a restaurant with her friends, and she ordered an Espresso Martini. When they made it, they had amaro in the Espresso Martini. Then, she did her thing, came home, and went to bed. At like 4 a.m. I’m getting tapped on the shoulder, “I can’t sleep. It’s too much caffeine.” I was like, “You had an Espresso Martini.” She’s like, “I’ll never do it again.”
J: Guys, it’s a brunch drink.
A: It is a brunch drink. Everyone’s using cold brew concentrate. That sh*t is legitimate caffeine. It’s very funny. Anyways, Zach, what about you?
Z: One of the trends that was most noticeable this year can be grouped together as gimmickry. We saw this in a couple of different categories. We’ve seen it a lot in hard seltzer. We subjected ourselves to the Bud Light Seltzer Flannel Pack, but there have been a number of those from Bud Light Seltzer, Truly, and many others. They’re trying to use this combination of going viral on social media and just offering something new and goofy. You even saw recently with the Barefoot and Oreo collab.
Z: Gimmickry is really interesting. It’s the sign of a bunch of brands or companies flailing around trying to grab on to some momentary sales without really being concerned about any kind of follow-up. We talked about that when we tried the Bud Light Seltzer Flannel Pack. Can we imagine someone buying this, drinking it, and then going and buying another? I think our general conclusion was probably not, and if they bought it, it was for novelty. Which maybe works if you correctly assess the amount of inventory you need to produce, and you have it on the shelf for a little while — then it’s gone. But it feels very unsustainable to me. At the same time, it’s through these things that feel gimmicky at first that long-lasting successful brands are born. Sometimes they seem gimmicky on the face of it, and then all of a sudden, it’s an established thing in a few years. It can be difficult in the near term to assess. To me that gimmickry, that novelty, has been a huge part of beverage alcohol this year.
J: I agree with you. What is an example of one that you think caught on but was initially a gimmick?
Z: I’m going to go back a little bit further, but you saw a big success with flavored vodka about a decade ago. I remember when, like, Pinnacle whipped cream vodka first appeared in my life and being like, how can this be a thing? For a certain set of people, things like Firefly sweet tea vodka looked gimmicky at first. Why would someone want this?
A: Skrewball, too.
Z: Skrewball is a good example. Or some of the Crown Royal flavors over the last couple years. It’s hard to know to some extent where that line is between innovation/novelty and gimmickry. It’s kind of hard to parse at the moment, and sometimes, you have to look at what sticks around to see what works. So people like it; they keep buying it. That’s the big thing to tell, right? For someone to buy a product and come back to it, or do they buy it once and put it on social media and say I’m done with it. We won’t know that for a lot of these things until a year from now, probably.
A: I have thoughts here, but a lot of them I’m not going to share because they’re around one of my predictions for next year.
Z: We’ll save it for the next episode.
A: One of the thoughts I have, which is not around my predictions, is, I do think a lot of the “gimmickry” has come from agencies and marketing departments. But mostly through agencies first telling brands, this is a cheaper way for you to get massive press than a sponsored ad campaign with a publisher. Everyone’s about content now, right? You have two choices. You can either go to a publisher like us or Vice and you can work with their content studio and you can create really great content together for their platform. Or, you can drop one of these things that’s going to get you a bunch of eyeballs, but who knows if that’s going to ultimately prolong your brand? You hear of that a lot, even the press releases we get. It’s like, what can we do that feels interesting enough or gimmicky enough that PureWow covers it and Bustle covers it? VinePair probably wouldn’t. But is the amount of money you put into the development of that still cheaper than running massive campaigns with those publishers? That definitely seems to be something that, when I speak with agencies, they’re pitching to brands.
J: That’s audience development/broadening your consumer base.
A: You have to wonder there. We’re also going to see this in the coming year, in the world of media. We saw it this year as well: a lot more people getting very niche and seeing that niche is actually where there’s scale. I wonder if you may see some of these gimmicks go away because all they are is scale. They may get massive amounts of press, but then how many people came into that one specific category because of that gimmick? How many people went and bought Arby’s french fry vodka? Probably not a lot of people. Did it also cause people to go buy more Arby’s? Probably not. It’s going to be interesting to see because people are going to start to wonder. There’s been a lot of proof in terms of what’s happened in the media in the last few months with the Vox merger with Group Nine. People are now interested in very niche publishers on the media side, who speak to a very specific audience. That’s one thing to explain it, and the other thing is part of my prediction for 2022.
Z: We’ll call that a teaser for the predictions episode.
A: Come on; it’s only in a week or two.
Z: You have to wait until 2022 for that episode.
A: It’s very soon; it’s two weeks away. I always thought it was so funny when you were in high school and you would say, “See you next year.” Yeah, you mean two weeks. So the year in review for me is the innovation that we saw happen in the world of dining and bars. A lot of restaurateurs and bar owners got really creative, but it’s not just that. You saw a lot of people still opening new places. There were a lot of predictions at the beginning of Covid that everyone’s going to leave the industry, and no one’s going to want to open a restaurant or bar anymore. There were definitely people that left the industry, but there are a lot of people that have become very innovative through the pandemic and who opened new spots and new bars. In New York, like you have Sunken Harbor Club, which opened after the pandemic. You have Dame that was a fish and chip spot that was born out of the pandemic and now it’s this hotspot where people like to go and drink wine. You have a Runner Up in Brooklyn that was a rotisserie chicken to go, and now he’s opened this amazing all-outdoor restaurant with a ridiculous wine list. There are all these things that came out of it, and people who are still willing and excited to open restaurants and bars. I think that proves that there’s something about restaurants and bars that will always be very important to the fabric of society, and there will always be people who want to open them. Will they be the same people who got f*cked in Covid? Maybe not. Some are. But I thought that was really interesting to really see that happen. It seems that they’re still willing to, even through all these different waves we’re going through. That was a really interesting development that just proves, at the very beginning, when all the hot takes come out from publications that may not be as close to a certain industry, take them with a grain of salt. We’ve talked about this a lot on this podcast when it comes to seltzer. Everyone else would be like, “It’s dead, it’s dead,” but no one’s looking at the numbers. There were a bunch of publications that wanted to say very early on, this is the end of restaurants and bars. It’s not.
Z: I think that spirit of continuing to move forward has been true, not just specifically to restaurants and bars. I was just reading a piece on a great local resource, Washington Beer Blog. It was talking about all the breweries that opened in the last 18 months. Kendall Jones, who is the guy who runs it, cited a number from the Brewers Association that we had a 6 percent increase in breweries that opened in 2021. So it’s a little slower than that pace had been pre-Covid, but that still shows you that people have not been afraid to start new projects or expand or whatever. I think you’re right, and I will give you a particular credit on this, Adam. This is something that you said on our predictions episode for 2021 that came out almost a full year ago. You thought that those predictions of doom and gloom were really misplaced and that you thought there was going to be a lot of openings and innovation, and I think you were spot on.
A: Thank you very much. I appreciate that, Zach. You want to switch it up and go ahead and give your second?
Z: Another big trend that was really interesting, and we’ve covered in a few different ways on this podcast, was this accelerated shift to some of the most exciting food and drink destinations in the country being outside of big markets. They’re in medium-sized or small cities or even more remote locations, like resort or vacation destinations or just where people can afford to operate and open the establishment that they want. It’s obviously not a completely new phenomenon, but at the same time, 2021 was where we saw a lot of really high-profile examples of this trend catching on.
J: More than ever before.
Z: We talked about this a lot with your beloved Horse Inn. Both of you, Adam and Joanna, have mentioned places that you’ve visited on your travels over the last few months that are definitely outside of New York City itself, but also outside of the New York metro area. It’s incredible to watch all the growth. Here in Washington State, there’s been a lot of really exciting stuff opening on the coast. People have recognized that there’s a big opportunity for people who are vacationing on the Washington coast who previously had not had much in the way of high-end dining and/or places to stay. There’ve been a few examples of that, and you see it all over. People recognize that people will go out of their way on their vacations and then want the same kind of dining and drinking experience where they live. Or, they will travel to a great restaurant or a great bar. Which is really cool and super exciting.
A: I do, too.
J: This is less fun, but I think this year and as a continuation from 2020, there have definitely been more conversations around accountability and transparency. We had one of the biggest reckonings in craft beer around sexual harassment, working conditions, misogyny, and of all the horrible things. As awful as all of that stuff is to dredge up, I think it’s really positive for the industry moving forward. We talked about it only a few weeks ago with our episode on the Court of Master Sommeliers and everything happening there. This is a very big positive for the industry, and I hope it continues into 2022.
A: I very much agree. From my last year-in- review look-back, the one other thing that I saw that we’ve talked about a bunch is the insane growth in popularity in agave. Tequila specifically, but all things agave. It’s just on fire. I do worry for 2022 and the future what that means for the people in Mexico who farm agave and the land in which it’s farmed. Are we going to harvest too much? Are we going to harvest too early? How are we taking care of those people? I think those questions are starting to be asked. There’s starting to be a little bit of a blowback against some of the celebrity tequilas, which are just rich, white-people tequilas. A little bit more of a focus on tequilas being made by people who are from Mexico and understand the land and are giving back to the communities in which these tequilas are made. But there seems to be no slowing down people’s thirst for it. Will we see a 1942 killer in 2022? Who knows? It’s just so insanely popular as the premium brand right now. You can certainly see tons of people trying. My little prediction here is, I don’t think it’s going to come from a tequila that’s trying to rip off a package that looks a lot like 1942. It’s going to come from somewhere else. It’s going to look like something different. You saw all the fast followers who tried to make packages like Patrón. And guess what? They’re not Patrón. It’s going to be the same for people who are chasing 42. We’re going to get a little tired of all the celebrity stuff. It’s just a lot. People are starting to say, “What does this person have?” We’ve seen this recently with ABI very quickly killing an agave-based seltzer, Cacti, which we tried on this podcast. A lot of it was because the product was dog sh*t. But also because a lot of people died at his concert, and you have to deal with the liability when you’re dealing with someone who is a celebrity but also does whatever they want. Budweiser is like, “Yeah, we don’t wanna deal with that.” I think you’re going to start seeing other brands question whether they’re willing to also deal with that.
J: I hope it’s more widespread with consumer questioning of these brands. Like when you see 818 doing so well and so hot, I wish more people knew.
A: Look, I get it. Some people think it’s cool to drink Clooney’s tequila. It’ll definitely happen in the trade. I think you’re definitely going to see the trade be like, “Sorry, please don’t come talk to us about that.” You’ll have a lot of rhetoric, why traders don’t want to take a meeting about Casamigos. Well, because they don’t want to pour it here because they can’t stand behind it. They don’t think it’s a legitimate tequila. But you’ll always have this thing where the dive bars and the local bars will pour it, because the consumers come in and ask for it. But it’s really tricky. You might see consumers questioning how involved the actual celebrity is. Are they just a face, or are they someone that truly believes in and runs the brand? Part of the reason that Aviation Gin is so successful is because Ryan Reynolds seems all in on that product. For people who are fans of Ryan Reynolds, it makes them feel better about also liking that gin because it’s like, “Oh, this is legitimate. He’s not just being paid to talk about this.” But then, Pitbull has a tequila, but I don’t even think it’s his. Those are things that are much harder for people.
J: Around tequila, especially.
A: Totally around tequila. Let’s maybe slow down with the celebrity tequila releases. Well, this has been interesting. 2021 was crazy, guys. We have one more episode left before we kiss this year goodbye. I’m not going to say, “See you next year.”
J: You’re going to see us on Friday
A: I’m going to see you on Friday, but it’s been a hell of a ride. We were working from home. In the office a little bit, back at home, back in the office a little bit. Zach has always been in his basement.
Z: I recorded a couple of episodes in New York with you guys. We all recorded together.
A: That’s actually true. That was a few episodes. But then you were back to the basement. I’ll call it the cellar. I just like the cellar, sounds a little bit douchier.
J: But the basement sounds creepier.
A: All around the country, they have basements. Just not here. All right, guys. Well, I’m headed to the basement, but I will see you both on Friday.
J: See you Friday.
Z: Sounds great.
Thanks so much for listening to the “VinePair Podcast.” If you love this show as much as we love making it, please leave us a rating or review on iTunes, Spotify, Stitcher or wherever it is you get your podcasts. It really helps everyone else discover the show.
Now for the credits. VinePair is produced and recorded in New York City and Seattle, Washington, by myself and Zach Geballe, who does all the editing and loves to get the credit. Also, I would love to give a special shout-out to my VinePair co-founder, Josh Malin, for helping make all of this possible, and also to Keith Beavers, VinePair’s tastings director, who is additionally a producer on the show. I also want to, of course, thank every other member of the VinePair team, who are instrumental in all of the ideas that go into making the show every week. Thanks so much for listening, and we’ll see you again.
Ed. note: This episode has been edited for length and clarity.