On this episode of the “VinePair Podcast,” hosts Adam Teeter and Zach Geballe discuss the recent news that spirits have surpassed beer as the top-selling drinks category in America. The two ponder why spirits can be seen as both high-brow and low-brow, and why they’re particularly cleaning up in on-premise settings. Tune in for more.
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Adam Teeter: From VinePair’s New York City headquarters, I’m Adam Teeter.
Zach Geballe: In Seattle, Washington, I’m Zach Geballe.
A: This is the VinePair podcast. You’re back.
Z: I’m back home to very cold, fairly wet Seattle. It’s good to be home, putting on sweatshirts again. Coats, gloves. All the good stuff.
Z: There’ll be no more puka shells and flip-flops for a while.
A: Puka shells.
Z: Was the puka shell thing a big deal when you were — I feel like it was 12, 13 in my neck of the woods. All of a sudden, everyone was wearing them.
A: Not in the South. It was a West Coast thing.
Z: It was definitely suddenly big, and I had fortuitously, I guess for my sake, just being to Hawaii as a kid, my only other trip in my life. I had brought back a necklace right as — not like I was ahead of the trend. I just was like, “I’m going to get one,” and then I can be like, “I got mine in Hawaii. The rest of you assholes got yours at Hollister in the mall.”
A: I love that you probably were like, “This is the original puka shell.”
Z: Can’t you tell the sense of place that these shells provide? I was on point throughout my life.
A: I love it. What have you been drinking, Zach?
Z: I was going to just talk about a couple of things that I had in Hawaii since we hadn’t really fully recapped. I think one of the things that was really interesting to me about this trip, and admittedly, trip with kids, not a trip where Caitlin and I were going to be able to seek out some of the top cocktail bars, all that stuff. What I was surprised by — and is not a criticism or anything — was that the couple of cocktail bars that we went to, I expected them to lean more heavily into the Hawaiian piece of their existence. I’m not saying there wasn’t anything Hawaiian on the menus, but a lot of the cocktails were the kind of cocktails I would see on a cocktail list in Seattle or New York or anywhere else. It made me think a little bit about whether — it struck me as odd, because whereas if you went into any other restaurant or bar, not a higher-end cocktail bar in Hawaii, obviously if you ordered a Martini, you could get a Martini, but the cocktail list is, “Here’s your Mai Tais, your Painkillers, your Piña Coladas, all those things. The assumption is, for a good chunk of the people who are coming into those places to drink, they want tropical sh*t, they want Hawaiian sh*t. Yet in the couple of nice cocktail bars we went to, it was like, “Here’s a Sazerac, here’s an Old Fashioned.” Again, they were good, there’s no criticism. In some ways, we were both ready for that kind of drinking. It was odd to me that they didn’t have more Hawaiian influence because maybe just a misconception on my part, maybe I assumed that there would be more people like us who were looking for some hybridization of the two. I would have loved it if more of these places had been like, “We’re doing a Piña Colada, but we’re doing a Piña Colada in the really traditional way. We’re not necessarily doing it in a blender,” which I also love. To be clear, that’s a great drink, it’s one kind of Piña Colada. If you’re doing the classic formulation where it’s a shake and drink, it’s not necessarily super sweet. It’s just a different kind of cocktail. Again, I didn’t see a lot of that. It just struck me as odd. Again, no criticism of the bars, they make good cocktails, but it was weird to me.
A: I think that that’s really interesting that you bring that up because we’ve been talking a lot about how in the office in the editorial meetings it seems like the cocktail bars that wind up on the top of lists in the long run around the world are a lot of these, we’re talking Top 50 or Best New Bars or whatever. A lot of these cocktail bars that ultimately do incorporate the flavors of where they are from, even in a classic cocktail. It’s like, “This is an Old Fashioned, but with a riff that has influences from Vietnam,” or things like that. There’s a lot of that that you’re trying to see or, “This is a cocktail that tastes like a Greek salad,” like The Clumsies in Athens, which is one of the Best Bars in the World. It’s so curious that you didn’t see that in Hawaii. Maybe that’s on its way, I have to assume because there are still many cocktail bars now in that part of the world that are getting lots of recognition. Singapore is supposed to have some of the best cocktail bars in the world now, same with obviously Japan and Australia, et cetera, that maybe that will just filter over to Hawaii, and we’ll start seeing that. I feel like that’s what normally happens, is cocktail culture comes to a place, and the place gets really good at making the classics, and then that experimentation happens where you have enough bartenders in the market that are all really good at making the classic drinks, and then they start to riff.
Z: For sure. I think the other piece of it is that there’s probably a little bit of, I don’t want to say fear, but maybe a little hesitation on some of these cocktail bars of not wanting to seem gimmicky, not wanting to seem like touristy bars. They want to feel really serious and thoughtful cocktail bars. Perhaps the easiest way to do that is to serve strong brown spirits stirred, et cetera. All that stuff that I think can certainly work. Granted, we were in Hawaii at a time when it was cold and rainy at times. It wasn’t that unwelcome. I can imagine it being a little incongruous to be like, “Here I am at this cocktail bar where it’s sunny and warm, and all of that and what they’re offering me is the same cocktails that I might be drinking in winter in Seattle.” I think you’re right, it might be a level of just the scene needing to evolve a little bit and maybe just a little more confidence in the ability to walk that line between highlighting local ingredients and local flavors without tipping over into touristy kitsch. How about you, what you’ve been drinking?
A: Recently, well around the Super Bowl, I thought it was fun to have a little bottle of or a dram of Sweetens Cove, which is the bourbon that Peyton Manning owns, because I thought it’d be fun. That was one of the things I had and then went to Manhatta this past week, and had some of their delicious cocktails as well. It was an amazing wine. They have such a deep wine list. Had a really great Burgundy and also had my favorite cocktail, they make it. Consider the Cookie. Always Money was not on the cocktail list anymore, which I-.
Z: No, no longer money.
A: I know because the banana cocktail, really delicious. I will be doing a lot more drinking this week because I’m heading tonight to wine country doing a ton of meetings. My last trip before I go out on paternity leave in California to meet with a bunch of our partners. I’m going to Napa, Sonoma, San Francisco. I will have a lot more to report back in our next recording.
Z: Fantastic. Can’t wait to hear all about it.
A: This is going to be a spirits Monday podcast, which we haven’t had in a while. We’ve talked a lot about what’s going on in wine. This is-.
Z: Let’s talk about a category that’s doing well.
A: We’re going to rub some salts in the wound again of wine. The DSCUS data came out this past week. Spirits has now officially passed beer in terms of sales, continues just be this massive behemoth, whiskey passed vodka, just really on fire. One of the things that DSCUS is using as its claim to why spirits is doing so well is actually on-premise. It continues to reinforce what we’ve been talking about, which is now we have data folks to back up what we’ve been saying, which is that people are drinking more cocktails when they go out. They are choosing cocktails or anything else, this is very clear in the DSCUS datasets that they’ve provided that shows that cocktails are really driving this embrace of spirits. That embrace of spirits has really skyrocketed, post-pandemic, as people have gone back out to restaurants and bars, and they are choosing at restaurants to drink spirits. I guess part of me when I think about this is like, are we not surprised, Zach?
Z: No, I don’t think we are. Two quick notes here. The first one and I cannot believe that this thing had not occurred to me until, literally, we started this podcast. It feels like an incredibly relevant point is that a thing that spirits excels at and again, I don’t want to sh*t on wine anymore, we’ve done a lot of it unfortunately, but I have to point out the contrast here is you can be someone who’s like, “I want to try a really fancy spirit.” You can go to a bar, and you can get a pour of it. You were talking about being down in Louisville recently and you could get a half-ounce pour of really, really old whiskey or bourbon or whatever. Or you can go to a bar almost anywhere in the country and find a really high-end pour, a half-ounce, ounce and a half, whatever. You can both have that experience and show off with it. Or just learn. You can say, “I don’t know that I really want to drink a spirit that pours for $100 an ounce on a regular basis but maybe one time I want to taste that.” With wine, you just can’t do that. You can buy a really expensive bottle, but you can’t get a taste. You’re not going to be, “Oh, you’re interested in what DRC is like? Cool. We have an open bottle. Let me pour you an ounce.” Yes, there are a few places that have Coravin systems and stuff like that where they’ll say they’ll pour you a tiny pour of high-end wine, but those systems are expensive, they’re hard to access and honestly, I’m always a little dubious. Don’t come at me, Coravin people, but I’ve tried a lot of wine from Coravin that has been pushed on me by sales reps and stuff like that. Wine is not spirits, it has a shorter shelf life and I don’t care what you’re injecting into the bottle to try and keep it-
A: I agree.
Z: -preserved. I don’t totally buy it. Point is, you talked about this and obviously the growth in spirits that we’re talking about from — just to clarify for people who might be listening and not be familiar with the acronym, this is the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States, that’s what DSCUS stands for. They do a bunch of the survey data and market analysis. They’re a really good source for a lot of this information. They’re not getting at people going in and ordering one-ounce pours of the Old Crow Chessmen or whatever that you had. I think that adds up to very much of this increase, but they are capturing the whole lot of sales. I think what we’re seeing is that people see spirits as both something that is more approachable, something that they can enjoy at home, but also something that can be a part of that special occasion. That can be whether it’s in a cocktail, whether it’s just a pour neat or on ice, or whatever the people can enjoy. In some cases it is worth going out for because of the experience, whether it’s access to things that you just can’t find or the fact that you can have, you just want a pour, you don’t have to commit to the whole bottle, whether that’s at home or in a restaurant or bar. These are things that just give spirits a natural leg up on wine and even on beer, which we’ll talk, I think, about the beer versus spirits competition such as it is in a moment, but when we’re talking about it when compared to wine, I think it’s just that unique experience in a bar or restaurant that you can have with spirits that wine is having a hard time matching.
A: The one thing that I think is really interesting here and I think it’s most applicable to whiskey, I don’t think it’s as applicable to tequila, but I think this is also why whiskey is surpassing vodka, this was mentioned to me when I was down in Louisville, I really do feel it’s very accurate, is that whiskey can both be America’s working-class beverage and also a high-end beverage and it’s the same thing. It’s working class when you come home and you take that whiskey and you drink it straight, or you drink it mixed with some ginger ale, or Coca-Cola or whatever. It becomes really fancy when you go out and you have a bartender make you a Manhattan or amazing Old Fashioned with clear ice and a beautiful garnish. That’s just what it is. I think the thing, again, that makes it so competitive in both sectors like fine wine luxury and beer working class is that whiskey as a liquid always says, “Drink it however you want it.” That’s another thing that we’ve talked about, especially a lot with wine that wine does very poorly. Where wine basically says, “No, no, there’s rules. Drink it in stemware.” You have Riedel coming out with a different stemware for each varietal, which is just like, “Okay, cool, so I don’t have Pinot Noir glasses so I guess I can’t drink nice Pinot Noir, make it with only these food pairings.” All that stuff, I think is a really big turnoff for most consumers and those consumers are like, “Well, but spirit is telling me to drink it however I want to.”
Z: Whatever temperature I want, all those things.
A: Exactly. I think that’s why you’re seeing it now pass beer because it’s finally sort of taken the mantle that it can be both. It was growing, growing, growing, just passing beer I think as that everyday beverage at home that people were enjoying, and then the restaurants opened back up and it’s like, “Aha, motherf*cker, I can do what you can’t do. I can do this trick where I’m about to go into bars and you’re still going to look a little less sophisticated drinking that light beer at the bar at the fancy restaurant. They might have it for you, but you’re going to look a little less sophisticated by ordering that light beer, but I’m going to take my same liquid and I’m going to go into a cocktail and I’m going to look real classy because I can shower and clean up real nice. Honestly. I think that that’s where spirits have this massive advantage right now in the culture that is making it very competitive with both liquids.
Z: As you said, you can be simple and sophisticated with the same base spirit just depending on how it’s presented to you, what it might be mixed with or not mixed with in various cases. I also think there’s something else that it’s interesting to me that I was thinking about this in the specific context of on-premise, is that it’s in the same way that we might look at wine inventory or beer inventory as being a big investment, I think it feels like less of an investment for a restaurant or bar to put some money into spirits program for two reasons. One is because again, they’re much less perishable than either of those other two products. Wine isn’t super perishable if it’s still in a bottle and obviously stored somewhere with climate control or some level of climate control, but that’s not easy for every restaurant to do necessarily. Once you pull the cork or open the screw cap or whatever, the clock is really ticking. With beer, again, you need to keep it cold, if it’s a keg, you have to think about how quickly you pour through stuff. Draft systems aren’t exactly cheap. Keeping them clean is always a little bit of a struggle even in nicer places. Spirits are just like, “Just open the bottle and pour me.” That’s all you got to f*cking do.
Z: From an operator standpoint, I think that’s also appealing. Not just because you can not necessarily invest as much money but because the space needs, the temperature control needs are much less. Then the last piece of it is, and we talked about this a while back when we were talking in one of the previous episodes, about how spirits do allow, and cocktails in particular, allow for a little more obfuscation of your margins basically. You can build a cocktail that looks great, tastes great, is $18 and the person drinking it isn’t necessarily going to know that only $2 worth of ingredients went into it potentially. If you are savvy and all that and getting that might be a little bit of an extreme example, but I do think that you are seeing people potentially be able to pivot away from, as we’ve talked about, from wine and from beer, which are harder to mark up because the unit of sale, especially if it’s a can or bottle of beer or a bottle of wine, it’s something that’s recognizable to people that they can go buy in a store or look up online. It’s hard to price out a cocktail online. People have some frame of reference that a Manhattan is this much at other bars, so as long as I’m paying in that range, I feel like I’m not getting cheated in a way that with beer and wine, just easier for people to compare not just to other on-premise costs but retail costs, online costs, et cetera. I wanted to ask our listeners because I was thinking about this, too, because you guys have such great feedback for us a lot of the time. I was wondering, we’ve talked a lot about the growth of spirits and whether it’s being driven by — maybe not specifically by tequila or even by whiskey or vodka, but by all of this coming together. I was wondering if there’s some element of where did the switch flip? When was the inflection point where drinking spirits went from something that got viewed as a little bit suspicious, if you’re the person who’s sat down at a bar and like, “I want a whiskey neat,” you were like, “Ooh, that person is like — do they have a drinking problem? Are they possibly a rough customer?” to the most sophisticated thing you could do. I don’t have an answer for this; I have a couple of thoughts but I think part of the story here isn’t just that we’ve been talking about the way that spirits present themselves but also the way the cultural impression of drinking hard liquor has changed because this country has always had a really complicated history with hard liquor. We think about Prohibition and all the movements against drinking in general and most of that was aimed at spirits. Yes, beer, yes, wine, but those things were not viewed by the temperance movement as nearly as dangerous, largely I think because of alcohol content and we’ve now entered this era, whereas we’ve talked about a bunch, drinking spirits whether it’s cocktails, whether it’s spirits neat, it’s seen as a sophisticated, classy thing and it was not always that case. It was not always seen as a sign of class and refinement to be drinking in this way. I would love to hear obviously if you have thoughts on them but I would love to hear from our listeners, too. You can email us firstname.lastname@example.org or get a hold of us on social media. If you’ve got a suggestion for what might have helped tip the balance in spirits’ favor, we would love to hear.
A: I think this goes back to a few things but one, I think, again, you just can’t deny what role spirits are able to play in the everyday consumers’ lives in terms of its just ability to be multiple things to people. I also think that what Joanna said on a previous podcast is very accurate. I think a lot of the chef foodie movement has helped spirits a ton because we started to care in the last 20 years about who made our dishes. We started having the chef’s name on the menu. We started having the farms on where the products were coming from on the menu. We started caring about the craft of the cuisine. We had the rise of Food Network, et cetera, and spirits are the same in that the cocktail at the restaurant is crafted for you. Then I think we saw this happening during Covid that ability to make cocktails at home really exploded. People got really interested in it. It was one of the fastest-growing hobbies people were picking up besides making sourdough bread and things like that. Appreciation was truly gained for spirits. I think that that has allowed people to come to the restaurant and say, “I recognize why I would pay for this. I understand the craftsmanship that goes into making this drink and I’m watching it be made in a very different way than I understand why I’m paying more for someone popping a cork.” That was not the same pre-Covid. I think we were in this position where wine and beer were very trendy. I think this continues to happen. A lot of the things we’ve been talking about for the last half-decade, again, to remind people, there was a podcast that Zach and I had called the “VinePair Podcast” way before Joanna was a co-host. In those conversations that you and I had a long time ago, we used to talk about how — also there were all these other things that were happening in the other two categories that were never happening in spirits. We had this infighting happening between craft beer and macro beer and the great villain of ABI. Then the craft beer movement really just exploded in terms of the bro culture and all these different kinds of SKUs of beers and then landing on hazy IPAs but now hazy IPAs are for losers and if you’re a real beer person, you should be drinking pils. All that was happening in beer and they started the cicerone program and all that stuff. Then in wine, you’ve had that for decades but then you had the natural wine movement and the movement towards certification and anti-certification and the crazy somm scandals and all this stuff was happening and spirits was like, “Hey man, we’re here, we’re cool and we’re not going to fight against anyone. We see the value in the craft producers, and the craft producers see the value in us and we don’t talk sh*t about anyone and we’re not having some certification that you have to take in order to be a bartender. You prove your worth behind the stick and that’s it. If you’re good at making drinks, you’re good at making drinks.” It’s a very inclusive, open community, much more so than the other two.
Z: Maybe so, yes.
A: All of that is resonating. It just is. I don’t know how wine fixes that and how beer fixes that. They are both much more insular, snobby communities. They just are. They have a vocabulary that’s much harder to understand. It’s just phenomenal when you walk into a bar and meet bartenders and people in the trade in bars and how warm they are. I think that is because you really are — in beer, maybe a little less so. In the world of somms, you talk about this before, too, Zach. You can be antisocial if you want to be. You can be really good at tasting, but you can be very awkward. If you’re behind the bar or behind the stick, as I say, you cannot be. You have to be very outgoing. You have to be personable, easy to talk to, gregarious. You are not really able to have a bad day at work behind the bar. You can, but you can’t show it in the same way. There are these amazing people that are usually very outgoing, and I think that’s really benefiting the world of spirits because you have these bartenders that get really excited. They share all these great things — they support each other. When I was in Louisville last week, the one thing that multiple brands said to me was, “We help everyone in this industry. We will never talk ill of another brand.” That is definitely not true in the other two industries.
Z: For sure.
A: I think that that’s, again, spirits just kept doing their thing, and there’s a lot to learn here. I want to be clear. I don’t think, Zach, you or I are saying spirits is better. For both of us, I would say, when we go out to eat and the thing we’re the most excited about, which is wine. I still think wine is this really just magical product that only happens once a year and has so many things that have to go perfect in order for the wine to just be exceptional. There’s something really magical about that. There’s a lot of negative that comes with that, too, in terms of just that barrier to entry and things that wine and beer could learn from spirits. I think spirits just do a much better job of that, and they’re just sitting here, not speaking ill of anybody else, and then when the numbers come out, they say, “Check them out, y’all. Check them out.”
Z: I want to add one last piece here because I think it’s very relevant to the conversation about the way that spirits handles its business in public and all that, and in addition to this whole conversation about there being less infighting in the spirits space and bartending, there isn’t none. It exists, but I agree, it’s not nearly as prominent and it’s not nearly as divisive as it has been in both beer and in wine. I also think that there is something to describe here that is important, which is that in a way that we’ve been talking about throughout this episode, I agree with you. Wine has this incredible beauty and magic to it, and obviously, anyone who’s listening to the podcast for any length of time knows that like you, I love wine deeply and find it to be an incredibly exciting, intriguing product. I also love beer and find beer to be really interesting and delicious and engaging and captivating, but neither of those two encourage a certain experimentation either from within the industry or even just from the consumer base. I think part of what’s so cool about spirits is that not only can you enjoy them in whatever way you want, you can have your highbrow or lowbrow experience, your sophisticated or your simple experience, but also they remain endlessly rewarding to play with. Wine just doesn’t have that. Beer doesn’t have that. Beer and wine come to you as a finished product that you, in whatever setting you are in, should open and enjoy, and that’s great. I love that. I like not having to necessarily always f*ck around with my beverage to get it to be the way I want, but it does mean that they can feel very static in a way that spirits doesn’t because there’s always a new cocktail out there, a new riff, a new take, a new way to enjoy it. Because of the nature of spirits and the way that culture and bartenders and the companies themselves view spirits, that is great. Whenever anyone tries to do any playing around with wine or beer, whether it’s serving in a different format, mixing it with things, there is just this inevitable recoiling from the industry and from a lot of the consumer base. It’s like, “How dare you? You should never do that.” Maybe with the exception of Champagne cocktails or sparkling wine cocktails or a few little things you can think of that are acceptable, a Michelada or whatever. Ways to play with the base liquid. Spirits, I think, there is a playfulness and a liveliness and a “no f*cks given” attitude that I don’t know that other categories can really match because it ain’t in their DNA. It sucks maybe for them at this moment that that’s not a way that they can compete. It is something that I think beer was mentioning.
A: I think that the reason this has become so much, there’s been more awareness than before is, again, an ongoing scene we have on the pod, which is that prior to early 2000s, all these industries felt like they had their own lane and they all stayed in them. We talked to the spirits drinkers, we talked to the wine drinkers, we talked to the beer drinkers, and we’re not really concerned about what anyone else is doing. The problem now is that because society has changed so much and we all are experimenting and drinking everything, spirits is winning because it’s the one category that is able to embrace that experimentation, as you’re saying, and allows for that crossover of people. It doesn’t say, “Hey, that’s cool, man. You want that bottle of wine during dinner? Cool. Enjoy that. Just come back to me afterwards.” Wine is saying, “No, no, no, no, no, no, no. We have everything for the entire meal. Don’t go anywhere else.” Beer’s like, “Hey, man, why are you going out to dinner at all? Just hit up Sonic and then have a light beer at home.” That’s what’s happening. I feel like that’s why spirits are also dominating because it’s not saying, “Hey, we should be with you the entire meal or the entire time you’re out.” They’re saying, “We’re there when you want to be,” and that’s working really, really well. Let us know what you think about all this. Hit us up at email@example.com. Got a fun suggestion from a listener this past week in an email that we’re going to address soon about the rise of Burgundy against the fall of Bordeaux. If you have other ideas you want to hear us tackle, hit us up as well. We love looking at these and considering them. Again, firstname.lastname@example.org. Zach, have a wonderful week. I will see you on Friday.
Z: Sounds great.
Thanks so much for listening to the “VinePair Podcast,” the flagship podcast of the VinePair Podcast Network. If you love listening to this show or even if you don’t, but I really hope that you do, as much as we really do love making it, then please drop us a review or a rating wherever it is that you get your podcast. Whether that be iTunes, Spotify, Stitcher, anywhere.
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Thank you as well to the entire VinePair staff and everyone who’s been involved in making VinePair as special as it’s become. Thanks again for listening and we’ll see you next week.