The whiskey business changes slowly and it doesn't change very much, but it does change.
Here's an example.
According to Distilled Spirits Council (DISCUS) data, the Bourbon & Tennessee segment is now number one in U.S. whiskey sales, passing Canadian whiskey for the first time in, well, a long time.
There is some apples-to-oranges here because of the way DISCUS segments the marketplace. If you compare all U.S.-made whiskey to all Canadian-made whiskey (15.7 million cases sold in 2011), the U.S. wins by a wide margin, but DISCUS reports U.S. Straights (16 million) and U.S. Blends (5.3 million) separately.
Still, the fact that American whiskey drinkers have put American Straight Whiskey on top in the U.S. is reassuring for lovers of our national spirit.
The whole whiskey category is up, but only modestly, so there are some winners and losers. In 2010, Irish Whiskey slipped past Single Malt Scotch (SMS) and widened its lead in 2011.
SMS is doing very well in the United States, thank you, growing 9.5 percent in 2011 and reaching 1.4 million cases in annual sales.
But U.S. sales of Irish Whiskey went through the roof, growing 24 percent and selling 1.7 million cases, widening the lead over SMS that it eked out last year.
This is apples-to-oranges too, since the Irish figures include both blends and singles. Compare scotch to Irish, including everything, and there is no contest.
But the point is, it's significant when the rankings change.
Despite hard financial times, the losers in 2011 were all of the value segments, especially blended scotch, which declined by 2.6 percent. American blends and Canadians also lost volume.
That doesn't necessarily mean everybody is buying the most expensive whiskeys they can find.
What seems to have developed in a 'sweet spot.' Let's call it entry-level super-premium. Jameson, which is leading the Irish explosion, is an import and perceived as a 'better' product, but it's hardly a budget-buster. In the U.S. Straights segment, Maker's Mark is a good example as, for that matter, is perennial champ Jack Daniel's.
Another oddity; while the tables seem to say blended whiskey is in decline across the board, the booming Irish segment is mostly blends, including Jameson, and it's glaringly bucking the trend.
The answer is branding. Jameson is a strong brand and its owner, Pernod, has put a lot of marketing muscle behind it. This proves again that people don't buy types, they buy brands.