This blog has covered many different topics over the years. We have talked about everything from managing hospital emergency departments to supply chain risk to baseball. But we have so far ignored hard liquor. That ends today. We are going to talk about bourbon. Corn whiskey has been an industry in the US for a long, long time (remember the Whiskey Rebellion?) but, as Fortune tells it, the industry is incredibly hot right now (The billion-dollar bourbon boom, Feb 6).
In absolute numbers, the bourbon industry’s $8 billion in global sales is relatively modest. (The Coca-Cola company alone has 16 drink brands with annual sales above $1 billion.) What’s extraordinary is the growth—and the fact that bourbon’s popularity appears to have come out of nowhere. According to Euromonitor, domestic whiskey sales have soared by 40% in the past five years—NASCAR-fast numbers in a sector where good growth often means 2% or 3% a year, and a revolution for a spirit whose sales declined almost without a break for 30 years. Things are even better abroad. In 2002, American distillers exported just $376 million in whiskey; by 2013 that number had almost tripled, to $1 billion, according to numbers released this month by the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States.
Growth is particularly strong in the so-called super-premium category—that is, the brands that cost about $30 or more, like Maker’s Mark—where sales were up 14.4% in 2012 alone, according to the Distilled Spirits Council. “We have trouble keeping bourbon in stock that’s over $50,” says David Othenin-Girard, a spirits buyer for California’s K&L Wines. “It’s just flying off the shelves.”
Just what is behind the growth is open to speculation. Don Draper knocking back Manhattans on Mad Men helps as does marketing that emphasizes an “authentic” American product. However, there is a problem. Producers cannot simply flip a switch and produce more.
Whiskey is unlike most spirits—or most any consumer good, for that matter—in that production cycles are measured in years, not days or weeks. No matter how efficiently a distillery mills its grain or ferments its mash, a four-year-old bourbon has to sit in a barrel for at least four years. That means production levels are based on projections far into the future. …
“We only have as much [10-year-old bourbon] available as we made 10 years ago,” says Comstock. “We’ll continue to make more, but it won’t help today.”