Wine News Whiskey the Hero in a Year from Hell

Whiskey the Hero in a Year from Hell

Bourbon was a balm for many during the various Covid upheavals.
© Shutterstock | Bourbon was a balm for many during the various Covid upheavals.
It will go down as the weirdest year on record, but did it change our consumption habits?
By Don Kavanagh | Posted Tuesday, 22-Dec-2020

You'd be forgiven for reaching for a stiff drink to mark the end of 2020 and, almost inevitably, that drink is likely to be a whiskey.

In a year unlike any other, search and sales lead data showed that, while wine managed to increase its share of consumer interest from January to November, it was spirits that really shone – and the top performer was whiskey. 

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For wine, global search numbers rose by 14 percent against the same period in 2019, with rosé showing the biggest increase – a 16 percent jump on last year. Sparkling wine searches were up by 15 percent, while whites and reds were bang on the benchmark at 14 percent, and it was only dessert wines letting the side down with a relatively disappointing 9 percent rise.

When it comes to sales leads – where a searcher clicks through from a search result page to a merchant website, indicating an intention to purchase – wine had a 4 percent rise overall, with rosé again leading the field with a 14 percent increase, white wine (up 7 percent) followed by sparkling wine (up 10 percent), red wine (up by 2 percent) and dessert wines had the same number of sales leads as last year.

Looking a little more closely at where consumers were searching, Bordeaux was the most popular region for reds, accounting for 24.3 percent of all wine searches. That's up by 12 percent on last year. California was the next best with 15.7 percent of red wine searches, up 16 percent on last year. Burgundy rounded out the three with 12.2 percent of red wine searches, up 10 percent on last year. For sales leads, however, the increases weren't so dramatic: Bordeaux was the same as last year, while California and Burgundy managed rises of 1 and 2 percent respectively. Overall, sales leads for red wines improved by 2 percent.

White searches were donated by Burgundy, which made up 28.6 percent of all white searches, a rise of 19 percent year on year. California was second with 11.6 percent of searches (up 14 percent) and the Loire was third on 4.9 percent of searches (up 13 percent). Sales leads for the top three white regions were up by 14 percent, 8 percent and 4 percent, respectively.

We'll go into wine searches in more detail in a later story, but it was spirits that people really turned to when the chips were down.

The big winners

Whiskey was easily the largest category, making up more than half of all spirit searches. While gin and Tequila enjoyed stellar years, with search increases of 13 percent and 29 percent respectively (and sales lead jumps of 28 percent and 25 percent respectively), both were coming off small bases – Tequila accounts for around 3.2 percent of all spirit searches, while gin sits at around 2 percent.

Vodka figures were decent (up 14 percent for searches and 4 percent for sales leads), as were those for rum (up 27 percent and 14 percent respectively), but brandy failed to convert an increase in interest into sales; searches were up by 23 percent, but sales leads were the same percentage as last year.

And so to whiskey, which saw a 30 percent increase in searches this year, and an 11 percent increase in sales leads; but the important stuff is in the detail.

Scotland leads the search charge in the whiskey category, with 49.3 percent of all searches being for Scotch. However, in the past year, searches increased by just 22 percent – which is a lot, but not less than the benchmark 30 percent figure for whiskey as a whole – while sales leads actually shrank by 1 percent; there might be plenty of people looking for Scotch, but not as many are buying.

The category has been boosted immensely by people who have responded to the various lockdowns, upheavals and pervading sense of dread marinating 2020 by turning to Bourbon. Searches for Kentucky whiskey are up by a whacking 48 percent and search leads are up by 28 percent. Overall, while Bourbon accounts for 20.1 percent of all whiskey searches, it makes up 31 percent of all sales leads. That's a hell of a conversion rate.

US whiskey generally did well during 2020. Tennessee whiskey grew searches by 26 percent and sales leads by 28 percent, while the generic "USA whiskey" appellation increased by 28 percent for searches and 17 percent for sales leads. And a special shout-out to one state in particular; searches for Utah whiskey soared by 76 percent (sales leads were up 66 percent), almost entirely driven by people hunting down the output of the High West Distillery.

Beyond America, India continues to be a major growth point for both search traffic and sales leads. Searches for Indian spirits were up by 65 percent this year, with sales leads up by 55 percent. Searches for Indian whisky, meanwhile grew by 57 percent and leads by 44 percent.

Elsewhere the story was a little more sobering. Irish whiskey searches grew reasonably well (up 22 percent) but sales-lead growth was less impressive at 9 percent. At least those figures were positive, though; Japanese whisky searches fell by 3 percent on 2019, while sales leads dropped by 18 percent.

And finally a word about beer. When it comes to converting interest into sales, beer can teach wine and spirits a thing or two. Despite making up a reasonably small percentage of searches on Wine-Searcher, it managed to increase those searches by 7 percent in the past year, and increased the number of sales leads by a whopping 14 percent.

When life gets increasingly complicated, people clearly opt for the simplest solution. Cheers.

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