It took a very long time before the major beer companies started paying attention to and then buying craft brewers. That’s clearly not a mistake big spirits producers intend to make.
Last week, another major player, Moët Hennessy, purchased Seattle-area Woodinville Whiskey Company, with plans to sell its bourbon not just across the country but also overseas, according to reports. The purchase of Woodinville Whiskey signaled that the European spirits company is expanding beyond its Scotch whiskey holdings into the competitive and internationally growing rye and bourbon market.
In a prepared statement, Christophe Navarre, president and CEO of Moët Hennessy, said “We are convinced that Woodinville fits very well within the Moët Hennessy portfolio,” and that it has “significant potential for expanded distribution through our US and international networks.”
This is just the latest but undoubtedly not the last, as major supplier companies are finding it more complicated to introduce successful new brands at a time when small distillers with a story to tell are capturing consumer attention. In December, Pernod Ricard announced it was acquiring Smooth Ambler, a West Virginia-based company that makes Old Scout bourbon. Constellation Brands last year acquired Utah’s High West Distillery and has a piece of Virginia’s Catoctin Creek. In 2015, Bacardí swooped in and took Kentucky’s Angel’s Envy.
The traditional, larger distillers – Beam Suntory, Brown-Forman, Heaven Hill, Sazerac – have been introducing newer whiskey brands built from their own stocks. They’re busy enough just producing enough of the brown stuff to fill orders for themselves and their older brands, so they are unlikely to be targeting any of the upstarts. But companies like Diageo, which is said to have made a deal for tequila Casamigos that could cost them $1 billion when all is said and done, are obviously willing to pony up if they think they can build a brand.
The latest rumors to swirl about small distillers being taken over focus on one of the best known names: WhistlePig. According to Bloomberg, in June the company started exploring bids for sale of part or all of the company.
The questions for bar and restaurant operators are many: How do these companies that are used to managing brands selling hundreds of thousands of cases plan to fit these small distillers, who produce only a fraction of that many cases annually, into their portfolios? How will they market the brands? Which brands will produce enough to fit into a national account plan? Will any one of them be able to make the sort of impact on-premise that they have had on the niche whiskey world?
Interestingly, these smaller whiskey brands have been built by enthusiast interest rather than by cocktail culture, which has been the main route to spirit success in the 21st century. Many of these brands are available in bars, especially whiskey-focused spots, but they can’t compete on cost with some of the tried and true, popularly priced Kentucky whiskeys. Still, Big Booze’s buying spree is far from over, and operators can soon expect one or more of these American spirits to break out nationally very soon.