Millionaires' Club: The spirits market overview

Hamish Smith gives us his take on the spirits market – things look better than last year but it’s far from plain sailing.

It’s a peculiarity of our industry that we rarely take a moment to look at spirits sales as a whole. 

Commentators – and indeed Drinks International – tend to focus on brands, categories or take a market approach to analysis. This magazine is exactly that, but before we zoom in, let’s zoom out to take a more considered view of the total sales of distilled spirits across the globe in 2015.

Our friends at global data agency Euromonitor International (who provided all data in this introduction) say $472bn/£327bn was spent on 2.4bn 9-litre cases globally in 2015. But contain your excitement – that only amounted to volume growth of 0.8%. Not exactly bait to a headline writer.

It’d be seriously stretching the realms of accurate analysis to say spirits are in buoyant growth, or to suggest anything to the contrary. By region only Africa & Middle East edged growth beyond 5% – every other region was a variation on flat.

It’s over a five-year period that we see some movement. From 2011-2015, the world drank 5.6% more spirits. It’s about now we’d say this is down to a combination of intricate factors but it wasn’t. This growth is down to three regional markets of the world drinking more spirits. Asia Pacific, which is where more than half of spirits are consumed, was 15% thirstier during the five-year period, driven by China (up 22%) and India (up 14%). Africa & Middle East is where a little over a quarter of spirits are consumed, and grew its consumption by 26% in the past five years. North America, about a tenth of spirits sales, grew volumes 11% during the period. Europe and Latin America were the villains of the piece, with eastern Europe down 21%, western Europe down 5% and Latin America down 2%.

Premium brands tend to talk about value over volume, but the old measurement of counting sales by bottles and cases is still of great importance – particularly in markets where consumer wealth doesn’t allow for scaling of value, even for the big global players. If the past year has taught us anything, it is that premiumisation is not the one-way track they thought it was. De-premiumisation hasn’t yet been coined as a term by the big spirits companies (we’ll be waiting a while) but there has been a slight change in the narrative. Diageo and Pernod Ricard have renewed focus on building volume in their more mainstream whiskies, for example. It’s better to gain drinkers than lose them, no matter if it’s low-margin product, they might reason. Not that the premiumisation bubble has burst, but in the short term simply shifting stock for many spirits companies has become a priority.

Which leads us to this year’s list – the world’s largest distillers and purveyors of spirts. We’ll get into the detail later on in this supplement, but first let’s look at the 171 million-case brands as a group. First, we should point out that we have two more brands than last year, but are eight short of our 2014 peak of 179. In truth, there are more out there. We’ve tried to list those we suspect of millionaire status in our Undisclosed list at the bottom of the main list, but there are undoubtably a few more lurking deep in dark markets. Likely there are some, for tax management purposes, that aren’t so keen on opening their books in public.

Of the 171, 83 were in growth in 2015, 22 were flat and 66 were in decline. That’s something of a turnaround from last year, when fewer than a third of brands were in growth. So what changed? Well, emerging markets seem in a similar predicament to last year. Brazil is plunging into its worst recession in decades. China is still buoyant but days of the gold rush feel like history. India grows slowly, but is still weighed down in import levees and Russia, well, let’s just say the economy vodka segment there is going great guns.

So not a lot of change from this time last year. Which explains why global volumes are flat. The reason some brands have pulled themselves out of the red and into the black is that last year the volatility was new and they’ve had a year to adapt to market conditions and get used to the idea that emerging markets sometimes take a break from emerging. That and the fact many brands’ volumes dropped considerably in 2014, so any improvement in 2015 gives the impression of redemption when it is often partial recovery. Take Johnnie Walker – 5% growth looks great, until you realise it dropped 11% the year before and is still 1.3m cases down from 2013. Martell is another example – 16% growth in 2015. Fantastic, but the brand is still 0.4m off its 2013 sales. But it happens to the best of them. The Millionaires’ Club overlord, Jinro, may have found growth in recent years, but it is a few million cases from its peak nearly 10 years ago.

In the end, we can say things are stable, erring on positive, which isn’t exactly earth-shattering news, but a significant improvement on the headline last year, ‘Trying time’. What is exciting is Euromonitor’s forecast that total spirits volumes will increase 10% by 2020. For the sake of brands that experienced the global downturn five years ago, followed by boom and bust in emerging markets in the past few years, let’s hope the road to 2020 is without any diversions.