2022 is shaping up to be an unusual year for the spirits industry. “Learn to live with the pandemic” has become a frequent, optimistic refrain, but what does it mean for an industry that saw many of its customers completely change their drinking habits over the last two years? Never mind the welcome return to a world without whisky tariffs or the explosion in spirits ecommerce. Making predictions about such things has always been tricky, even without a global pandemic to account for. To get a better sense of what 2022 has in store, we recently held a socially distanced sit down with Allison Varone, Vice President of Emerging Brands at Moët Hennessy. The company is home to iconic brands like Belvedere vodka and Glenmorangie Scotch, among many others. So, yeah, she should know a thing or two.
Note: This interview has been lightly edited for readability.
Drinkhacker: Before we talk about the future, let’s talk about our bizarre, recent past. Most of us have essentially been trapped at home for two years. What has that done to the spirits business?
Varone: During the pandemic, consumers spent much more time experimenting with mixology at home, which led many to try new brands and spirits categories. As they continued this trend from home in 2021, we also saw consumers gravitating towards more premium offerings as they built out their home bars, which boded well for many of our brands. I expect this trend will continue from at-home and even further into the on-premise as consumers continue to reacclimate with drinking outside of their homes at bars and restaurants, but stick with the new premium and super-premium offerings they’ve now become accustomed to.
Drinkhacker: Ecommerce helped to overcome the decline in on-premise sales over the last two years. Do you expect that to change as things normalize?
Varone: The use of ecommerce for spirits delivery increased over the past two years, which we expect to continue in 2022, so we’re investing heavily in this space to help improve the convenience of buying our products for our consumers.
Drinkhacker: We saw a lot of spirits brands in recent years begin to talk seriously about sustainability. How are your brands becoming more environmentally friendly?
Varone: Consumers are becoming increasingly cognizant of how their purchases affect the environment. Brands that want to remain relevant cannot overlook this and must demonstrate to consumers their commitment to sustainability. Our brand Belvedere Vodka, for example, has implemented an aggressive CO2 reduction and renewable energy plan with the goal of reducing energy related CO2 emissions by 80% by the end of 2022. Similarly, all new Belvedere product launches moving forward will be organic – which is better for the earth and the consumers who drink our vodka.
Drinkhacker: Speaking of vodka, we often hear about its resilience as a category, but with demand for other spirits growing, do you think its popularity will decline?
Varone: Vodka is the largest category for spirits, and a very competitive market at that, but we are seeing other categories, especially tequila, stealing traditional vodka drinking occasions and consumers. The vodka brands that will remain resilient, such as Belvedere, will do so by providing consumers with super-premium products that evolve with the ways consumers drink today. It’s important to listen to the values of your target consumer, so that you can reach them in a more meaningful way. The introduction of Organic Infusions, for example, was one of Belvedere’s most exciting new product launches to date, and we expect to see that continued reaction as we expand the offering.
Drinkhacker: We’re hearing some buzz that premium tequila is going to be big in 2022. Do you agree?
Varone: Absolutely! Post-lockdown, consumers are approaching their lives with a newfound sense of mindfulness, pertaining to the quality of products they use and the environmental impact of those products. With this new depth of consumer knowledge, we’ve noticed there’s been a shift in the perception of tequila from a “party” spirit to an elegant one with character and nuance that’s perfect for sipping, similar to single malts. Tequila is also the base for some of the most popular cocktails – including the margarita, the paloma, tequila sunrise and more – so, consumers are continuing to recognize how a more premium tequila can really elevate some of their favorite drinks.
Drinkhacker: Any particular tequilas from Moët Hennessy we should be on the lookout for in 2022?
Varone: Volcán de Mi Tierra, which really exceeds expectations of traditional tequila flavors. Each expression is an homage to the land and beauty of the agave plant and art of blending, which really translates in the glass and adds a nice depth of flavor to cocktails. We’re excited to be releasing Volcán Smoke, which is at the moment exclusively available in California, which further establishes the distinct character that’s achievable when crafting a premium tequila. There will be more exciting things to come in 2022 for Volcan de Mi Tierra, as well.
Drinkhacker: Let’s shift gears to whisky. The big news for 2022 is the end to all the tariff silliness. How will the removal of tariffs impact whisky trends this year?
Varone: This is a real win for whisky importers, distributors, and drinkers alike and a welcomed relief overall. The release of the tariffs will take pressure off the entire system and likely result in price stabilization for whisky drinkers across the country.
Drinkhacker: I’m sure plenty of our readers would appreciate a more affordable dram, but there seem to be more and more folks indulging in ultra-premium bottles. Is there a ceiling to whisky premiumization? What is driving that demand?
Varone: The premiumization trend has been gaining traction for some time, and we don’t anticipate it slowing down any time soon! There’s a myriad of reasons why consumers are opting for more premium whiskies, which could be due in part to new consumer purchasing habits or a greater appreciation and understanding of production and origin. It’s worth noting that during the pandemic, with the loss of on-premise premium drinking experiences, many consumers shifted those funds to purchasing higher-quality bottles for their home bars. Our recent ultra-premium bottlings for Glenmorangie and Ardbeg were received extremely well, largely due to this shift towards premiumization but also thanks to each brand’s loyal consumer base. The average consumer isn’t grabbing one of these ultra-premium bottles as their go-to pour, but rather looking at them as an investment or collectible, similar to ultra-luxury wines, meant to be enjoyed on only the most fitting occasions.
Drinkhacker: Well, here’s hoping some of this money gets back in our bartenders’ pockets soon! What other trends are you seeing in the Scotch whisky category?
Varone: We’ve found that consumers are interested in experimenting and innovation within Scotch whisky while still expecting value in overall quality and taste. Age statements have long been synonymous with a spirit’s quality or rarity, but now with new innovations, such as our newest releases at Glenmorangie – X by Glenmorangie and A Tale of Winter – we can let the liquid speak for itself and allow consumers to better understand their own unique palates. While this might be considered irreverent to some, there’s no denying the growing popularity of Scotch whisky cocktails! Cocktails mixed with single malt Scotch offer an approachable entry into the world of whisky for newcomers, who may not have known where to start. I think there is a misconception about where and how single malts “should” be enjoyed, which was the insight behind one of our latest releases: X by Glenmorangie, a single malt made to mix.
Drinkhacker: A Scotch designed for mixing was definitely a unique release in 2021. What else should we expect from Glenmorangie in 2022?
Varone: Fans should expect the unexpected from Glenmorangie! This year, we were extremely excited to open The Lighthouse, which is Glenmorangie’s Head of Whisky Creation Dr. Bill Lumsden’s new innovation distillery. The first of its kind, The Lighthouse is dedicated to experimentation and will be where the whisky creation team will further push the boundaries of whisky. Beyond The Lighthouse, we have some other exciting initiatives for Glenmorangie slated for next year, so be sure to follow along on Instagram at @glenmorangieusa!