7 Whiskey Predictions for 2021

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As we are soon to say goodbye to 2020, 2021 is poised to be an interesting year for American whiskey.

This year, we saw distillers pivot into newer sales channels, such as Drizly and CraftShack, learning how to make hand sanitizer and doubling down on the live-streaming and social media technologies. It was the year of delayed releases, paused tourism, bourbon bar closures, and the year we came together over a dram on a Zoom call. Pants on, preferably.

2020 has opened the door for many very interesting and quite inevitable trends. But like all predictive lists, in a year, these could all look really stupid. Still, these are my 2021 predictions.

7. Flavored Whiskey Returns With Clubs

I hate flavored whiskey. But numbers don’t lie, and 21 to 25-year-olds drink this while they’re grinding on each other in the clubs. As masks go and forced social distancing lightens, clubs will open in droves, shoveling chemical-laden flavored swill down college kid throats. Thus, brands with flavored SKUs will see a bump in sales, and another Fireball emerges. 

6. Acquisitions

2020 was a survival year. 2021 is a capital flex year for the big dogs that will look at investing or outright buying brands (not facilities) that have built equity. Historically, this is what happens in whiskey. Following a war, government restriction or bad economical year, those with money buy those who don’t have it.

5. Barrel Finish Tests

In rum, several European countries test for sugar levels, because some producers place additives in the spirit. I believe the divide over this issue is why rum will never truly return to its former glory. Every year, people suggest it’s the next spirit about to take off. Anyway, the anti-sugar additive community will go as far as testing bottles at home. I believe this is about to happen to barrel finished bourbons. Because it’s allowed to live the Distilled Spirits Specialty category in the federal government, the finished products can be wet with the previous barrel’s spirit, such as Port. And year by year, this category is tasting sweeter. Literally. I believe competitors and consumers will begin testing these products to see if there’s undisclosed additives. 

4. Rapid Aging Gets Acceptance 

Currently, there’s a new wave of rapid aging technologies that are quietly being used and, get this, improving the spirit. I’ve never been shy about my feelings on this technology, but I have always given every bottle a chance. Boone’s Bourbon, Yelawolf’s Creek Water and Bradshaw’s Bourbon are all examples of palatable spirits that would do just fine in a pinch. Could this be the year rapid aging gets some love? hmmmm, not sure. But it’s a strong maybe.

3. Blenders Rival Master Distillers As Rockstars

Drew Mayville was one of our bourbon headliners at Bourbon & Beyond.

When I started covering bourbon 15 years ago, the word, “blend,” was a dirty word, all going back to the rotgut blends from the 1930s. Bourbon distillers have long memories, and they hate blends, which contain grain neutral spirit. But slowly, that hate has softened, and the likes of High West and Barrell have been doing brilliant work with blends of straights, which does not contain neutral spirit. As this has opened up, we’ve seen distillers talk more about their blending processes in batching. Eboni Majors at Bulleit and Drew Mayville at Buffalo Trace are examples of blending rockstars who, I believe, will start getting the credit they are finally due.

2. New York Rye Becomes Coveted

The real reason Kentucky is the Mecca of American distilling is not the water. It’s the people and the collective front to fight for the industry. When you look at positive future distiller state juggernaughts, New York’s proven to be a force to be reckoned with, as they’ve moved the needle on the legislative front, getting the Farm Distillers Act passed and getting a unique spirit to their state—Empire Rye. And here’s the thing, this whiskey’s coming of age and the distillers behind the category are very good. Be on the lookout for an Empire Rye near you.

1. New Dries Will Come After Bourbon

With the rise of people advocating for no alcohol consumption and linking alcohol to health conditions, you will see health zealots come after bourbon for its popularity, hoping to strike a blow to the alcohol industry. Get ready, folks. It’s gonna start feeling like 1920. But instead of religious leaders, health judgy McJudge types are coming for your bourbon. I don’t know what this will look like, but they’re forming and want to keep people from drinking.

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