After the tumult of 2020 and 2021, even the most forward-thinking bar and spirits experts find the vista for 2022 murky. While nothing is certain, a few trends emerge as increasingly likely. From evolving attitudes toward celebrity booze, to the latest canned cocktail evolution, here’s what the pros are anticipating for the year to come.
Bonus: take a look at our 2021 crystal ball to see how our experts fared.
You can’t stop the ready-to-drink train—but you might see some changes.
Across the board, most experts predict ready-to-drink (RTD) cocktails will continue to sell. The category boomed over the last two years as bars and restaurants intermittently closed and outdoor activities gained traction; plus, they offer an alternative to similarly successful canned hard seltzers.
“The pandemic was an accelerator for them, and they’re still going strong,” says Danny Brager, analyst for data aggregator SipSource.
However, it’s possible that the RTD market may be approaching a saturation point. “Could there be a shakeout of brands as they continue to flood in?” Brager asks.
Additionally, supply chain-related concerns about aluminum may tamp availability of canned cocktails, or lead to alternate packaging, such as bag-in-box formats.
Expect big, bold flavors.
From RTDs to liqueurs to non-alcoholic beverages, expect bold, easily recognizable flavors like watermelon, cherry or other fruit tones.
“Whereas before, clients would be looking for a gentler spritz of nuanced flavors in their drink, we are now seeing more clients ask for loud and proud, single-note flavors,” says Tom Gibson, chief flavorist at beverage developer Flavorman.
While part of that is due to greater demand for comforting, nostalgic flavors, there’s another factor at work too, Gibson notes. In the wake of COVID-19, a virus notorious for attacking senses of taste and smell, drinks with prominent, straightforward flavors may reassure those still recovering or otherwise concerned with changes to their senses.
Low-alcohol and no-alcohol options will expand.
An ongoing drumbeat from 2021 and 2020 is wellness. Consumers are anticipated to continue to prioritize it, in part by looking for drinks with low or no alcohol. A growing number of companies have rushed to fill that space with everything from non-alcoholic botanical “gin” to retail stores that exclusively stock boozeless bottles.
“Moderation is here to stay and part of consumers’ everyday lifestyle,” says Brandy Rand, COO Americas at IWSR Drinks Market Analysis. “Alcohol-adjacent products that offer ‘better for you’ cues are becoming more popular and available across all channels. The aspect of mood-enhancing beverages with things like adaptogens and nootropics or CBD appeal to health conscious and stressed-out consumers.”
Look for cultural and regional influences in spirits.
Craft distilleries and small or micro distilleries in particular have been using spirits to showcase regional flavors. Kara Nielsen, a culinary trend forecaster at WGSN, cites gins made in India using locally sourced botanicals, or Hawaiian rums distilled from Hawaiian sugarcane.
“Some of these visionary distillers are trying to expand the conversation and do things in a new way,” says Nielsen. “Part of this is local pride, as well as a drive to showcase indigenous ingredients that we’ve seen trickling across the culinary space.”
Nielsen believes that consumers will be more interested in the stories behind regional ingredients in the coming year or may seek information about growers and farmers as they explore these products and notions about “fine spirits” expand.
Celebrity-driven products may take a back seat.
In an age where it seems like every celebrity has a tequila brand, the backlash has arrived, particularly among younger Millennials and Gen Zers of legal drinking age.
Skeptical consumers are “awakening to insincere celebrity products,” says Amanda Victoria, cofounder and CEO of Siponey, an RTD drink. She expects they will vote with their wallets by skipping products perceived as “greedy and inauthentic.”
Spirits to watch: Tequila (again), Cognac (again) and American whiskey.
Speaking of tequila: Its white-hot streak is anticipated to continue into 2022.
“Tequila will continue to lead the growth of mainstream spirits,” says SipSource analyst Dale Stratton. “Tequila is taking some occasions away from vodka. It’s taking some occasions away from everything.”
He attributes that in part to bartender preferences for working with tequila cocktails, as well as the tequila industry’s success in positioning aged agave spirits to compete with brown spirits like Scotch or bourbon to sip neat.
Cognac and American whiskey, particularly bourbon and rye, also are positioned to continue to grow in 2022.
But don’t count out mezcal.
Mezcal sales dropped 19% from March–June 2020, Brager says, because so many on-premise venues were closed during the first months of the pandemic. In the U.S., sales of the agave spirit have traditionally been driven by cocktails and straight pours in bars and restaurants. Now that those businesses are mostly back open, Brager expects mezcal to come back strong. Already, he says, sales surged 56.9% from July–September 2021.
Irish whiskey and single-malt Scotch follow a similar though less-pronounced pattern, he says.
Consumers will trade fancy bottles at home for fancy drinks at bars.
During pandemic quarantines, some consumers began to “trade up” to higher-end, premium versions of their favorite drinks, whether for sipping or mixing, SipSource’s Brager says. However, that trend has fallen off sharply as consumers have returned to bars and restaurants. That seems likely to continue.
Wild card: Will this be baijiu’s year?
“We see baijiu breaking out of the confines of China,” says Nielsen. Exporters are bringing the Chinese grain spirit to the U.S. “with the intent of thrilling a new global audience, as well as members of the Chinese diaspora or those with Chinese heritage who are taking new pride in this spirit that they know but few others know about.”
She believes U.S. consumers are ready to embrace it too. She points to a baijiu-based pop-up from Boston-based bartender Nick Lappen as an example of burgeoning awareness of the Chinese spirit in the U.S. ; sales of Ming River, an export-only baijiu brand, are robust; and, last summer, Buffalo Trace garnered headlines with its experimental, baijiu-style spirit.
Supply-chain issues may impact your drink.
Shortages of everything from Champagne to whiskey already have begun, and are likely to continue into the new year, says David Ozgo, chief economist with the Distilled Spirits Council of the U.S.
“The distilled spirits industry is just like everyone else in America,” says Ozgo. “We’re facing the same challenges with regard to being able to import products. Clearly, right now there’s a shortage of containers. Space on container ships is very, very short.”
That impacts access to everything from the aluminum used to make bottle caps, to the glass used for bottles to the glue that affixes labels. Transportation issues and labor shortages also have affected getting bottles out to customers.
So, if you’re looking to have a specific pour in hand to ring in 2022, now may be the time to stock up.