A bartender creates specialty cocktails made with Casamigos at the launch party for Alo Miami in Miami, on December 16, 2021.

Jason Koerner | Getty Images

CHICAGO — The spirits industry is weathering economic headwinds to meet changing consumer preferences as it shakes off the dominance of beer.

The spirits market share grew from 28.7% in 2000 to 42.1% in 2022, surpassing beer for the first time in history, according to the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States. According to her, beer has a 41.9% market share.

The trade organization, which is celebrating its 50th anniversary, held its annual conference in Chicago this week. The event brought together spirits executives, business leaders, distillery experts and industry stakeholders to reflect on the key trends that are driving but also slowing growth across the industry this year.

Despite supply chain issues and high inflation, the spirits industry still has plenty to celebrate, said Chris Swonger, president and CEO of DISCUS.

“This is a great American success,” Swonger said of the industry’s market share dominance. “We are focused on staying ahead through persistence and ensuring that all the positive trends we see continue.”

As the spirits industry works to maintain its top spot this year amid recession fears, here are some key trends that industry leaders who spoke to CNBC see shaping the business today.

1. Celebrity brands steal the limelight

A growing number of celebrities are investing their time – and money – in the spirits business.

From movie stars to athletes, models and musicians, celebrities of all types are endorsing brands, getting involved in distilling, deciding on flavor profiles or forging industry partnerships.

These deals proved lucrative. In 2017, actor George Clooney and his co-owners sold a fast-growing tequila brand Casamigos Diageo for $1 billion in cash, prompting others to get in on the act.

“I saw that there was a lot of success in the celebrity tequila space, and that intrigued me,” actor Mark Wahlberg said during a panel at the Chicago conference.

Wahlberg launched a brand of tequila Flecha Azul earlier this year with Mexican co-founder Aron Marquez. The pair toured the country promoting the brand, which Wahlberg promoted as the “drink of the summer.”

“I have several friends who are successful in this business, and I like to beat them in everything I do,” Wahlberg said.

“But it’s more than just a name,” he added. “Everything we’ve done since the beginning is about product quality.”

Wahlberg joins other high-profile figures who have leveraged their liquor celebrity, including Ryan Reynolds, Sean “Diddy” Combs, Kendall Jenner, Dwayne Johnson, Michael Jordan and David Beckham.

2. Premiumization drives luxury spirits, RTD

During the Covid-19 pandemic, consumers developed a taste for higher quality spirits and used to drink outside the bar in in ready-to-drink form cocktails.

Luxury brands grow 4% in 2022 compared to 2021, according to DISCUS. The group’s data does not track the overall share of luxury brands in the spirits market.

The trend, characterized by consumers’ willingness to spend more on premium bottles, has led to a boom in sales of tequila, American whiskey and other spirits.

Tequila sales are up 21%, while US whiskeys are up 19% in 2022, DISCUS said.

Meanwhile, premixed cocktails, including alcohol-based RTD drinks, have picked up on the trend. In 2022, this category’s revenue will grow by 35.8% to $2.2 billion.

Brands are satisfying the thirst for alcohol-based RTD by diversifying their product offerings.

Hello Spirits is a Pennsylvania-based vodka company that entered the RTD space last year with a line of vodka-based cocktail pouches mixed with organic vodka and coconut water. Their flavors include lime, watermelon and papaya.

“They have been an excellent addition to our portfolio as it has become a common brand expectation,” said Holla President Patrick Shorb.

3. Soft drinks and low-alcohol drinks are lively alternatives

In recent years, major alcohol companies including Heineken, Anheuser-Busch InBev and Molson Coors joined the madness without and low-alcohol drinks.

Demand for these alternatives has increased among consumers who want to drink less or those who want to abstain for health or personal reasons.

According to IWSR’s Beverage Market Analysis, the volume of non- and low-alcohol beer and cider, wine, spirits and RTD products in 10 key global markets will grow by more than 7% in 2022.

“Younger generations in particular are drinking less and drinking with more intention when they drink,” said Tobin Ludwig, co-founder Hella Cocktail Co.

The company uses botanical flavors and spices to give its line of soft drinks a twist.

“You no longer need alcohol to socialize and have fun. In fact, for many, alcohol was perceived or experienced as an antagonist and choosing non-alcoholic options is now socially acceptable and in some segments of the sober curious movement the norm, not the exception,” he added.

4. Conscious consumers want a story

Today’s consumers increasingly want to feel connected to brands that share their values. Companies are taking this opportunity to highlight their sustainability efforts, contributions to local communities and commitments to diversity.

This trend will continue as consumers become more vocal about their priorities and begin to hold companies accountable for their practices.

More brands than ever are using eco-friendly packaging for their products as a way to reduce their environmental footprint. In recent years, craft spirits have also gained popularity, usually produced by small distilleries that use local ingredients and materials.

In addition, brands are doubling down on diversity initiatives.

April Robinson, Chief of Staff at Pronghornhe said it’s “not just a social good, it’s good business for everyone.”

The company runs incubator and accelerator programs to develop black talent in the spirits industry. Her research found that while black Americans represent 12% of alcohol consumers across categories, they make up only 7.8% of the sector’s workforce and 2% of industry executives.

Robinson said this “should be alarming to shareholders” as consumers become more aware of the ways brands interact with marginalized communities.

5. Supply chain and inflation issues persist

Rising costs for glass bottles, oil used for trucking and other parts of the spirits industry’s complex ecosystem have challenged some companies. In some cases, supply chain disruptions have led to price increases absorbed by consumers.

The industry saw some relief after the EU and UK retaliated against US whiskey. This has allowed distillers to regain their footing in these key international markets, but some of the safeguards may soon expire.

Lisa Hawkins, head of communications and public affairs at DISCUS, said it was “critical that these tariffs are permanently removed” to maintain momentum in the spirits industry.

Unless a deal is reached later this year, a 50% EU tariff will be imposed on all US whiskey from January.

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