Friday, May 26, 2023

Who Makes America's Whiskey Now?


A photo from the American Craft Spirits Association to represent craft spirits.

Seven years ago, it struck me that for all the sound and fury about new brands and new distilleries, things had not changed very much since I made a similar survey two years before. In my 2014 book, Bourbon, Strange, I wrote that just eight companies distilled all of America’s whiskey at just thirteen distilleries. Two years later, it was ten companies and fifteen distilleries. Today, well, it’s a lot more of both.

I was looking at it in 2016 because so many new distilleries were debuting later that year or in 2017. We had folks such as Angel’s Envy who were underway but still ramping up. This is always a moving target.

The ”all” in both statements is more properly “virtually all.” Of the 2,500 or so distilleries now operating in the U.S., most produce very little, a drop in the bucket of total U.S. whiskey production. Even all put together they don't amount to much. That’s not a knock, just a fact. As the American Craft Spirits Association (ACSA) puts it: 

“The U.S. craft spirits market is fairly concentrated with larger producers making up only 1.6% of the total number of craft producers, but are responsible for 56.6% of the cases sold. 90.1% of U.S. craft producers are classified as small producers. They are responsible for just 10.3% of the cases sold annually.” 

The ACSA does not even count producers who make more than 750,000 proof gallons annually. For my list, I put the cut-off a bit lower, at 500,000. If I hadn’t, the number would not have changed at all.

The ACSA figures are also for all spirits, they don’t break out whiskey. 

Overall, the data is not there for the picking. You have to suss it out. With whiskey, it’s hard to know what to count, since the product the companies are selling now was distilled four to ten years ago. Do you count how much they’re selling or how much they’re making? 

Neither number is readily available, but since distillery output is forward-looking, let’s stick with that. Only one of the four biggest companies, Brown-Forman, is public so they have to disclose that sort of thing. The other three—Beam Suntory, Sazerac, and Heaven Hill—only disclose what they want to disclose. So, the results of this exercise should be considered as falling somewhere between a rough estimate and an educated guess. Feel free to improve it if you can.

In 2016, the two companies not on the 2014 list were New Riff and Michter’s. For 2023, you can add Lux Row (now part of MGP), Bardstown Bourbon Company (including Green River), Wilderness Trail, Jackson Purchase, and Angel’s Envy, all in Kentucky. In Tennessee, there is Tennessee Distilling Group. In Texas, Firestone and Robertson. 

Meanwhile, the majors have all gotten bigger, both by adding distilleries and expanding their current ones. Brown-Forman and Sazerac each added one. Diageo added two. Four Roses essentially cloned itself, doubling capacity, but all at one location. The other majors from the original lists, Wild Turkey (Campari) and Ross & Squibb (MGP), have gotten bigger too. 

I'm not counting demonstration distilleries, like Michter's Fort Nelson and the Evan Williams Experience, as distilleries in these counts.

That brings us to 16 companies operating 28 distilleries of varying sizes. Most of the new guys are in the contract distilling and bulk whiskey business to a greater or lesser extent and are at the lower end of the volume scale, but the combine of Bardstown Bourbon and Green River is putting up some big numbers, as are Wilderness Trail and Tennessee Distilling Group.

And we’re not finished. If we double the threshold, to one million proof gallons per year, we can probably stop here, and maybe even lose one or two. But if we keep the cut-off where it was in 2016, at 500,000 gallons, we have a few more names to add: Willett, Castle & Key, Rabbit Hole, and Sagamore Spirits all appear to be in that range. They are all about the same size and have a few years under their belts. I may be missing a couple of others.

Then there are the folks just getting started, such as Log Still in Kentucky and Nearest Green in Tennessee. Nearest has an 18-inch column still. So do Driftless Glenn and Dancing Goat (Wisconsin), Wyoming Whiskey, and Southern Distilling (North Carolina), and probably a bunch more I don’t know about. Still size tells us maximum capacity, they have to tell us how much they're actually producing.

So, yeah, the needle has moved, bigly. It's hard to keep up. And there are more coming.

The big four are still the big four, by the way, and if the newcomers have made a dent in their combined 75 percent share of overall capacity, it isn't by much. Maybe now it's more like 70 percent. 

What does it all mean? That's a question for another time.

UPDATE: (10/16/23) I just ran the numbers. The big four's share of industry production capacity, with all known current and scheduled new capacity factored in, is 65 percent.


L said...

Amazing artcle as always, Chuck. Would you mind breaking down how many proof gallons each sized still can handle?

Chuck Cowdery said...

The formula I use is simple and gives a conservative approximation of the still's maximum capacity. I assume a plate area of 450 sq. in. equals one million proof gallons of annual capacity. This isn't any kind of industry standard. It's just me.

L said...

Thanks for the response Chuck. Now to try to find the surface areas...