Bourbon is America’s spirit, and it’s been a consumer favorite for more than a decade. Though the subcategory has seen exponential growth in recent years, bourbon’s share of liquor sales dipped slightly in 2021 as the share of other spirits has inched up. Bourbon sales are strongest toward the end of the year, however, and a set of well-loved core brands, along with a number of innovative ready-to-drink (RTD) cocktails made with bourbon, mean the spirit will continue to be a key component of any off-premise inventory.

A Historically Strong Category With Premium Growth

Don’t think that a hiccup in the overall market share means that bourbon is any less important. Bourbon remains a spirit that drives strong retail sales — especially in October, November, and December.

“I think these slight declines year-to-date are a result of other liquor categories like tequila, as well as other whiskeys like Japanese and single-barrel, gaining share — particularly in the higher price range,” says Liz Paquette, the head of consumer insights of Drizly. “Still, there’s no doubt that bourbon will not only remain a key category but also certainly will be a trend to watch in the coming months.”

Bourbon accounts for 37 percent share of the whiskey subcategory and 13 percent share of the total liquor category in 2021 to date. Over the same period in 2020, bourbon held a 40 percent share of the whiskey subcategory and a 14 percent share of the total liquor category. Still, bourbon sales follow a broader trend seen across multiple liquor subcategories: premiumization.

Data from the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States shows that the total volume of American whiskey sales was up seven percent in 2020, and revenue over the same period was up 8.2 percent. A notable portion of that growth came from super-premium bottles, which saw sales volume rise 17.4 percent in 2020. 

“In recent years, bourbon has been one of the liquor subcategories most impacted by premiumization,” says Paquette. “The average unit price continues to grow year-over-year, just less drastically. Additionally, all the price ranges from $50 and above have gained share year-over-year over the lower price ranges.”

The average price point for bourbons sold on Drizly over the past 12 months is $37, which is up slightly from $35.50 over the previous 12 months. The share of bourbon sales for bottles between $20 and $30 decreased from 21 percent to 18 percent in those two 12-month periods as well, while the share of sales in the $50 to $60 range increased from 12 percent to 13 percent. The share of bourbon sales for bottles between $60 and $100 all increased slightly as well, while the share of sales for bourbons more than $100 increased from six percent to nine percent.

Within the whiskey category, there are a few subcategories competing with bourbon’s share of overall whiskey shares. Scotch gained one percentage point share in 2021-to-date (and was the second-most popular whiskey subcategory, with 21 percent of share in 2020), while single-malt whiskey and Japanese whiskey have also seen share gains. Like bourbon, these three subcategories are expected to grow going into the colder months.

Outside of whiskey, a rising percentage share of tequila sales competes with the top whiskey subcategories. Neither tequila nor the other whiskey subcategories meet bourbon’s overall share of sales, however. 

How the Bourbon Market Has Changed

The list of top-selling bourbon brands on Drizly is relatively stable. There’s been a steady set of brands that have repeatedly shown up on the top 10 sellers list over the past three years.

Drizly’s Top-Selling Bourbon SKUs, 2021 to Date

  1. Bulleit
  2. Maker’s Mark
  3. Woodford Reserve
  4. Jim Beam
  5. Basil Hayden’s
  6. Evan Williams
  7. Four Roses
  8. Buffalo Trace
  9. Knob Creek
  10. Blanton’s 

The reliability of the top-selling brands makes it easy for retailers to stock a variety of SKUs from popular bourbon brands to maximize sales. Additionally, many of the top-selling brands have SKUs at various price points to capitalize on the sale of premium and super-premium bottles. 

Outside of traditional bourbon offerings, there’s also the rising popularity of bourbon-based RTDs. Paquette says to expect whiskey, and bourbon, in particular, to be a popular choice for RTD cocktails like the old-fashioned — a top five RTD cocktail flavor on Drizly.

Then there are the upstarts, like Howler Head Banana-Infused Kentucky Straight Bourbon, the fastest-growing bourbon SKU in 2021 compared to 2020. Flavored whiskeys, outside of Howler Head and Screwball Peanut Butter whiskey, don’t often see strong growth, but they do have the potential to catch consumer attention and are something to watch, says Paquette. 

Drizly’s Fastest-Growing Bourbon SKUs, 2021 to Date

  1. Howler Head Banana Infused Kentucky Straight Bourbon
  2. C.B. Jackson White Label Bourbon
  3. Chattanooga Straight Bourbon Whiskey 111 Proof
  4. Old Elk Wheated Bourbon
  5. Calumet Farm Bourbon Kentucky Straight 8 Year

Who’s Buying Bourbon?

In 2021 to date, millennials command the largest share of bourbon sales (52 percent) followed by Gen X (37 percent), baby boomers (nine percent), and Gen Z (three percent) consumers. Millennials also purchase the largest share of liquor overall at 50 percent, while Gen Z owns six percent of the percentage share of liquor, Gen X 35 percent, and Baby Boomers nine percent.

Looking Ahead to Q4

There’s still uncertainty of what’s coming next due to coronavirus variants. Bourbon is a reliable sales driver regardless of what happens, though.

“If lockdown restrictions are put back in place as they were in Q4 last year, we would like to see an emergence of a few trends that could bolster bourbon sales, including at-home cocktail making and gifting,” says Paquette.

Bourbon has historically had its lowest performance in the third quarter on Drizly. That’s quickly followed by the fourth quarter, which is the strongest performer. That’s one major reason to steadily ramp up inventory going into Q4, starting with the top-selling bourbon brands on Drizly while keeping an eye on rising SKUs and new formats like RTDs.

“Both are important for retailers to consider when planning their bourbon inventory,” Paquette says. “While the tried and true top-sellers are essential for retailers to have in stock to attract consumers seeking those specific products, having lesser-known and innovative SKUs is also a great way to stand out among the competition and attract consumers looking for something new in the bourbon category.”