Opinion: The over-analysis of whisky sales

Opinion: The over-analysis of whisky sales

Dissecting a plateful of statistics and commentary

Editor's Word | 22 Mar 2024 | Issue 198 | By Bethany Brown

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For those who love getting their teeth into some juicy statistics, the start of 2024 has been a veritable buffet. First, to our canapés: the release of financial results from three of the biggest names in drinks.

 

Pernod Ricard’s half-year results for 2023/24 showed 3 per cent drops in organic sales and organic profit, which it largely attributed to a €576 million (£493 million) hit from currency fluctuations in the US, Argentina, China, and Turkey. In its half-year results, Diageo reported an 11.1 per cent fall in operating profit and a 0.6 per cent drop in organic net sales. While it also referenced an “unfavourable foreign exchange impact”, the fall was largely due to a 23 per cent decline in sales in Latin America and the Caribbean, equating to US$310 million.

 

Things were somewhat rosier for Beam Suntory, which reported its full-year results for 2023 in February: double-digit growth across its Japanese whisky brands, and increases in sales for American whiskey brands Jim Beam and Maker’s Mark of 3 per cent and 10 per cent respectively. Overall, net sales were up 7 per cent year-on-year across the group’s diverse spirits portfolio — the only blip was in North America, where sales dropped by 2 per cent, blamed on a “post-Covid reset”.

 

Now, we come to the meaty entrée of industry commentary. At the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States’ annual economic briefing in February, there was good news for spirits as the sector increased its share of the overall beverage alcohol market to 42.1 per cent in 2023 — overtaking beer for the first time, whose share fell to 41.9 per cent — but the trade organisation struck a cautious note on both American and Irish whiskey sales. This briefing followed the release of sales data for 2022 from the American Craft Spirits Association, which found that the craft spirits market’s growth of 5.3 per cent in value and 6.1 per cent in volume in that year was ahead of the larger US spirits market.

 

The reams of data on whisky (and broader spirits) consumption continue to support the oft-quoted assertion that people are “drinking less but drinking better”, with premium brands holding their own in general sales. But what about whisky investment?

 

Analysis of February 2024 auction sales data by Whiskystats found an increase of 0.9 per cent in sales values for the historically 500 most-traded whiskies — hardly a jaw-dropping figure, but the Whiskystats boffins said it did stand out given the “severe value losses” experienced in the 18 months to November 2023 (Rare Whisky 101’s Scotch-focused Icon 100 index estimated losses over this period at 22 per cent). But the recovery is not universal. While investment prices for Scotch whisky are stabilising, values for Japanese whisky are still slipping. In the first two months of 2024 alone, Whiskystats’ Japan index lost more than 9 per cent. (Coincidentally, that is the same percentage that Japan Customs figures showed Japanese whisky export volumes fell by in 2023, as reported by Japanese whisky blog Nomunication in February.)

 

The enticing smell of impending disaster is attracting commentators in other sectors, too. Men’s Journal reported in January that the market for collectibles including whisky and luxury watches was “cratering”. It was quoting from a Business Insider report which claimed “frothy markets” that swelled from 2020–2022, including non-traditional assets such as whisky, were popping. All this doomsaying must make grim reading for companies that have sought to capitalise on earlier reports about whisky trading values that painted the opposite picture.

 

With all these figures being dished up, it is possible to overindulge and suffer the consequences of trying to take in too much data. So now, for your digestif. In an episode of British political comedy The Thick of It, the Department of Social Affairs and Citizenship (around which the show is based) launches a policy to offer music education to disadvantaged youths off the back of testimony from one member of a focus group — who turns out to be an actor saying what she thought the DoSAC team wanted to hear. It is a cautionary tale to be careful about the sources you listen to and how you interrogate their messaging. 

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