Since 2020 threw us all for a loop, it’s arguably never been harder to predict what’s to come. Still, we asked some forward-thinking experts to surmise what might be ahead for the spirits, cocktail and bar industries. Here are 10 trends to keep an eye on in 2021.
More low- and no-alcohol offerings
“This was big in 2020, with growth that is building,” says Kara Nielsen, director of food & drink with trend forecaster WGSN. Nonalcoholic offerings have gone well beyond early-arrival Seedlip to zero-proof vermouths, bitters and more.
On the low-alcohol front, “we’ve seen hard seltzer move into hard everything else,” she says. So, get ready for hard kombucha, hard tea and more.
Cocktails-to-go are here-to-stay
Between the meteoric rise of canned cocktails and relaxed regulations that allow bars in many states to sell alcoholic drinks to take home, expect this trend to continue strong in the coming year.
“I think 2021 is going to be the definitive year of the large-format bottled cocktail to go,” says Anu Apte, proprietor of Seattle’s Rob Roy bar. “Even more so than this year, because everyone has worked out the kinks…I don’t see us being able to open like we were in the before times until at least fall of 2021.”
Tiki bars are out; tropical and nautical bars, in
While the desire for colorful, rum-soaked drinks will continue, don’t call the bars that serve them “tiki bars.” It’s a term associated with colonialism and cultural appropriation, said author/bartender Shannon Mustipher on a panel at Bar Convent Brooklyn, a trade show for the bar industry. In 2021, she predicts, expect bars with “tropical” or “nautical” themes to become more prevalent.
Ethical practices will receive greater emphasis
By voting with their wallets and social media accounts, consumers are prioritizing bars and other venues that take meaningful steps to address racism, sexism and other workplace inequalities. They often loudly boycott those they find problematic, too.
“A forced step back has given a lot of people a critical eye. It’s about how to distribute systemic power in a way that’s more equitable.”—John deBary, Restaurant Workers’ Community Association
“A forced step back has given a lot of people a critical eye,” says John deBary, co-founder/board president of Restaurant Workers’ Community Association. “It’s about how to distribute systemic power in a way that’s more equitable.”
This extends to spirits brands, says Amanda Victoria, partner/director of judging for the L.A. Spirits Awards. Consumers seek brands with environmentally friendly production methods and marketing that’s mindful of inclusivity and diversity. “Otherwise known as doing the right thing,” says Victoria.
Fun will stage a comeback
After many months of mixing accessible cocktails at home, “elevated” and “elaborate” cocktails will be on the rise, says Scott Gingerich, senior vice president of restaurants and bars for Kimpton Hotels and Restaurants. “Imbibers will be more likely to try a memorable concoction,” he says.
At Kimpton Shinjuku Tokyo, over-the-top ingredients like lamb fat-infused gin and dried mushrooms are attracting attention, he says.
Spirits to watch: Tequila, Cognac and whiskey, particularly Irish
After a resilient year for spirits, the outlook for 2021 remains upbeat, says Brandy Rand, chief operating officer for the Americas for data analysis firm IWSR Drinks Market Analysis. She expects agave-based spirits (Tequila and mezcal) to continue to grow, along with Cognac and whiskeys, with the exception of blended Scotch.
That said, Irish whiskey was one of the few spirits categories hit hard during the pandemic. Rand expects to see it bounce back in 2021.
Victoria also champions Irish whiskey. “We’ve been seeing brands drive this trend through education ranging from niche distillation methods to single malts over the last five to 10 or so years,” she says. “I believe Irish whiskey is just about to pop in a completely new light.”
Will this finally be rum’s year?
Each year, industry pros guess that rum is about to have its moment in the U.S. It’s become something of an inside joke, says Victoria. But 2021 might actually be the breakthrough, as producers reach out to younger consumers.
“Up-and-coming category standouts like Ten to One are finally helping to move the conversation forward by recruiting a new generation of rum drinkers,” she says.
Stefan Huebner, co-owner/head mixologist at cocktail lounge Dot Dot Dot in Charlotte, North Carolina, views 2021 as “rum’s year to be back in the spotlight.” What makes it special? “Distillers have been releasing older rums that are attracting the discerning palates of whiskey drinkers,” he says.
Canned cocktails will continue, at least in the first half of the year
Between the hard seltzer boom and the growing numbers of bartenders seeking to can their creations to sell at bars and retail outlets, most predict that the canned cocktail trend will continue strong. However, there’s a possibility that as the pandemic recedes and consumers can safely return to bars and clubs, canned cocktails may lose their luster.
Cocktail menus will vanish
The “touchless” menus that began during the pandemic, or drinks lists that can be read on a guest’s phone, will become the norm in 2021, says Sly Cosmopoulos, director of beverage marketing for wine and spirits wholesaler Republic National Distributing Company. Bonus: bar and restaurant operators can change menus instantly as they run out of certain ingredients, she says.
Wild card: Will spirits prices skyrocket?
The distilling industry’s temporary reduced Federal Excise Tax (FET) rate is slated to increase 400% at the end of 2020. If Congress doesn’t take preventative action, that would result in sharply higher prices for many craft spirits, says Becky Harris, president of industry trade group American Craft Spirits Association. “It would be the last straw for a lot of our little distilleries.”
She predicts that the odds that the lowered rate will be extended for another year are from 60% to 70%, “that’s still a 30-40% chance it could still happen,” she says.
Last Updated: May 8, 2023