Ben Franks: 5 BIG Booze Trends Predicted for 2019

More choice than ever before, drinking better but drinking less, and the boom in English fizz are all to surely come – regardless of Britain blowing a whole in its leg with Brexit.

Ben Franks Wine, drinks writer and brand expert

Christmas for the drinks trade is when we’re rushed off our feet for demand. So while most people have been thinking up New Year resolutions since Boxing Day, us winos often use January as a time for reflection. However, after a month of sober head-scratching over 2018 we wearily shift our heads to the future and what’s next.

It’s no secret 2019 has a lot going on. Here’s my predictions for the turbulent year ahead:

5. People will drink less

It will come as no surprise that younger people are drinking less. According to the Office of National Statistics, people aged 16-24 are now the least likely category to drink alcohol. The survey goes on to say those who drink the most tend to be the highest earners, especially those in professional or managerial positions. Many younger people aren’t there yet.

Alcohol-free spirits

So with the new generation drinking much less, there has already been a boom in creativity for the low (and no) alcohol markets. Spirits and beers are always the forerunners; brands like Beck’s Blue or Seedlip aren’t new products (although today Seedlip is worth a fortune and has expanded its range of alcohol-free spirits to three varieties to meet demand). Seedlip’s growth hasn’t gone unnoticed and competitors are starting to crop up. One of them is Caleño, an alcohol-free spirit inspired by founder Ellie Webb’s Colombian heritage and the delicious Inca berry (think sweet tomato-meets-passion-fruit). It is hands-down the best alcohol-free spirit I’ve tasted.

Caleno Drinks Alcohol-Free Spirit by Ellie Webb
New: Caleno, an alcohol-free spirit by Ellie Webb.

Alcohol-free beer you have to try

Classically, alcohol-free beer has thrived with the lager category but today brands like Big Drop, who specialise in 0.5% abv are adding excitement with stouts, pale ales and special additions. Best of all, Big Drop’s beers are actually good. That’s refreshing.

Can wine catch-up on the trend?

Of course, as usual the wine market is lagging behind these trends. Generally speaking most naturally low alcohol wines, such as German Riesling, are discounted by consumers because many are sweet. Our perception of sweet Riesling is spoiled by poor consumer history in the UK but in reality the Mosel Valley produces some of the world’s finest white wines – many of which come in at just 8.0%. An affordable version is the Hubertus Clusserath Riesling Spatlese 2014 (£14.39, Tivoli Wines).

Properly low alcohol wines I’ve tried (perhaps with the exception of Torres Natureo De-alcoholised Muscat 0.5% ABV, £5.99, Waitrose & Partners) are largely poorly made – or, at least, very poorly marketed. There’s little choice and most of the wines on offer, especially red styles, are bloated and sweet.

I mean, why drink low-alc wine when there’s so much choice of alcohol-free drinks in categories like tonic water, where Fever-Tree is trail-blazing style after style? Nevertheless, there are some glimmers of hope. Innovation, such as with Marks & Spencer’s 0% ABV Fizzero Rosé (£3.49, M&S in selected stores) is new for Jan 2019 and offers a fun, drier competitor to the Shloers of this world.

At the end of the day, the market is dictated by buying patterns. Last year, an ONS survey reported as many as one in five Brits said they were teetotal. So expect to see massive expansion in this sector.

4. We’ll drink better

While we might be drinking less, 2019’s “mindful drinking” – as some have coined it – will inevitably lead to better drinking, too. A recent report by Mintel confirms that while the volume of wine sales are expected to grow by just 5%, the value of sales is expected to rise by 10%. Yes, prices are rising (Brexit and the £ crashing won’t help either), but consumers are also finding out more about the provenance and stories behind their drinks.

We’re all seeking better wines

Well over half of adults in every age category buy wine – and its not means tested either, as 51% of those with an income of £15,000 or less still regularly buy wine. While most of this is in supermarkets on brands like Gallo or Hardys, the number one buying choice for the consumer today is grape variety. This opens up much more choice (more on that later) as countries like Hungary or Romania can win more market share. 57% of consumers are buying better quality wine than they were a few years ago and 54% would like more suggestions from retailers.

Some noble rot grapes, used for the famous Tokaji Aszu wines

Most importantly, the fact that terms like “ethically produced” and “food pairing suggestions” now join “quality awards” and “visual appeal” in the top 10 buying decisions you can see how attitudes are shifting.

Fancy spirits and a bit of star power

Just to dabble in spirits, the news of Diageo’s $1bn purchase of George Clooney’s ultra-luxurious tequila Casamigos brand has been thrown about like a cricket ball in justifying a boom in top quality tequila and agave spirit start-ups. Heritage branding – the likes of which still see Scotch whisky and the bigger brandy labels selling rare styles for over five-digit-figures – has now been joined by populist marketing. Ryan Reynolds and Aviation gin, P!nk and her new Two Wolves wine (that sold-out almost immediately) and Matthew McConaughey’s Wild Turkey whiskey are just three of the celeb-booze collaborations hurtling into 2019. Expect many more.

The key thing is even at the populist level the production quality is high. Nobody is taking time out of their day to set-up the next cheap spirit.

Finally the English will go mad for English wine

One of the most exciting areas where we’re drinking better is with home-grown wine. How refreshing that the English are finally getting into English wines. For some reason we seem to be the last to try our own tipple, favouring self-deprecating humour at the expense of all our fabulous winemakers.

One of our favourite suppliers, Dunleavy, enjoyed a “miracle” harvest in 2017 and 2018.

The quality has been getting so much better every year and after 2018’s mega-harvest, 2019 will see some truly biblical growth for bottling still wines here in the UK. We’ll also get another run of world-class sparkling wine releases of later vintages and start to see winemakers really play with non-vintage blends as their reserves build-up.

3. Wine gets an overdue makeover

One thing wine has always struggled with is communicating a wealth of history and tradition with market demand. Beer and spirits, free of the shackles of ancestry (for the most part), are playful and innovative with their branding and packaging. Wine, on the other hand, is rarely too risque or experimental.

Thankfully that’s changing. Just like the screwcap it appears to be the new world Aussies making most of the ground in innovation. One of my favourite funky brands is premium winery Vinteloper. Artist Sharon Hong’s labels for the winery echo the laid back, experimental personality of founder and winemaker David Bowley. The labels are ultra-cool, encouraging a discerning wine enthusiast to take a punt on tasting something new.

Vinteloper wine labels

Well-designed wine labels aren’t new but the trend is that they’re getting more common – and much more important. You can con yourself into the “don’t judge a book by its cover” saying when we live in a world of the shortest attention spans on record. People are curious but they also have two seconds to pick you out of a saturated market.

Make an impression.

2. More choice than ever before

Earlier this month, Harpers magazine reported on Waitrose’s predicted trends for 2019. In amongst the report, the retailer chose Xynomavro Greek red wines, smoky Mezcal, canned wine (packaging is a big trend) and alco-pops, along with others.

Winos Get More Confident

As you know I run Novel Wines, so I can already see the big pick-up in Greek wine sales. No longer the country of Retsina, the old world of winemakers in Greece are being replaced by an innovative young generation who have returned to their family’s vines after the financial troubles. The result for the wine world is truly exciting: a boom in easy-drinking Moschofilero and complex, finely-made Assyrtiko wines in the whites, and full-bodied, bold Xinomavro wines and Agiorgitiko styles that are treated like an art; these wines have finesse, length and almost Italian character when it comes to food-matching.

Ben Franks visits Sabar Winery
Ben visits Sabar Winery, Balaton, to discover Hungarian wines

However what this single Greek variety echoes is a much larger trend. Led by food, people are becoming more confident, more adventurous. When people go out to restaurants now they look for something different and a higher quality return. Beers have gone craft, gin has expanded massively into a diverse array of flavours. Finally it’s happening to wine. Natural wine, though I’m still not yet a convert, is one of the new niche markets; people are seeking-out indigenous grapes (think Furmint, Fiano and Nebbiolo to name a few); and Malbec is now everywhere, not just France and Argentina.

Spirits

Spirits trends are also pretty cool. For me the most innovative and extending its growth from 2018 is tequila. The branding is fun and modern but its completely flipped its reputation from shot-spirit to lux-spirit in the last few years. Also, as new markets start to learn more about the South American spirit, its long lost friend Mezcal has become more mainstream. Tequila’s no longer going to be that cheap, dirty shot you have in a club after too many; it’s already making a name for itself among some $100+ spirits.

KAH Tequila, recently acquired by Stoli Group

Scotch is almost like tequila looking in the mirror marketing-wise. While Kah tequila feature skull bottles and El Patron harness influencer marketing, Scotch has achieved massive successes in its heritage marketing by securing protected Geographical Indication (GI) in new markets like Thailand. Its centuries of reputation as the finest quality whisky in the world are threatened only by the Japanese (although I imagine a few Irish and American whisk(e)y fans might bite my head off for that comment), so by securing its origin in new markets Scotch is bound to continue its growth.

The Gin Bubble

The other big spirits question is ‘Will the gin bubble burst?’ I think it’s unlikely. One of the big food and drink trends is health. The G&T cocktail still sees gin piggy-backing sugar-free tonic and “light” tonic marketing. Furthermore, it’s already become so diverse and enjoyable. I’m a late convert to gin but it’s easy to get sucked into it.

Gin liqueurs distilled from North Carolina sweet potatoes

If you’re not a fan of juniper and therefore London Dry styles, you’ve got oaked gins that taste like good Irish whiskey with herbaceous undertones; gins that use spicy or sunshine citrus (think orange) as botanicals, or the fresh and famous cucumber macerated in Hendricks; and you’ve also got experimenting going on, such as a revival of the Old Tom style that’s rich, sweet and full of nutty hints. Gin’s bubble isn’t going to burst but it might be the spark to a whole new spirit category entirely…

Packaging I’m also excited about. Companies like When In Rome, who do bag-in-box wine, are way ahead of the game. I’ll talk about them and the organic trend in the green-thinking segment below.

1. Green-thinking

When In Rome Wine, reinventing bag-in-box

The biggest trend of 2019 represents the beginning of something new, not just for wine and spirits but for business as a whole. Consumers are becoming all-the-more informed thanks to a globally-connected world. While attention spans may be shortening in the here and now, more and more people are seeking some sort of meaning to life.

This is important for businesses because if consumers desire a sense of purpose, every brand that sells to them must be purposeful. The biggest example of that is the emergency to save our planet from waste and climate change, which has seen a huge surge in green-thinking and green-buying.

For too long UK markets have shafted bag-in-box wines to little more than cheap, volume wines. When I met Rob Malin in 2015, the founder of When In Rome Wine, he was on to something. Importing bag-in-box wine from Italian producers that actually tasted as great as any bottle going for £8-£15 on the shelves. These boxes can be fresh for six weeks, giving consumers the option to buy them both for parties and for drinking the odd glass in moderation. Today you can buy Rob’s wines off the shelves in Waitrose & Partners, Harvey Nichols and a flood of independents across the UK.

Rob’s business is one of many who are changing the game for bag-in-box. As more people drink these wines and realise their quality, you’ll see the snobbery go away in the on-trade as well. This means bars can offer refill wines and serve bag-in-box wines without prejudice, saving money and meaning the consumer pays more for the juice, not everything else.

The Uncommon Wine
English wine in a can.

Canned wines are also cropping up and one ultra-amazing brand I want to share with you is called The Uncommon. These guys are canning lightly-sparkling Bacchus wines made in England. Their aim is to “become the most sustainable wine brand in Britain”. They are even recycling corks to use in their packaging. How awesome is that?

Packaging is making waves but so is production. More winemakers than ever are practising “de facto” organic viticulture and wine-making, a trend in-line with a growing demand for quality. A few years ago biodynamic wines were a big trend, today it’s natural wines, but ultimately the organic market is a segment that continues to grow.

One of the most successful companies to do this is Vintage Roots, a retailer and wholesale company specialising in certified organic wines and spirits. Formed in 1986 the company was named the Green Retailer of the Year in the 2015 Decanter Awards. They now offer hundreds of organic wines and one of the quirkiest spirits I’ve enjoyed – Da Mhile’s Seaweed gin.

Final thoughts

Of course this article covers a lot of trends but I’ve not even touched on spirits such as vodka, for example. Ultimately I’m just one man and while I taste widely, I would be much more worse for wear if I tried everything. However, hopefully this two cents on 2019 gives you a picture of some of the exciting things to come…

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