Vodka is on a spirited trajectory, lifting the entire industry with compounded annual growth of more than 5% since 2005. It commands more than a third of the entire spirits market, outpacing whiskey in second place at 22%, and well ahead of third-place rum with a 13% share.
Yet if distiller Brown-Forman (NYSE:BF-B) is right, the so-called "browns" of the drink world are about to see a renaissance of their own. The maker of Jack Daniel's and Woodford Reserve says growth in the space ran about 7% last year and it anticipates seeing an 8% increase in 2013.
Perhaps we shouldn't be surprised. Earlier this year rival Beam (NYSE:BEAM) created a stir when it announced its intention to water down its popular Maker's Mark brand in a bid to stretch supply to meet demand. While it may have been something of a marketing ploy -- it quickly backed down when a hubbub grew on its Facebook page and subsequently enjoyed a nice 44% spike in sales -- it did indicate there was growing interest in the category.
The market researchers at Technomic say there really could be a whiskey shortage. Despite having just a little more than 8% of the market, American whiskey is experiencing the same sort of growth rate as industry-leader vodka. Because of the aging process of whiskey -- it can take a decade or more to reach peak flavor -- any increase in demand could result in shortages, particular among smaller craft distillers.
Like the craft beer boom that Boston Beer's (NYSE:SAM) Samuel Adams spearheaded, we now see a rise in small distillers investing in the browns. And for them, the risk is much greater since it will be years before they know whether they have a good product or have simply wasted their efforts.
Where Diageo remains the largest producer in the vodka market, owning 25% of all production, Brown-Forman is a major whiskey distiller, with 60% of its portfolio in the North American market (though Diageo owns a number of well-known whiskey brands too, like Johnnie Walker).
The rise in demand for hard liquor is likely what's been cutting into beer sales, which earlier this year recorded their first increase since 2008. Boston Beer has even had to search out new categories like hard teas and ciders as its flagship Samuel Adams brand has flagged.
The fashion industry says green is the new black, and in distilling, it just may be that brown is the new clear.
Fool contributor Rich Duprey has no position in any stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool recommends Beam and Boston Beer. The Motley Fool owns shares of Boston Beer. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.