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Nick Gillett: Predicting the big Christmas spirits trends

Published:  16 October, 2023

When it comes to this point of the year, customers start turning their thoughts towards Christmas. I know we say this every year, but Christmas 2023 really is going to be one of the most important festive seasons of the last ten years. While a great season won’t solve the various problems put upon the industry by government (duty hikes, rail strikes, and soaring energy costs, to name but a few) it’ll certainly go some way to protecting against the inevitable quiet months in early 2024.

So, in the name of maximising success for us all over the coming six months – here’s what I think the great British public, will be looking for.

Party in the on-trade

We can’t talk about Christmas without mentioning party season. And given the startling recent statistic that one in 18 venues have closed their doors so far this year – your local boozer, bar, or restaurant, needs custom this Christmas.

Whilst signs show that at-home entertaining is going to be big this year, there’s still ample opportunity for in-venue merriment. I foresee that workplaces, whether offering home-working or hybrid, will want to bring people together this December. I also think that a proportion of these groups will be looking for something a bit more experiential, so competitive socialising is likely to be popular.

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How do you monopolise on this in the on-trade? Think about the overall experience you offer. Can you pair cocktails to your menu? Or bring a little theatre into the dining experience? Creating a well rounded festive package will communicate value to your customers and jazz up your regular offer in the eyes of returning customers. Remember that corporate and individual customers alike are going to be mindful of budgets, so no matter what your price point is, be sure to offer bang for the proverbial buck.

Moving into 2024 – January and February are likely to be as scarily quiet as previous years, but the overarching outlook for next year is definitely brighter. Many are predicting that 2024 will mark the return to the office, and in turn see people flooding back into town and city centres across the country. Combine this with the tentatively positive forecasts of inflation slowing and 2024 might be an all-round sunnier year for hospitality.

Gifting: the off-trade’s golden goose

With the supermarket festive ranges set in stone since around June, this next part is directed at the shelves of UK’s wonderful independent retailers.

The big brains and Mystic Megs of the spirits industry reckon that this is the year for gifting a bottle. With the prevalence of at-home entertaining continuing into the festive season, people are likely to turn up with ‘something nice’ in hand, and I’m confident that won’t just be a bog-standard bottle.

If you’re a retailer, there are a number of ways you can make the most of gifting season. First of all, stay informed about the different spirits categories (more advice on that below), and branch out with a couple of premium options that are significantly more interesting than your standard brands. Second of all, make sure you have correctly sized gift bags for your bottles – that convenience purchase is vital for the season ahead.

Finally, you have to cater to at-home entertaining. Maybe it’s stocking some quality RTDs or creating cocktail bundles – but keeping some well thought out spirits up your sleeve that lend themselves to socialising will undoubtedly stand you in good stead.

Moving into early 2024, we are expecting to see further reductions in overall space in the major grocers for beers, wines, and spirits, largely due to ongoing commercial pressures. But there are big opportunities available within the interesting ranges of Ocado, Waitrose, and the innovative Master of Malt and Sainsbury’s partnership.

In 2024 I foresee there being an abundance of informed consumers, looking to explore, discover and purchase new bottles. Independent retailers, as well as supermarkets, can look to tap into this market.

The category crazes

So, let’s get down to brass tax – what’s hot this Christmas?

Let’s start with the Christmas favourite: whisky. Branch out from the traditional varieties and explore the wonderful category of World Whiskies. These spirits are diverse, creative, and free from the strict production guidelines that Scotch adheres to. There’s heaps of innovation going on and this is reflected in the significant growth of the category.

Beyond whisky, there’s a new generation of customer enjoying neat, dark spirits like rum and tequila – both of which are having a boom. Premiumisation is happening across all categories, so be sure to stock high-quality varieties of each, and when it comes to Tequila, don’t be afraid to branch out to other Agave distillates – lovely liquids in their own right. With your rum range, consider stocking a premium spiced variety. These are great for mixing, delicious when served neat, and there’s high demand for them across the on- and off-trade.

Consider white spirits, and the prediction that gin is falling out of favour has yet to come to fruition. Where we have seen fall out, is with flavoured gins. But we’re already seeing these cheaper, fruity, sugary liquids be replaced by rum-based equivalents.

Into 2024, I also think we’ll start to see the increasing popularity of ethical brands, really take off. Regardless of what’s going on at a government level, both customers and businesses care about issues like sustainability, so I have no doubt that ethical purchasing will become more of a thing. Especially as the cost-of-living crisis begins to level out.

And there you have it – a whistle-stop tour of predictions for the coming season. And my parting word of advice is this: if there’s one word to keep in mind for the months ahead, it’s value. You can still offer premium products and experiences; you don’t need to keep prices low. But so long as you’re offering value and communicating that value to your customers, it should be a successful season ahead for all. And boy do we need it.

Nick Gillett is MD at spirits specialist Mangrove Global