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Why are alcohol levels rising?

Just as in food, beverages are trending toward bigger, bolder flavors–and consequently, higher alcohol.

What are your customers ordering from your bar these days? Maybe the newest Belgian-style tripel from that hot new brewery, or that critic’s choice California cabernet or perhaps a classic cocktail with a pre-Prohibition pedigree. If they are, then they’re getting more than just the trendiest beverages, they’re getting a lot more alcohol.

With little fanfare, the alcohol content of beer, wine and spirits has been creeping higher. Not so long ago, American beers were at four or five percent alcohol by volume (ABV), but lately many brewers have been producing more powerful brews, at ABVs ranging from 6 to as high as 11 percent. A decade ago most wines were 10 to 12 percent alcohol, but now many are routinely bottled at 15 or 16 percent. And bartenders are cutting back on drink mixers to stir up much higher-proof cocktails.

What gives? David Henkes of Tech-nomic’s Adult Beverage Insights Group, sees an economic tie. “Higher alcohol content goes hand in hand with the perception of a more premium product, more bang for the buck,” he says. Whatever the reason, higher-octane beer, wine and spirits have evolved into a more important part of the restaurant business, and customers are demanding them.

The new beer scene 

For nearly half a century, domestic premium beers reigned supreme. Bud, Miller and Coors all weighed in at about 5 percent ABV. And all, critics might say, tasted about the same. Then came light beers, a half point or so less in alcohol, boasting fewer calories, and even less taste, those same critics might argue.

“The alcohol content of the domestic core brands has remained stable over the last five to 10 years,” says Charles Tull, an analyst for the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau. Craft brewers have introduced different styles of beer, “some of which can be highly hopped and high in alcohol content.

While sales of mass-market brews have been flat, the craft category has grown steadily by double digits. In 2007, craft beer sales were up 16 percent, according to the Brewers Association.

And many craft brews clock in at 6, 8, even 10 or 11 percent alcohol. Boston Beer Company’s latest Sam Adams Utopia is a whopping 27 percent alcohol.

“It’s a reaction against the pallid pilsners,” says Lauren Clark, publisher of drinkboston.com. “There are definitely more high-alcohol beers on the market.

“People are looking for flavor,” says Julia Herz, craft beer division director of the Brewers Association. “With more alcohol in beer, you get more flavor.

And craft brewmasters are into flavor. “The more malt you use to make a beer, the higher in alcohol it’s going to be,” explains Clark. “But it’s also going to have all the different flavors of the malt and flavors that come from fermentation.

“The numbers show that the bigger beers are selling extremely well,” says Herz. “The higher-alcohol beers, often referred to as extreme beers, are really seeing great strides.

Extreme beers—like barleywine, Scotch ale, imperial porter, doppelbock and tripel—are highly prized by brewmasters and adventurous beer drinkers. “They’re fun for the brewers,” says Clark. “It’s a way of showing off.” By the same token, she says, many consumers are attracted to extreme beers. “It’s like, ‘I’m going to be the most extreme drinker in the room.

Big brews are traditional styles from the the UK and Europe. Many of the high-alcohol styles were originally designed to withstand long voyages. And “barleywine” was an effort by English brewers to woo drinkers away from French claret.

“From the get-go, craft beer has been trying to compete with wine,” notes Clark. “To wine snobs, brewers say, ‘You like complex beverages? Try these.

So far, so good, but where is this heading? Will the next vintage of Sam Adams Utopia hit 30 percent? One possible impediment is the cost of ingredients. Shortages of hops and barley have caused prices to spike. Already some breweries have been forced to increase prices. Others are re-formulating their brews with fewer hops and less malt—and less alcohol. 

Wines pack a wallop 

The trend towards higher-alcohol wines—15 and 16 percent—seems especially evident in California, although many Australian wines have high ABVs too. Many experts believe that better agricultural and vinification techniques have led to riper grapes with higher sugar levels—that ferment dry to higher alcohol levels. Others point to global warming.

“That’s hocus pocus,” insists Randy Dunn, founder of Dunn Vineyards in Napa, contending that too many wines are too high in alcohol. “All that stuff about better rootstocks and clones, trellis systems, warming trends—that’s just smoke and mirrors.” Actually, on-trend winemakers are using vinification tricks such as more alcohol-tolerant yeasts and chapitalization (adding sugar to boost alcohol).

Warmer weather regions like California and Australia have better luck at harvesting riper grapes than in more temperate wine-growing regions such as Germany and Burgundy. “Critics like Robert Parker [“The Wine Advocate”] and James Laube [“Wine Spectator”] prefer big reds and rate them highly,” says  Robert Smiley, director of wine industry studies at the Graduate School of Management, UC Davis. “Big cabs, big zins, big merlots. They tend to have higher alcohol content.

Dunn agrees with that assessment. “It’s no secret that the high-alcohol wines get the good scores from critics,” says the winemaker. “And the wineries started following them like puppy dogs.” But, he argues, “High-alcohol wines don’t taste good with food; they’re only good for high scores.

Not surprisingly, many wineries are crafting wines that they feel will appeal to influential critics. “When you’re selling a wine for $50 to $200, you need a good rating to justify that price,” argues Smiley. “So if that’s what the critics prefer, that’s what the wineries are going to make—big, high-alcohol wines.

So, will the high-alcohol wine trend reverse itself any time soon?

“I think there’s a potential for the situation to change,” says Smiley, who adds that he’s already seen a bit of a backlash. “People tell me, ‘There’s too much alcohol in the wine,’ so they’re either drinking less or choosing lower-alcohol wines.

As for Dunn, “I think the alcohol percentages will slide back down.” He believes that lower-alcohol wines are more food friendly, and he thinks that many consumers feel the same. But, he cautions, “the change might take a generation; it might take a couple of critics kicking the bucket.

Spirits run higher 

There was a time when most drinks were mixed with a little bit of liquor and a lot of something else. Vodka and tonic, for example. Rum and coke. A screwdriver. Juices and mixes provided the flavor, a shot of liquor the kick.

Nowadays, many cocktails are all alcohol. Flavored vodkas, infused spirits and potent cordials provide both the flavor and the punch.

“It’s kind of an illusion,” says Brooklyn-based drink consultant Dave Wondrich. “It isn’t that bartenders are using more alcohol in cocktails, but rather that the drinks are less diluted.

“People are getting back to the basics” when it comes to cocktails, says Greg Best, bar manager and mixologist for Restaurant Eugene and Holeman and Finch Public House in Atlanta. During the so-called “club years” in the 1980s, customers drank elaborate juice-based drinks sweetened with sugary liqueurs, explains Best. “Now drinks might be a little stronger, without the mixers, but the quantities are reduced. So, it’s about the same amount of alcohol in a drink.

Instead of using the large, 6- to 8-ounce martini glasses, the top cocktail bars are using 5-ounce glasses, says Wondrich. “The drinks are more concentrated, so that on an ounce-by-ounce basis, they might be stronger, but it’s the same or even less alcohol in a drink.

What’s at work here, on the consumer side, is a more sophisticated palate. Many cocktail customers are young, still defining their tastes—and in quest of novelty and strong taste sensations. Hence the ever-evolving line up of flavored vodkas, from black pepper and coconut to blood orange and roses. And the popularity of cordials such as De Kuyper’s Sour Apple Pucker, Pama Pomegranate and St. Germain Elderflower Liqueur.

“It’s a sophistication thing,” says Wondrich. “Drinkers want more concentrated flavor.”

Another reason is that bartenders and customers alike are looking to history for inspiration, to another heyday of the cocktail—the pre-Prohibition period. The classic and high-proof drinks of that jazzy era—the Sidecar, the Daisy, the Moscow Mule, the Crusta—are all making comebacks.

“We’re getting back to the classic era of cocktails,” says Best, whose list at Restaurant Eugene includes standards like the Bobby Burns and the Negroni.

“Pre-Prohibition is the benchmark. Good bartenders have drawn inspiration from the way it used to be done,” says Wondrich, whose book, “Imbibe!,” elucidates that colorful cocktail era.

What about the trend towards higher proof bottled spirits increasingly seen on retailers’ shelves and restaurant backbars over the past few years? The “single-barrel” bourbons and “cask-strength” Scotches bottled at 110, 120 and even higher proofs? The “super premium” versions of popular vodka and gin labels that boast higher proofs than their 80 proof cousins? And what of the recent popularity of the notorious absinthe, among whose infamous qualities was alcohol levels of 60 percent and higher?

“There is a genre of spirits maximizing the alcohol level,” says Best, adding that he sees this largely as a marketing tactic. For example, whiskey has traditionally been bottled at cask strength, and those words on the bottle and in ad copy emphasize that tradition. As for vodka, “The entire category is about marketing—the flashiest label and X number of distillations—any conceivable point of differentiation. It’s the same thing with higher alcohol levels.

“The producers can charge more for a higher-proof bottle,” points out Wondrich, who concedes there is a limited demand for such potent spirits.

Will the trend towards more alcohol in drinks continue?

“I think it will hit a wall,” predicts Best, who notes that consumers are becoming more concerned about what they’re eating and drinking. “The ‘kick’ has never been that important because cocktails are about balance and approachability.

“Like all trends, people will eventually move on,” opines Wondrich. But that doesn’t mean that the classic cocktails will disappear. “The bar has been raised quite a bit, and once you’ve tasted a good cocktail, you can’t go back.

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