For a nation supposed to have an alcohol problem, Britain's drinkers are not exactly going overboard at the checkouts. Only two of our top 10 drinks categories - cider and sparkling wine - saw any growth worth celebrating in 2006. With inflation running at around 3 per cent, anything less than a 4 per cent value increase is effectively a standstill at best.
But it is so much worse than that for categories such as Scotch, or RTDs, or cream liqueurs, where the decline is flagged up by real, inescapable minus figures. There is widespread alarm - justifiably - in the wine trade at the spectre of a measly 2 per cent value increase and static off-trade volumes. How much more depressing it must be to be a shipper or a retailer of sherry.
Let's look for a few positives. Well, vodka is marching slowly but relentlessly towards the number one spot in the spirits league, with a performance that wasn't exactly spectacular, but respectable enough given market conditions. Value is keeping pace with volume, thanks to a bit of a ceasefire in the spirits price war, and with its 3 per cent growth corresponding with Scotch's 3 per cent decline, the gap between the two heavyweights is narrowing all the time.
Cider is the big success story and one that has been widely attributed to the runaway success of Magners. That's a little unfair on Scottish & Newcastle, which has repaired some of the damage done to the Bulmers brands through reckless discounting, and deserves some of the credit.
Cynics wonder exactly how much further the cider revival has to travel, or whether the category isn't merely correcting its natural position after years of mismanagement. Either way, it's doubtful that 2007 will be the year in which the wheels fall off the cider bandwagon, with more marketing support in the pipeline and new brands - not all of them Magners lookalikes - in development.
Speciality drinks - that weird hotchpotch grouping of drinks with little in common except that they don't fit under any other heading - had a happy time of it, thanks to some more imaginative retailing and growing consumer interest in cocktails. Imported whiskey also kept its head above water, and will have won admirers for achieving a 4 per cent increase
in cash spend despite not shifting any
extra cases in 2006 compared to 2005.
Sparkling wine - the "anything but Champagne" category - has done rather better than its bigger brother. Britain has developed quite a taste for fizz in recent years, and what was a once-a-year habit for some is now almost a weekly treat. Champagne consumption in Britain is probably at record levels, but at present the growth is coming from the on-trade. In the take-home market things have gone, erm, flat. Champagne is a lot more affordable that it used to be, thanks to promotional mechanisms and some own-label wines of varying merit. But consumers with a newly-discovered habit for sparkling wine are often happy enough with a cava or New World sparkler, and if they can save a few quid into the bargain they're doubly content.
Lager marched along with inflation, which might have been acceptable had volumes not gone up by 4 per cent - meaning consumers were getting more for their money. Reality is finally catching up with stout, after years of punching well above its weight thanks to some award-winning Guinness marketing. As for ale, a zero per cent sales increase almost seems worth celebrating given the long-term troubles the category faces. A 1 per cent increase in volumes defies the critics who claim the category is unappealing to consumers, and may have something to do with the premium bottled ales that are compensating for some of the declines in the big canned brands.
Why has it been such a difficult year for take-home drinks? Council tax and utility bills have a lot to do with it, and there is also a feeling that people who have grown accustomed to a nightly tipple are perhaps restricting their intake to weekends for health reasons. Gym membership, as we know, is booming.
But let's not forget that most categories are in a mature phase of their life cycle. Can growth continue forever, or is there a natural ceiling? There are no certain answers - just the conclusion that drinks retailers are going to have to work even harder this year.
Top 10 drinks categories
Category Sales £m % Value change
%Volume change Offs split
1 Light wine 4,329m +2 +0 60%
2 Lager 2,711m +3 +4 25%
3 Blended Scotch 740m -3 -3 66%
4 Vodka 649m +3 +3 36%
5 Ale 444m +0 +1 10%
Cider 421m +22 +15 29%
7 Champagne 311m +3 +0 52%
8 Gin 249m -1 -2 47%
Sparkling wine 244m +9 +7 65%
10 RTDs 221m -12 -13 28%
11 French Grape Brandy 150m -2 -2 86%
12 Cream liqueurs 123m -10 -15 56%
13 Malt whisky 123m -3 -2 68%
14 Specialities 122m +6 +16 28%
15 White rum 120m -2 -2 33%
16 Stout 116m -3 -2 11%
17 Imported whiskey 104m +4 +0 24%
18 Sherry 96m -8 -8 79%
19 Perry 81m +2 +1 95%
20 Cognac 80m +2 +4
Nielsen MAT to Dec 30 2006, GB off-trade