Empty Nesters have more time and disposable income to enjoy themselves after the kids are gone. Couple that wilth the fact that over the next 10 years, 4 million young adults will be turning age 21 every year, and it’s no wonder that the social entertaining side of the food business is exploding, with the alcoholic beverage segment leading the way.

With Baby Boomers’ preference for wine and mixed drinks, and some young adults switching from beer to trendy cocktails and "new age" alcoholic drinks, wine and spirits are playing an ever more important role in the $160-billion liquor industry. According to ACNielsen, dollar sales of table wine grew 8.8% for the year ending 6/17/06, spirits 4.4%, and beer 2.0% (2.9, 1.4, and 0.5% in volume, respectively). VinExpo/IWSR projects that wine sales in the United States will climb 18% to $23 billion by 2010.

Americans are not only drinking more but also drinking higher-end products. According to VinExpo, sales of wines costing $5–10 a bottle are projected to rise 9% through 2010; those costing $5 or less (currently three-quarters of total volume) 2.4%. Olive Garden is offering "food & wine pairings," and P.F. Chang’s has upgraded its wine offerings.

The Distilled Spirits Council of the U.S. reports that among spirit-pricing categories—value, premium, high-end premium, and super-premium—the highest-priced segment enjoyed the strongest growth in 2006, up nearly 19%. Irish whiskey (up 29%) and single-malt Scotch whisky (up more than 15%) had the highest gains, reportedly cutting into beer sales.

New flavors are also driving growth. ACNielsen reports that flavored spirit sales rose 12% for Y/E 7/29/06; unflavored 4.7%. New wine varietals are enjoying brisk sales, with Pinot Noir up 40%, Pinot Grigio 24%, Riesling 22%, and Fume/Sauvignon Blanc 11%.

U.S. sales of "malternatives"—alternatives to beer—and "new age" drinks—often fruit flavored, all-natural, or containing unique ingredients such as taurine or ginseng—reached $396 million for Y/E 9/26/06. Organic wines, sugar-free mixers like Baja Bob’s Crazy Caribe Piña Colada, upscale kits like Nantucket Off Shore’s Simple Apple Martini, and flavored "glass rimmers" are other hot categories.

Convenience is also key. According to ACNielsen, sales of prepared cocktails jumped 14% for Y/E 7/29/06, the single-serve alcoholic segment grew at double-digit rates, and sales of screw-top wines jumped 51% (now 3% of the U.S. market for 750-mL wine.

Although sales are flat in traditional channels, the $82-billion beer industry still dominates foodservice. According to the 2006 Adams Beer Handbook, beer represents 50% of all dollar on-premise alcoholic beverage sales, spirits 36%, and wine 14%, and 37% of adults are regular beer drinkers.

At the same time, the "party" trend is sending sales of bar foods and in-home companion cocktail products soaring. NPD reports that 29% of visits to casual restaurants by Gen Yers (age 18–29) in 2006 were to their bar and grill. The National Restaurant Association reports bar and tavern revenue up 3.2%.

Watch for more upscale and healthier bar morsels. T.G.I Friday’s touts Crispy Green Bean Fries and Parmesan-Crusted Sicilian Quesadillas. Bennegan’s Grill & Tavern added Broccoli Bites.

Expect high-end pates, terrines, and specialty cheese/biscuit samplers, upscale flavored bar nuts, gourmet dips such as Tassos Epicurean Cuisine’s Smoked Trout Spread, and classic puff pastry hors d’oeuvre such as Good Wives Mushroom Profiteroles and Crab Puff Pastries to grab older drinkers’ attention.

John Wm. Macy’s Cheese-Sticks, American Vintage Wine Biscuits in various wine flavors, and Good Health Natural Foods’ Solea Olive Oil Potato Chips are other innovative cocktail munchies.

New ethnic frozen appetizers such as TigerThai’s Shrimp & Vegetable Nests, down-home favorites like Huxtable’s Itty Bitty Burgers, and vegetarian options such as Morningstar Farms’ Mushroom Mozzarella Bites are other strong product directions.

And as consumers party on, party platters and grab-and-go party kits will be in high demand. Yankelovich reports that 57% of consumers regularly had "get-togethers," 52% cook outs, 39% holiday parties, and 26% cocktail/drink events in 2006. Rubio Mexican Grill’s Fiesta Kits "feed from 6–600." Red Lobster’s Fresh Market will deliver lobster/fresh seafood to your door. Quizno’s offers Sub Trays and Dessert Platters. And Boston Market can even cater your next formal event with china and tuxedo-clad service.

And the future looks bright. The U.S. is projected to be the wine leader by 2010, surpassing France and Italy. Vin/Expo predicts that wine volume will climb over the next four years to $117 billion and that Russia and China will be key to growth. It’s only a matter of time before the munchies follow suit!

by A. Elizabeth Sloan,
Contributing Editor 
President, Sloan Trends, Inc., Escondido, Calif. 
[email protected]