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Spurred by classy-cool shows such as Mad Men, a booming micro-distillery movement, strong marketing, and the return of classic cocktails, the U.S. appetite for top-shelf booze is soaring.
And Libbey Glass Inc. is riding high on that 80-proof wave.
“Restaurateurs don’t want to serve a really good bourbon in an ordinary bar glass,” Robert Zollweg, Libbey’s creative director, said. “When you’re spending $25 or $30 for a really expensive scotch, you’ve gotta put it in something that looks like $25. Perceived value is everything.”
That has cocktail clubs, steakhouses, and even home entertainers clamoring for better and more unique glassware.
“The trend is there,” Mr. Zollweg said. “We’re really seeing it in a big way.”
The U.S. distilled spirits market has seen incredible growth over the last decade.
According to the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States, a national trade association, sales from suppliers to wholesalers grew to $21.3 billion last year, more than 53 percent higher than in 2003.
Though all categories are growing, in general, the higher the price, the stronger the growth. Super premium brands are growing at rates that just seem silly. Bourbon and Tennessee whiskey have been especially hot.
“There is a global whiskey renaissance going on right now, there’s no doubt about that,” said Frank Coleman, a spokesman for the Distilled Spirits Council.
At Libbey, officials started noticing restaurants buying more of the company’s unusual rocks glasses about a year ago. As the company dug into its research, it zeroed in on the burgeoning whiskey market.
“The whole trend in brown whiskey — and expensive brown whiskey — is pretty phenomenal,” Mr. Zollweg said. “And it’s not an older generation that’s buying this. It’s younger people.”
At Joseph’s Beverage Center, liquor manager Chris Newton is seeing more younger people buying more whiskey. But instead of cheap rotgut to mix with a soft drink, they're buying the finer stuff.
“It used to be, say anywhere from $20 to $40 [a bottle],” he said. “Now you've got a lot of people looking in the $40 up to $120 range.”
Many people buying scotches are quite willing to spend $150 to $300 a bottle, Mr. Newton said.
“There’s a lot of new distilleries, and they’re coming out with new bourbons, new scotches. Everybody wants to try it, especially when they see it rated in bourbon magazines or online,” he said.
Libbey’s research shows many of those drinkers are between the ages of 25 and 40, and they want to sip a better whiskey from a better glass. The company hopes to take advantage of the trend the same way it has with the craft-beer movement.
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“We’ve always sold beer glasses, but never to the magnitude we have the past two years. The craft-beer industry has really helped us make some of our big numbers, especially last year,” Mr. Zollweg said.
Libbey reported record sales of $825.3 million in 2012. Officials say they believe the market for specialty beer glasses will continue.
The glassmaker hopes to translate its recent success in whiskey service for food service to the retail business. Earlier this year, the company quietly announced a new line of six styles of glasses designed for serving brown liquors.
Called the Perfect Collection, the offering will also include a companion book called Perfect Whiskey, with trivia, whiskey facts, information on different types and brands, and cocktail recipes. In addition to four-packs of glasses, Libbey plans to add decanters, ice buckets, serving trays, and sampling flights to the collection.
The Perfect Collection is expected to start shipping to retailers by March 1.
“We’re hoping this is big,” Mr. Zollweg said.
Also helping Libbey is the way people now shop for glassware. Consumers have shifted from buying glassware as an afterthought to specifically seeking certain items.
“Glassware used to be impulse, it was never a destination. People would be walking down an isle and they’d see glass and they’d think 'Oh, those are sort of cool,' and they’d buy them," Mr. Zollweg said.
“Today it’s totally different. The research we have done, people are planning to buy glassware,” he added.
One reason is that Libbey believes many people will want to replicate what they see in restaurants and bars in their own homes.
By putting the glasses and accessories in a specially packaged collection, the company is able to tell a story — something that can’t be underestimated as a marketing tool.
And Libbey has had success recently with its companion recipe books, particularly the one released with its Fountain Shoppe ice cream line.
“The book is kind of like a silent salesman,” said Mr. Zollweg, who also wrote the books.
The packaging for the Perfect Collection will include QR codes that direct buyers to a mobile site with more information on the glassware and whiskey in general.
Libbey officials say several big retailers are eager to get the set.
The company hopes to create a splash with the collection in March at the International Home + Housewares Show in Chicago.
Contact Tyrel Linkhorn at email@example.com or 419-724-6134.