By Roberto A. Ferdman
The Washington Post
America's consumption of alcohol is low compared with that in other countries, but certain U.S. states still seem quite parched.
No state handles its alcohol quite like New Hampshire, according to per capita consumption data shared by the Beer Institute. The New England state guzzles more per person -- 40.8 gallons per year -- than any other state, according to the Beer Institute's estimates. Next in line are North Dakota, Montana, Nevada and Vermont, which consume about 35, 34, 33 and 32 gallons per person, per year, respectively.
Part of New Hampshire's distinction could be the result of cross-border sales -- there is no sales tax there, after all, and the state's alcohol commission believes that as much as half of its alcohol sales are to residents of neighboring states. But the per capita estimates are meant to account, at least in part, for that quirk, meaning that while the nearly 41-gallon number might be somewhat inflated, it's unlikely off by the five gallons of alcohol that separate New Hampshire from the second-biggest guzzler, North Dakota.
Of all the states, Utah is by far the least enamored of alcohol, throwing back just 14 gallons per person per year. Next in line are New York and Kentucky, which consume 21 and 19.5 gallons, respectively.
On a booze-by-booze level, however, the story is a bit different. When it comes to beer, no state holds a candle to North Dakota. By the Beer Institute's estimates, North Dakotans drink about more than a pint per day -- the most of any state in the country.
But no state drinks more wine per capita than the nation's capital. And it's not particularly close, either. Residents of the District of Columbia drink more than half a glass of wine per day on average, or roughly 25 percent more than any state -- though comparisons between an urban city and entire states are statistically questionable. Next are New Hampshire, which is responsible for just over 0.42 glasses per person per day, Massachusetts, which comes in just under 0.35 glasses, and Vermont, at 0.34 glasses. Last are West Virginia, Mississippi and Utah, which drink a paltry 0.08, 0.07 and 0.06 glasses per person, per day, respectively.
New Hampshire is America's biggest fan of hard alcohol. The northeastern state is the only one that consumes more than a shot of hard alcohol per person, per day (its figure tops 1.22 shots, for good measure). Delaware is second, at 0.98 shots; the District of Columbia is third, at 0.95; and North Dakota is fourth, at 0.83. At the bottom of the list are West Virginia, Utah and North Carolina, which drink 0.38, 0.32 and 0.29 shots per person, per day.
Before people -- even those living in New Hampshire -- pound their chests, it's worth noting that Americans aren't all that hard-alcohol-obsessed, not globally speaking, anyway. The United States is 10th internationally in that regard. South Koreans drink four times as much liquor as Americans, according to estimates by market-research firm Euromonitor International; Russians drink roughly twice as much.
In fact, a step back from state-by-state preferences shows a few overarching -- and rather underwhelming -- trends in America's alcohol consumption countrywide. Per capita expenditure on alcohol, for one, isn't anywhere near historical highs. At just over 12 percent of the average household's food budget, it's currently much lower than it was in the 1970s, when it was nearer to 17 percent, and the early 1900s, when it was approaching 20 percent.
There's reason to believe that downward trend will only continue; per capita expenditure on alcohol is slated to shrink even further in the next five years, according to estimates by market-research firm IBISWorld. Much of that is the result of a shift away from certain spirits. While vodka might be America's favorite hard alcohol, demand for it is falling. Last year, vodka sales increased only 1 percent.
But America's taste for alcohol isn't dissipating so much as changing. "All the momentum is shifting to craft beer and whiskies," said Spiros Malandrakis, an industry analyst at Euromonitor International. Wine culture, while changing to embrace an increasingly younger audience, is also expanding. "Wine sales fell during the recession, but they're on its way up again."
Some of that shift appears to be sustainable. Sales of bourbon and Irish whiskey are not only growing in the double digits but also becoming increasingly premium. That should continue. "If I had to pick a specific spirit going forward, I would probably say bourbon," Malandrakis said.
But craft brews are probably hitting their peak around now, according to analysts. The craft-beer boom, which has seen the number of breweries in the United States skyrocket from fewer than 700 in the late 1990s to more than 3,000 today, according to the Beer Institute, could be growing too fast for its own good.
"While we're not there yet, we're definitely approaching bubble territory," Malandrakis said. "There can't be a massive craft brewer. That's just an oxymoron. The moment a craft brewer makes beer on a mass scale, it's no longer a craft brewer."
Still, the current trends in American alcohol consumption are little more than that -- momentary fads. Which beers, wines and spirits we drink may last a generation, but rarely do they span more than that. "Alcohol consumption is cyclical by nature," Malandrakis said. "Believe it or not, we tend to drink what our grandparents drank, not what our parents drank."