Words & Deeds

Idaho has a new No. 1 liquor. You buying it? (And the next round?) Latest booze trends.

Toto, I have a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore.

Whoa — your name is actually Tito? Sorry. And we’re in Idaho, you say?

Man, all this vodka must be making things fuzzy.

After all, Tito’s Handmade Vodka is the new top-selling liquor in Idaho.

The Idaho State Liquor Division blew through $7,267,186 worth of Tito’s sales in fiscal year 2019, which ended June 30. That’s over $1 million more than the second-place finisher, Crown Royal Blended Canadian Whisky, last year’s top brand in dollars spent.

Founded in Austin, Texas, Tito’s became the United States’ top-selling spirits brand in 2017. As is the case in most walks of life, Idaho staggered in slightly late. Holding a vodka cran.

Tito’s Handmade Vodka has become Idaho’s new top-selling brand in dollar sales. Alexandra Wyman Invision for Kiehl's/AP Images

It isn’t just Tito’s that Gem State imbibers are pouring down their throats, according to new Liquor Division data. Idahoans actually crushed more Black Velvet Canadian Whisky — the No. 1 seller by volume.

As a state, we seem to be drinking more of, well, everything.

Total dollar sales for liquor were $230.1 million in fiscal 2019. That’s an annual growth surge of 6.9 percent — quite healthy. (Except, possibly, for our livers.)

In the Treasure Valley, that number was even larger: 8.6 percent.

“Clearly, as a whole, Idahoans are drinking more liquor,” says Tony Faraca, CFO with the Liquor Division. “But as you may have guessed, there are more Idahoans than there used to be. Our population has increased by around 40,000 to 50,000 people in the last year.”

In other words, population growth is the main reason for swelling sales numbers. The other factor, Faraca says, is a shift in taste. Beer’s loss is liquor’s gain. “The most current data I have shows that on a per capita basis, Idahoans are drinking more liquor, but that increase is offset by declines in beer consumption,” he says. “Wine is basically flat.

“Idaho follows national trends in this regard. Liquor as an industry is still growing, but beer is currently in a bit of a decline.”

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Dollar sales rankings

So which booze brands make Idahoans bust out our wallets and order a double?

Here are the state’s best-selling liquors during the past year based on dollar sales:

1. Tito’s Handmade Vodka (regular): What’s not to like about Tito’s? (OK, aside from the “handmade” marketing hooey.) “It’s $20 a bottle,” Faraca says, “and people will tell you they like it as much as Grey Goose.”

2. Crown Royal Canadian Whisky (regular): Last year’s No. 1 in sales remains massive in Idaho. “It’s Crown Royal,” Faraca says. Plus, it’s blended Canadian, a traditional favorite. “Canadians do very well here.”

3. Fireball Cinnamon Whiskey: In recent years, Fireball replaced Jagermeister as the shot of choice. “Fireball has a widespread appeal,” Faraca says. “Who doesn’t love cinnamon?”

4. Pendleton Canadian Whisky: Unlike vodka, Canadian whiskey — er, “whisky” — is less fragmented as a segment. There are fewer choices, which helps elevate two brands to this top five list. “Your Crown and your Pendleton are going to be the well-known, big-name brands for the more discerning Canadian whiskey drinker,” Faraca says.

5. Jack Daniel’s Old No. 7.: Idahoans spent nearly $5.8 million on the iconic Tennessee whiskey. The classic black label still resonates. Not to mention that sweet, smooth taste.

Shrinking bottom shelf

Liquor sales by bottle — or volume — rose 4 percent in fiscal 2019. That’s a solid gain — but it falls short of the 6.9 percent growth in dollar sales. The disparity is a national trend; consumers are buying more mid- and top-shelf product instead of the cheap stuff.

In the past year, Idahoans might have noticed there were fewer bottom-shelf vodka options at state liquor stores. The change was made because their buying habits demanded it, Faraca says.

More fancy “craft” options means less room for Grandpa’s bargain swill.

“Make no mistake,” Faraca adds. “There’s always going to be a lot of offerings on the bottom shelf. It’s still a huge category.”

Order a “BV and Coke” at a bar, and the bartender will know what you mean. Black Velvet Canadian Whisky is the biggest seller in Idaho by volume. Michael Deeds mdeeds@idahostatesman.com

Here are Idaho’s most popular liquors based on volume — total ounces sold overall — in fiscal 2019:

1. Black Velvet Blended Canadian Whisky (regular): At under $20 for a 1.75-liter bottle, “it’s priced to move,” Faraca says. “Black Velvet is a good product for the price.” Consider this: Idahoans spent nearly twice as much on Tito’s as they did Black Velvet.

2. Smirnoff Vodka (regular): Big name. Powerful marketing. Popular choice. “Smirnoff is owned by the biggest liquor supplier on the planet,” Faraca says, “... and a lot of money gets spent on keeping it on the forefront of consumers’ minds.”

3. Fireball Cinnamon Whiskey: Third place in total dollar sales and in total bottles sold? Fireball is en fuego in Idaho.

4. Tito’s Handmade Vodka (regular): “They’ve done a really good job establishing themselves as a premium brand that compares favorably to things that are priced (higher),” Faraca says.

5. Platinum 7X Vodka: It has the word “platinum” in the name, yet it’s only $21.95 for a hefty handle? And it’s distilled an “extra smooth” seven times? No wonder that blue plastic bottle is so popular.

New liquor trends

Did you notice a conspicuous absence on these sales lists? Yep: bourbon.

It’s still a gigantic seller, Faraca says. Ever notice how much space is relegated to bourbon at liquor stores? However, there are so many choices that no single brand does crazy sales numbers.

Vodka — regular, unflavored — is the most popular liquor category in Idaho, followed by Canadian whiskey. But whiskey as a whole — bourbon, Canadian, Scotch — outsells vodka, both regular and flavored combined.

Increasingly, Idahoans are purchasing their favorite boozes in cute little bottles, too.

It’s a national trend arriving in the Gem State, Faraca says.

Idaho liquor stores have created “smallie” sections for 375-milliliter bottles. Luxury brands such as Knob Creek bourbon are coming out with smallies that replicate larger 750-milliliter sizes.

“There’s an example of why we need to create (shelf) space,” Faraca says. “Customers want smaller sizes, so we need to create a whole section to accommodate them.”

On a national level, 50-milliliter bottles also are becoming more popular. You sometimes see them priced at 99 cents in other states, where liquor stores are privately owned. In Idaho, expect one to cost $1.49 or more, unless it’s a special introductory promotion.

“What we’re hearing is that millennials, especially, they’re taking small sizes to parties,” Faraca says. “Instead of taking a bottle of wine or a six pack of beer, they’re taking a handful of ‘mils’. Then they’re not going to feel terrible about leaving the rest behind. It’s more affordable.”

Geez, cheapskates. I won’t whine if you shove your airplane bottles back in your pocket when you leave my next party.

But, yo, Dorothy: Don’t touch that Tito’s.

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Michael Deeds is an entertainment reporter and columnist at the Idaho Statesman, where he also has been a sportswriter, entertainment editor and features editor. Deeds co-hosts “The Other Studio,” a one-hour music show, at 8 p.m. Sundays on 94.9 FM The River.