(Amy Cavenaile/The Washington Post; iStock)

If it seems like everyone at the bar these days is trading in beer for bourbon, it's not just in your imagination.

In 2015, hard liquor continued its decade-long onslaught against the supremacy of beer, according to numbers released this month from the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States. For the sixth straight year, distilled spirits' market share rose while beer's declined. Beer now accounts for less than half of the total U.S. alcohol market, down from 56 percent in 1999. Liquor's share, meanwhile, has risen from 28 percent to 35 percent of the market over the same period.


Wine sales are almost flat.

Since these numbers come from a trade group representing distilleries, you might view the overall narrative with some skepticism. For instance, we know that craft beer production is exploding. The Brewer's Association points out that the number of American breweries is approaching all-time highs, closing in on 4,000 last year.

But if people are drinking many more kinds of beer, they're not drinking more of it overall. Per-capita consumption of Budweiser, for instance, has dropped by nearly half since 2005. Some of that consumption is going to smaller craft beers, but some of it is shifting toward hard liquor, too.

The official domestic alcohol production numbers from the U.S. government tell an even more striking tale. Below, I've charted the percent change in domestic beer, wine and spirits production since 2003. Anything stand out?


 

In 2015, spirits production was up 70 percent since 2003 levels, a healthy amount of growth. Wine production is up 31 percent. But total domestic beer production is down 4 percent.

There are a lot of factors driving these trends. It appears that the shift from bland mass-market beers to craft brews has been great for smaller breweries, but detrimental to the bigger brewing companies.

You also can't overlook the impact of "Mad Men" on Americans' drinking preferences. The spike in liquor production largely mirrors the trajectory of the AMC show featuring glamorous, hard-drinking ad men which ran from 2007 to 2015.

AMC

Part of the reason so many Americans drank so much bland beer for so many years has to do with public health campaigns — as the prohibitionist movement gained steam in the late 1800s, drinking light, watery beer was seen as the responsible thing to do.

Those attitudes persisted for a long time, but we seem to be finally shaking that prohibition-era beer hangover. But could our new-found love for strong booze come with potentially harmful public health consequences?

It's tough to say for sure. One data point does seem salient. In 2007, as the American liquor giant began to stir, there were 13,041 alcohol-involved automobile fatalities, according to the Department of Transportation. But by 2014, with the liquor boom in full swing, the number of drunk driving deaths fell to 9,967.

So if Americans are enjoying stiffer drinks these days, it appears they're doing so responsibly.

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story used incorrect data on liquor production. It has been updated to reflect the production of five major liquors: whiskey, brandy, rum, gin and vodka.

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