Trump Trade Disputes Curbing Taste For American Whiskey

March 21, 2019 by Dan McCue

The Trump administration’s various trade disputes have caused a slump in American whiskey sales abroad, the Distilled Spirits Council said on Thursday.

In a new report the industry group said whiskey exports were robust in the first half of 2018, growing 28 percent to a total of $595 million.

But after the White House imposed retaliatory tariffs in June, demand for bourbon, Tennessee whiskey and rye whiskey dried up, declining 11 percent over the ensuing six months, compared to the same period in 2017.

The decline was even larger in the European Union, the industry’s biggest export market. After the tariffs went into effect, exports to the EU plunged 13.4 percent, the council said.

The widespread declines were particularly noteworthy because typically exports in the second half of the year are much higher than the first half.

Last month, at its annual economic briefing, the council had reported that the tariffs had caused American whiskey imports to decline by 8.2 percent. It said the numbers were revised for Thursday reporting after full reporting was available for the month of December.

“With the full year data in hand it is clear that the retaliatory tariffs are having a significant and growing impact on American whiskey exports, which had been a bright spot for U.S. agriculture exports,” said Chris Swonger, the council’s president and CEO.

“The damage to American whiskey exports is now accelerating, and this is collateral damage from ongoing global trade disputes,” he said.

American whiskey makers have been reeling since mid-2018, when the EU targeted American whiskey and other U.S. products in response to President Donald Trump’s decision to slap hefty tariffs on European steel and aluminum.

Whiskey makers in the U.S. also face retaliatory tariffs in Canada, Mexico, China and Turkey as a result of other trade disputes the administration is involved in.

Despite this, total U.S. spirits exports reached a record $1.8 billion, a 9.5 percent increase from $1.64 billion in 2017, but the rate of growth significantly slowed from the 14.9 percent growth recorded between 2016 to 2017.  

For the first half of 2018, total U.S. spirits exports grew 26.1 percent to a total of $881 million.  Following the imposition of the retaliatory tariffs, exports during the second half of the year declined 3 percent compared to 2017, for a total of $909 million.  In the fourth quarter alone, exports fell by 13.1 percent relative to the same period in 2017.

“These numbers are worrisome—even if some portion of the front-end growth is attributable to larger producers positioning product in foreign markets ahead of the tariffs,” Swonger said.

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