Hangover: U.S. Whiskey Exports Plunge As Trade War Deepens

American whiskey exports faced a severe hangover in the second half of 2018, taking a dangerous hit from retaliatory tariffs by top trading partners following President Donald Trump’s duties on steel and aluminum imports, a trade group announced Thursday.

The first shot in President Trump's trade war against trading partners was fired off in May 2018. Hefty tariffs were slapped on aluminum and steel imports from the European Union, Mexico, and Canada. Steel imports from those places were taxed at 25% and aluminum imports at 10%. Those were large numbers that had a retaliatory effect on American liquor exports to those regions.

Exports of bourbon, whiskey, and rye whiskey plunged by 11% in the back half of 2018 compared to the prior-year six-month period as the true impact from the trade war started to filter through, the Distilled Spirits Council said.

Last month, at the Annual Economic Briefing, the council revealed that American whiskey exports fell by 8.2% between July and November as compared to the same period in 2017. But for some strange reason, the council excluded all trade data from 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 Council President and CEO Chris Swonger. “The damage to American Whiskey exports is now accelerating, and this is collateral damage from ongoing global trade disputes.”

Export data has reinforced concerns among whiskey producers that President Trump's trade war would severely damage the export segment of their companies.

And they were right. European Union, American whiskey exports collapsed by 13.4% in the second half of 2018 when tariffs stalled shipments, the council said.

The European Union accounts for 60% of total American whiskey exports in 2018. The United Kingdom, Spain, Germany, and France are top export regions for American spirits.

Whiskey exports to the European Union jumped by 33% in the first half of 2018, largely due to stockpiling of whiskey supplies by American distillers to get ahead of tariffs.

Despite turmoil in the second half of 2018, American whiskey exports increased by 5.1% overall last year, to a record $1.18 billion. This was due to a 28% jump in whiskey exports in the first six months of the year. Overall, last year's increase was down significantly from the annual growth rate of 16% in 2017. 

With the council's 2019 outlook projecting more turbulence, it seems that the industry is in the beginning innings of a crisis. Expect the next round of data from the council to be much worse.