Premium bottled ale needs to innovate to avoid meeting the same fate as the tanking blended Scotch whisky category, according to a leading buyer.

Blends used to make up 23% of spirits sales at Booths, but that has now dwindled to between 7% and 8% , with gin soaring in its stead.

Ale accounts for more than 40% of beer sales at the northern retailer, but the overall PBA category has started to lose sales in the UK.

Booths buyer Peter Newton told DRN: “It’s maturing and the brewers of that style of beer have to innovate, otherwise PBAs will become the next blended whisky. There are a lot of similarities.”

Gin has been the runaway success story for Booths this year. “We are up 39% in gin sales, on the back of 40% growth last year,” said Newton. “Gin is in growth of 38% overall in the UK, so we are just ahead, but it’s immense for us. Forty per cent of our sales are through gin. 

“We have natural growth with the classic styles, but it’s very much [driven by] local gin and flavoured gin.

“We sell some major brands, but the emphasis on Gordon’s is a lot less than it used to be. The market is going towards local and craft products.

“Our local ales have always performed very well. In the spirits category there were not many products we could call local, but that has all changed now. The next phase will be whisky. We will start to see single malts in the regions we trade in. Malt whisky will keep the category strong in the next few years. There’s a lot of talk about rum, but I’m not sure how big it will be.”

Newton believes that when gin finally stops enjoying double-digit annual growth, the overall category will have shifted and the supplier base will have changed, with the big brands weakened. 

“It’s a bit like lager and craft beer,” he said. “You need to keep new breweries and beers coming in. Fatigue kicks in a lot sooner in craft than traditional ales. Craft has stolen market share from lager and ale.

“This year our lager range has grown through German and Czech lager, and craft has just slowed a little bit. We are ahead of the market by two years and it’s still 10% of our sales.”

Booths has also had success with selling its wine via Amazon. “We are always being asked when we are going to build a Booths down south, and we have no plans for that, but this allows us to get the range out to the whole country,” said wine buyer Victoria Anderson. 

“We have won a lot of awards this year for Booths branded wine and it’s a great opportunity for us to showcase it to people outside of our northern heartland. A lot of northerners also live down south and when they crave that homeliness they can get that now.”

Booths has overhauled its wine range ahead of the Christmas trading period and brought out a number of new additions from Chile, Argentina, Italy and Greece.

“Our customer base can be fairly experimental and it’s nice to be able to engage with them on that level,” said Anderson.