Alcohol delivery app Drizly says sales surged 485 percent through mid-April. And data analysis firm inMarket says light beer sales have skyrocketed, with Anheuser-Busch’s Busch Light sales experiencing a 44 increase over the past two months.
Restaurants and bars are just waking up from a long slumber, but our livers have been working overtime during the pandemic.
One category has had little uptick in sales and consumption, however. American craft distillers have seen precipitous declines in sales, worrying industry experts that many distilleries will not make it through the pandemic and economic downturn.
According to the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States and the American Distilling Institute, distilleries are experiencing significant layoffs and declines in sales.
“The narrative had been that people were buying all kinds of liquors, but we were skeptical,” said Scott Harris, co-owner of Catoctin Creek Distilling in Purcellville, Virginia, which makes its flagship Roundstone Rye, as well as gin and brandy. “The market has seismically changed.”
He said that before the pandemic the company sold 60 percent of its product to liquor stores and 40 percent to restaurants and bars. In April, Catoctin did not sell to a single restaurant or bar, he said.
“To actually see that is devastating,” he said.
People largely drink the fancy stuff, the small-production craft spirits, in restaurants and bars, leaving themselves in the expert care of mixologists. At home, people aren’t fiddling with amari and bitters so much, going heavy on handles of less-expensive familiar brands such as Jim Beam or Smirnoff.
Restaurants returned 80 cases of bespoke whiskey, bottlings that had been made specifically for them, to Catoctin Creek in early March. And sales in the tasting room, which accounted for 20 to 25 percent of revenue before the pandemic, disappeared completely.
The company had been scaling up to sell 100,000 bottles this year but Harris said they will be lucky if they can repeat last year’s sales of 60,000 bottles.
They have dramatically cut staffing in the distillery and made hand sanitizer to keep their staff occupied until the bulk ethanol and chemical denaturant – what makes hand sanitizer not drinkable – became too expensive to make it economically worthwhile.
The saving grace, Harris said, is that on April 6 Virginia allowed distilleries to ship directly to consumers. The first day it was legal the company received 80 orders. The next day 80 more.
“We’ve had to change our tasting room into a shipping room,” Harris said.
Connecticut, Maryland, Montana, New York and Oregon have also recently allowed in-state distillers to deliver directly to consumers.
Philip McDaniel, chief executive of St. Augustine Distillery, has not had that option. He said he has written to Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis to request legalizing shipping, with no response. St. Augustine is the biggest craft distillery in the state, but still small, McDaniel said, selling $7 million annually, with 50 percent of sales made up of three bourbons and the rest spread between a rum, a Florida sugar cane gin and a vodka.
He said the distributors or middlemen exert pressure on the legislature to maintain the current three-tier system whereby producers must work with distributors to bring product to retailers.
“The revenue in those direct-to-consumer sales are what you need to survive now,” McDaniel said. He explained that if a distiller can make a bottle of bourbon for $10 and sell directly to a consumer at a retail price of $40, they stand to make $30. But if the distiller must sell through a distributor, they typically only make half the retail price, bringing their take down to only $10.
He said if a craft distiller wants to make significant retail sales it has to support that in the form of a price discount or a financial investment to capture premium store display.
National brands can pay to commandeer premium placement on liquor store websites and shelves, he said, which may partially explain the rise of their sales figures during the pandemic.
Jaime Windon, who runs Windon Distilling in St. Michaels, Maryland, and is also president of the Maryland Distillers Guild, said that with many liquor stores closed to in-person shopping, the serendipity of finding something new by browsing is over, for the time being. She said craft brands might not be getting full representation on liquor stores’ websites, either.
“Liquor store owners may not be able to reach out to craft brands to say, ‘Do you have high-resolution photos?’ It’s a lot of legwork,” she said.
But she also thinks some of the dramatic dip in craft spirit sales is psychology-based.
“There’s a difference between feel-good booze and pandemic booze,” she said. “Craft distillers make lovely spirits meant for savoring and sharing with friends. If you’re unemployed or don’t know where your next paycheck is coming from, craft is perceived as a little bit of luxury.”
Windon has pivoted to direct deliveries and farmers markets, expanding from three to seven a week. She has had to lay off the majority of her staff of 15, including all of the sales force.
She is worried about what her tasting room will look like post-pandemic. With social distancing and consumer anxiety, it may not be viable.
“If my tasting room is closed, I can’t communicate with customers,” she said. “Craft distillers rely on the opportunity to really be with people. If you don’t know me and you can’t taste it, you’re not going to take a chance on it.”
The Distilled Spirits Council said many of its members reported canceling purchases of agricultural products or other inputs such as stills, bottles and barrels.
Many craft distilleries were already hurt by retaliatory tariffs in the trade wars that made American goods, including bourbon and rye whiskey, more expensive to import.
“There’s no way to sugarcoat this news – the economic climate for the craft distilling industry is dire,” said Erik Owens, president of the American Distilling Institute, which represents more than 600 independently owned craft distillers. “Thankfully, many state governments have relaxed regulations to provide distilleries some flexibility with their business models. This certainly helps, but we have a long way to go to get the once-vibrant craft distilling sector back to booming again.”