Special Report

How the Coronavirus Impacts What and How We Drink

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Among the many businesses that have been devastated by the advent of the coronavirus, one of the hardest hit has been the hospitality industry — hotels, restaurants, bars, and the like. The outplacement firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas has reported that more than 14.4 million Americans employed in these businesses are at risk of losing their jobs, either temporarily or permanently. That’s just a small part of how the coronavirus will harm the GDP and businesses in 2020.

U.S. restaurant companies and advocacy groups have asked the federal government for as much as $455 billion in aid to help get them through the worst weeks or months of the pandemic. This will help bartenders and other bar employees as well as food-service personnel, and organizations like the United States Bartenders’ Guild are raising money to help those who serve us our drinks.

Meanwhile, four organizations representing the liquor business, including the industry-wide Distilled Spirits Council, are seeking an aid package, including tax relief and no- or low-interest loans, from Congress to aid distilleries and those in the supply chain (like farmers, bottle manufacturers, truckers, etc.) whose livelihoods are imperiled.

Consumers of wine, beer, and/or spirits are affected in various ways by all the recent changes in the way their favorite beverages are produced, promoted, and sold. In some cases — and places — it has become harder to buy alcohol (and almost impossible to enjoy it in a communal setting). In some ways, at the same time, it’s more accessible than it used to be — through delivery with food orders, for instance. (Surprisingly, wine and beer and well as food is also available from some fancy restaurants that are offering takeout and delivery during the crisis.)

Click here to see how the coronavirus impacts what and how we drink.

24/7 Tempo has consulted numerous wine, beer, and spirits trade publications and newsletters as well as general news sources to discover many of the ways in which responses to the coronavirus have (or might have) and effect on what and how we drink, either directly or by affecting those who produce or serve it.

Alcohol takeout and delivery

In many states, traditionally, if you wanted to order a six-pack or a bottle of cabernet with your food delivery, you were out of luck — and unless a restaurant had an offsale license, it wasn’t allowed to sell you a bottle of anything to take home. That’s no longer the case, at least temporarily, in many places. Among other states, Texas, California, New York, Florida, Rhode Island, Virginia, and Nebraska are permitting bars and restaurants to sell wine and beer and sometimes hard booze (including premixed cocktails; see below) to go, or to deliver them to customers. And Eater reports that Illinois is actually “encouraging” restaurants and bars to deliver alcohol. In virtually every case, those who do deliver alcohol or sell it for takeout have to sell food along with it.

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Alcohol sales increase

The alcoholic beverage delivery site Drizly reports that customers seem to be stocking up, with spending averaging 30% more than usual, with wine and liquor outpacing beer. Bloomberg quoted a liquor store owner in South San Francisco as saying that his sales rose 30% in the week before the Bay Area’s shelter-in-place decree and have quintupled since. What are people buying? A Chicago retailer told the site that people are buying better, more celebratory bottles to help deal with their enforced inactivity — but the spirits buyer at Astor Wine & Spirits in Manhattan said that consumers were mostly going for comfort and familiarity in their purchases, not “rare, outlandish unicorn bottles,” with all types of whiskey/whisky, tequila, mezcal, and vodka sellng particularly well.

Bartenders get help

Among the many Americans forced out of work by bar and restaurant closings are the nation’s bartenders. The wine and spirits industries have rallied to help support those in need. A few examples: Jameson has pledged $500,000 to the United States Bartenders’ Guild (USBG), and Diageo (Johnnie Walker, Cîroc, Ketel One, Baileys, Casamigos, Tanqueray, etc.) is ponying up $1 million. Tito’s Vodka has donated $1 million to the USBG and three other food and drink service organizations. And Fireball Whisky has organized a GoFundMe campaign called “World’s Biggest Tip Jar,” to help bartenders and other industry workers. The Distilled Spirits Council reports that its member companies overall are donating more than $8.37 million to the USBG and other industry relief organizations.

Black market?

If other states follow the lead of Alabama and Pennsylvania and close all or most of their retail liquor stores (see below), an unintended consequence might be the rise of illicit alcohol sales. At least, that’s the warning given late last week in a statement by Michelle Korsmo, president and CEO of the Wine & Spirits Wholesalers of America. It was important, she said, for state officials to keep liquor stores open so as “to not encourage bad actors to pop-up black market liquor operations.”

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Cocktails to go

It’s easy to see how closed bottles of beer and wine can be sold for takeout or added to delivery orders where the law allows. Cocktails are a bit more challenging, but some bars are figuring out how to provide them to a thirsty public anyway. The popular Please Don’t Tell (PDT) bar in Manhattan’s East Village, for instance, created a series of custom cocktails, bottled them, and sold them — adjacent to a sanitizing station — on the sidewalk outside. At the Fox Bar & Cocktail Club in Nashville, classics like Daiquiris and Negronis are sold in eight- and 16-ounce bottles for drive-up pickup. Local laws generally require that patrons buy food to go with their cocktails. The menu at Fox Bar ranges from Old Bay popcorn to charcuterie boards. At PDT, it’s just tater tots.

Distillery closings

Around the world, distilleries are closing down their visitor centers and canceling tours, though most remain open to produce their liquors (and sometimes hand sanitizer; see below). Among the major facilities temporarily out of business are those at The Macallan and Glenfiddich in Scotland, Tullamore Dew in Ireland, Jim Beam and Maker’s Mark in Kentucky, Jack Daniel’s in Tennessee, and Herradura in the Mexican state of Jalisco. Some closings might be permanent: The American Craft Spirits Association also reports that the country’s 2,000 or so small distilleries are facing a grim future, and that an estimated 67% of them will be forced to close down for good in three months’ time without government assistance.

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Distilleries make hand sanitizer

American factories may or may not be gearing up to produce face masks, ventilators, and other equipment needed to help combat the coronavirus, but some of the world’s most famous distillers are converting their facilities to make alcohol for use in hand sanitizers. Bacardi in Puerto Rico is one such operation. It is collaborating with the island’s Olein Refinery, which makes lubricants, to turn out more than 1.7 million ten-ounce bottles of disinfectant, about a third of which will be donated to local communities. Distilleries around the world belonging to Pernod Ricard, whose brands include Absolut, Martell, and Jameson, are working with other companies to supply alcohol for hand sanitizers, too. Even Texas-based Tito’s Vodka — which early in March issued a statement warning people against using their vodka as a DIY hand sanitizer (it’s 40% alcohol, not the 60% that’s effective against viruses) — has announced that it has plans to produce 24 tons of the real thing.

Festivals cancelled

The wine, beer, and spirits worlds host many festivals, competitions, and trade fairs internationally each year. At least for now, though, that should be “hosted” — as most such events have been canceled for the foreseeable future, for obvious reasons. Among those that have been postponed, sometimes indefinitely, sometimes until later in the year or even until 2021, are the Craft Brewers Conference and World Beer Cup in San Antonio, WhiskyFest in Chicago, and the Islay Festival of Malt and Music on the Scottish island of Islay. Wine festivals like northern Italy’s massive Vinitaly and smaller U.S. events from Seattle to Cincinnati to Miami have also been cancelled. In Australia, the organizers of Melbourne’s Whiskey! The Show made the decision not to cancel their event but to convert it to a virtual event, with participants receiving small samples of rye, bourbon, and other whiskies to taste at home.

Liquor store closings

Across America, some 13 jurisdictions, including states and localities, control retail sales of alcohol though state stores or designated retailers. While liquor stores remain open in most places — New York State, for instance, included “beverage stores” in its list of essential retailers when it closed non-essential ones on March 22 — two states have shut all or most of theirs down. On March 17, Alabama shuttered 78 of its approximately 250 stores and curtailing hours and limiting customers in those that stayed open. Also effective March 17, Pennsylvania closed all of its state wine and liquor stores, about 600 in all, but allowed beer purveyors to remain open. Alabama states permits curbside sales. Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf, who ordered his state’s closures, is said to be reconsidering his position. On Monday, Denver mayor Michael Hancock identified liquor stores and recreational marijuana dispensaries as non-essential, requiring them to close — but quickly reversed his decision after Denverites swarmed both kinds of outlets in the hours before the ban was to take place.

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Neo-speakeasies

By the very nature of this trend, it’s virtually impossible to give specific examples, but there are rumors of some neighborhood bars and taverns, in places that have mandated bar closings, beginning to operate as neo-speakeasies. An editorial in Beer Business Daily quoted one dive bar owner — presumably in San Antonio, where the author is located — as saying “I don’t care if they close us down, we’ll just lock the doors and let our regulars in the back door…I’m not letting my girls [staff] go.” The editorial adds “And thinking of almost every other small bar owner I know, I would expect a similar response.”

Pub closings in Ireland

Bars, taverns, and pubs all over the world have been shutting down in the face of the coronavirus, either voluntarily or responding to government mandate. No manifestation of the temporary demise of such places seemed more unlikely or more symbolic of the cultural damage COVID-19 is causing than the closing of all pubs in Ireland two days before St. Patrick’s Day, “until at least March 29.” The government took action after videos posted online of crowded pubs proved that the idea of social distancing was not being taken seriously in this most sociable of nations. A pub owners’ group said that some 7,000 pubs would be affected, putting 50,000 people out of work.

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Spoiled beer

A lot of draft beer, especially hoppy IPAs, has a shelf life of less than 90 days, so if bars and taverns are required to stay closed for too long, it’ll be a loss. One Brooklyn bar owner told the New York Public Radio site Gothamist that “Our biggest liability is draft beer…[I]f the city shuts us down stretching from weeks to months, we’ll be nearing the expiration date on some of that stuff. We’ll have to take a loss on inventory….”

Virtual happy hours

Just because people in most places can’t — and people everywhere shouldn’t — meet with their friends for cocktails or a beer in person at the moment doesn’t mean that socialized drinking is impossible. A new trend is the virtual happy hour, whereby people meet and chat and imbibe in their own homes by way of telephony apps like Skype, FaceTime, or Google Hangouts, or via the video conferencing platform Zoom. The New York Times advises would-be participants to keep groups small, dress up a little but stay comfortable, agree on drinks and food to “share,” and keep the conversation light.

Wine debuts postponed

France’s Château Latour, one of the oldest and most esteemed producers in Bordeaux, had planned to release its eagerly awaited 2012 vintage on March 18, but has postponed the wine’s debut indefinitely. The Union des Grands Crus de Bordeaux, which represents 134 top châteaux in the region, has also put a hold on its annual en primeur tastings (at which wine merchants and critics get an early look at the latest vintage while it’s still in barrels). Wine release parties in California and elsewhere have also been delayed or canceled.

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Winery closings

The governors of California, Oregon, and Washington have all issued directives calling for their states’ wineries to close down their tasting rooms. Some are still offering drive-by wine pickup or offering free or discounted delivery. Others have gone online, like St. Supéry in the Napa Valley, which sent samples of six wines to its wine club members, to be sampled and discussed at weekly virtual wine tasting events. Winemaking operations continue as usual, though with social distancing, at many properties. In Italy, not surprisingly, visitors’ centers, winery shops, and winery-associated wine bars and restaurants have all ceased operations.

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