Americans Are Stocking Up on ‘Comfort Booze’

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As government officials have closed bars and restaurants over the past week in an effort to reduce population density in public spaces and help stem the spread of the Covid-19 coronavirus, sales at liquor stores and home delivery of booze has ramped up sharply.

While bartenders in a handful of states that include New York, Texas, and Maryland, plus the District of Columbia, are permitted to turn out creative cocktails for delivery or takeout, consumers at home are stocking up on familiar bottles to pour or mix.

In general, consumers haven’t changed their drinking behavior, report most delivery services and stores. Vodka, particularly Tito’s, remains the most popular spirits order—although not for hand-sanitizing purposes. That’s followed by bourbon, particularly Bulleit, as reported by both Drizly and Minibar. Other popular orders include tequila (No. 3 for Minibar, particularly Casamigos, and No. 4 for Drizly), Scotch (No.3 for Drizly), and Irish whiskey, which had a notable spike around mostly canceled St. Patrick’s Day celebrations.

“Consumers are placing larger orders,” says Liz Paquette, head of consumer insights at Drizly. The average size of orders has jumped 50%, she adds, “which indicates a stock-up mentality.”

In addition, the volume of orders has spiked rapidly. In the seven-day period, ending on March 18, Drizly sales grew at six times its average growth rate. For part of this week alone (Monday through Wednesday), sales were a whopping 10 times the average.

At Minibar, “we are currently just seeing a surge overall,” comments Chief Executive Officer and co-founder Lindsey Andrews. Trends haven’t changed, but “we are just seeing people purchase at higher volumes.”

That includes plenty of White Claw, Bud Light, and Corona—yep, thank ironic drinking of the currently most unfortunately named beer for a 5% bump in U.S. sales in the four weeks ending Feb. 16, according to Constellation Brands. Oyster Bay and Veuve Clicquot wines have also been popular. “New York is our largest market, so we are seeing a lot of demand there, as people are staying home and ordering everything for delivery.”  

The same patterns hold true at traditional retail outlets. Amid massive tumult and uncertainty, consumers are reaching for bottles they find comforting and familiar, says Nima Ansari, spirits buyer at Manhattan’s Astor Wines & Spirits.

“Right now, people are focused on staples—things they know and feel comfortable with,” Ansari says, mirroring a trend seen in grocery stores. While some may take this moment to live it up as if it’s their last, for most, “It’s not the time for them to buy rare, outlandish unicorn bottles,” says Ansari, who also reports that whiskey across all categories is selling briskly, alongside tequila and mezcal; vodka has particularly enjoyed an ascent over the past couple of weeks.

In addition, liqueurs such as Campari and other amaro and specialty items such as Mr. Black Coffee Liqueur are strong sellers, with each category earmarked for cocktail-making. “People are making simple cocktails at home,” he notes. “It’s partly because they’re not going out to bars and restaurants and partly because they have more time and want to entertain themselves a little.”

Joe Barwin, owner of Bitters & Bottles in South San Francisco, notes that in-store sales spiked 30% in the week before the Bay Area’s shelter-in-place order was issued on Monday. Since then, the store’s local delivery volume has quintupled.

“Usually, our customers are very excited to explore new items. Right now though, we’re seeing more folks pick up their favorite comfort bottles,” Barwin says. “With so much uncertainty, I think the idea of a sure thing is very appealing.” Typically, 85% of the store’s sales are made up of whiskey, rum, gin, and cocktail ingredients; so far, nothing much has changed.

Yet, if you dive beneath the top-selling categories, the trends are shifting slightly.

Drizly’s Paquette notes that one of the biggest surprises has been 50% growth for gin, mezcal, and a “bulk category” that includes liqueurs, cordials, and schnapps. Is it possible that furloughed bartenders are behind that trend?

When asked what bottle or cocktail they can’t do without at home during the age of quarantine, bartenders offered wide-ranging answers: Undercote’s Sondre Kasin tagged the Negroni and Gin and tonic as “the two perfect, all-around cocktails.” Jose Medina-Camacho of Birmingham’s the Little Donkey opted for a 50/50 martini made with Plymouth Gin, Dolin Dry vermouth, and a lemon twist. Sarah Morrissey of Ernesto’s opts for agave: Palomas (with Pellegrino pompelmo and tequila), plus “shots of mezcal.”

Despite the play toward comfort bottles and avoiding those unicorns, at one shop, at least, the customers know how to live it up.

“People here are buying better, more celebratory purchases to cope with their inactivity,” says Gene Charness, proprietor of Chicago’s Warehouse Liquors.

Those purchases span “mostly brown goods”: all sorts of whiskies, including Scotch and bourbon, and brandies such as Cognac and Armagnac. And possibly, the occasional unicorn.

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