Opinion: Alcohol Has Shifted From Sin To Essential To ‘Essintial’

What a difference a century makes.

In 1920, the Volstead Act outlawed the production and sale of beverage alcohol in the United States.

In March of 2020, however, the places that sell your favorite adult tipples are deemed essential in the same country (minus a few states). From sinful to essential in just 100 years.

How did that happen and so amazingly fast? Who gave those governors and mayors the magic wands required to abracadabra away decades of lock-tight restrictions on alcohol sales? Other than the sale of pharmaceuticals, no consumer good I can think of is policed as tightly as beverage alcohol. And yet it happened, practically before anyone noticed it.

Maybe I missed it, but I don’t recall seeing a single news report announcing that, of the myriad businesses in the U.S. that would be locked down during the coronavirus crisis, liquor stores would stay open. They just, well, were suddenly never even on the closure list! And (nearly) all the people cheered the decision.

At about the same time, restaurants and bars in many states got a pass to sell not just packaged alcohol, but cocktail kits. At one moment, one of Louisville, Ky.’s best and priciest restaurants was selling a 12-portion gold rush cocktail kit for the amazingly low price of $30. In the next, Bill Thomas, owner of the Jack Rose Dining Saloon in Washington, D.C., is telling CBS News how he’s selling one of the greatest whiskey collections in the country to help employees through the shutdown.

We are all enjoying more whiskey at home right now (image via KDA)

This be freaky stuff, y’all!

So why, after enduring Prohibition—and, as some are writing about lately, facing strengthening undercurrents of neo-Prohibition—is beverage alcohol so essential to our nation’s well-being amid a catastrophic health crisis of all things? How did the perception of an intoxicant cursed for years transform from sinful into essential?

I submit that while on lockdown, it’s become a weird hybrid of both: alcohol is now “essintial,” i.e. taxed as sinful yet now polished to a stunning sheen and regarded as essential. Here’s why I think it happened:

Alcohol is “essintial” because, without it, some alcoholics might go into withdrawals. That’s what some are saying in news stories I’ve read. But does anyone other than me see the irony in that? It sends this message: “Booze is what’s killing you, but it’s also what’ll keep you alive and out of hospitals needed for coronavirus sufferers. We think it’s better you stay at home drunk and not go to the hospital with delirium tremens.” (Got a forehead-slap emoji I could use here?)

Alcohol is “essintial” because it generates major tax revenues. Finally, we’re in full-transparency territory. Politicians are thinking, “Revenue is plunging, so we need all the tax dollars we can get. Keep the liquor flowing out and the sales tax pouring in and everyone will be happy!” You see, some consider consuming alcohol the root of sinful behavior, buuuuuut, if it keeps the streetlights on and unemployment coffers somewhat replenished, it’s OK.

Alcohol is “essintial” because people like it. Now we’re talking! The gubmint knows people like it and that life would be noticeably less enjoyable without it. None of us needs alcohol, but we don’t need cable TV either. That rational people choose to use both for moments of pleasure doesn’t surprise anyone. Heaven knows, we all need some fun about now. Just remember, binging on the former is way worse than binging on the latter.

Here’s where I predict things will get really weird: the day city and state officials tell restaurateurs and bars that it’s back to good ol’ liquor law and order, that the end of selling bottles and cocktail packages is here. Again, since I’ve seen no rewritten laws detailing how the real restrictions were relaxed, how are they going to roll up the vague “sell responsibly, please!” guidelines? How, I wonder, will they pour that genie back into the bottle? Will restaurateurs and bar owners say, “OK, thanks, that was fun while it lasted” and toe the line from thereon, or will they continue such sales out the back door? And will it all happen when restaurants and bars are allowed to re-open with new social distancing and sanitation guidelines? For now, no one knows, but you can bet it’ll be interesting.

It’ll also be interesting to see the early second quarter sales numbers for alcoholic beverage producers. Will the great “pantry stocking” of those beverages really end in late April or mid-May as predicted? Or will sales trends remain strong as depletions at home outpace prior quarters? Wine makers, already loathing 2020 due to last year’s bumper crop and supply glut, are making grim forecasts for upcoming the months, but beer producers seem at least modestly happy to have experienced no significant sales declines.

So far, spirits producers have largely kept quiet. Clearly, sales at restaurants and bars are way down, and while the majority of spirits are sold by retailers, industry watchers are skeptical that sales spikes in March and April will offset those declines.

Are makers of aged whiskeys actually a little excited to keep the stills running at full capacity and play a little catch up for a change? And with zero traffic on the Kentucky Bourbon Trail, perhaps a reduction in tourism could make life easier for these companies, which were never designed with tourism in mind? Those are questions I’ll ask soon. Right now they’re too busy making hand sanitizer.

At the very least it makes life a bit sadder. The Trail enjoyed record traffic last year, and distillers were poised for even better numbers in 2020. Bourbon tourism is huge in my state, and there’s no denying that lost revenue will significantly and negatively impact Kentucky retailers, hoteliers, restaurateurs and the people who staff those businesses.

So, do your share to help the Bluegrass State and keep drinking—responsibly, of course.


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