Opinion: Coronavirus Tests Resolve Of Kentucky Bourbon Way Of Life

What a difference a month makes.

On Feb. 12, the Kentucky Distillers Association (KDA) announced that its Kentucky Bourbon Trail (KBT) attracted a record 1.7 million visits in 2019. When combined with total visits to Buffalo Trace and Barton 1792 Distillery (neither belongs to the KDA), the total surpassed 2 million. It was a milestone worthy of toasting, especially in the KBT’s 21st year.

Unfortunately, the party ended on March 12 when most Kentucky distillers announced that the spreading coronavirus had forced them to close their tourism experiences temporarily. Decades of hard work and mega-investment in those attractions are now idled until it’s safe for groups to commingle again.

Four Roses (image via Four Roses)

Despite the pain and economic impact those closures caused, they were unavoidable. COVID-19 can’t harm whiskey made in those distilleries, but it’s potential lethality to the people making it meant locking out visitors. Keeping distilling crews healthy means whiskey will continue to be made 24-7.

And yet, things only got worse. Days later, Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear ordered all the state’s restaurants and bars closed for dine-in service (food pick-up and delivery remains available for the time being). Though spirits sales at retailers make up roughly 80 percent of most distilleries’ total sales, losing 20 percent of sales due to bar and restaurant inactivity will have a profound impact on spirits makers. I’d imagine trade tariffs will seem cheap by comparison.

A pall over the Bluegrass

Distillery and restaurant closures merely darkened many Kentuckians’ moods. Cancelling college basketball tournaments in this hoops-hysterical state is akin to cancelling Christmas. Recent March weather has been a downer also. As I write this, it’s the 79th day of the year, and in Louisville, 47 of those have been cloudy, 25 partly cloudy and just nine have been clear. Since January, an often-heard sarcastic greeting has been, “Welcome to London!” I’ve never suffered from seasonal affective disorder, but 2020 has provided some unwelcome insight into the condition.

Woodford Reserve (image via Brown-Forman)

Still, as Irish luck would have it, one of this year’s nine sunny days was St. Patrick’s Day. On that golden afternoon, many left homes where they’d been holed up for days and walked to a spacious park near me. Most practiced appropriate social distancing, but predictably, their dogs didn’t. My favorite sighting of the afternoon was a trio perched at a picnic table making Manhattans. Drinking alcohol in Louisville parks is a no-no, and placing those bottles in full view was brazen and risky. Yet I’d bet if any police officers saw the perpetrators in action, they let it slide given these crazy times.

It’s been said that when times are good, people drink, and that when times are bad, they drink more. Social media showed many doing just that since the coronavirus scare really took hold. There was no shortage of posts by people claiming to sanitize their interiors by drinking whiskey and sanitizing their exteriors with homemade concoctions of aloe vera and pure-grain alcohol. It reminded me of a dandy Homer Simpson toast: “To alcohol: the cause of and solution to all of life’s problems!”

News reports centered on liquor retailers’ soaring sales amid the crisis. One multi-unit retailer said he was on a hiring bonanza at every position. Another local chain said it was in desperate need of delivery drivers, which was interesting. Until now, I’ve viewed liquor delivery as an unnecessary novelty. But as more businesses are idled and more people stay home to avoid coronavirus, I’m confident drinkers will gain a new appreciation for booze dropped safely at their doors.

Wild Turkey (image via Wild Turkey)

Back to the news: Wine & Spirits Daily reported on March 18 that actual dollar sales of spirits in retail stores were up 5 percent over the comparable period last year. Predictably, those sales will accelerate the longer we wait for a cure.

Of course, the sudden decline in spirits sales to restaurants and bars is troubling. Forecasters predict sales to those businesses will plunge by 75 percent this month. Not only will that decline hurt distillery profits, the loss of profitable alcohol sales for even short periods could spell doom for undercapitalized restaurants and bars.

Rabbit Hole (Image via Rabbit Hole)

While these are times that try humans’ souls, they also test our smarts, forcing us to think about balancing cash on hand with compassion for others in dire financial straits. History shows our country, its people and our economy are all amazingly resilient, so there’s hope for a bounce-back. At least that’s what my financial planner tells me.

The only thing he can’t tell me is when that’ll happen, when this dreadful virus will succumb to a cure, and when our sputtering economy will rev back to life. For now, we remain in the bunker, waiting and, of course, drinking. Be smart about that last one, and keep washing those hands!


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