Opinion: Trends Be Damned, Drinking Is More Fun In Public

, | October 9, 2020

In case you haven’t noticed, COVID-19 has changed your drinking routines. Possibly forever. Since quarantining began in March, few of us have returned to our preferred public drinking cycles of hitting our favorite dives for a whiskey on the rocks, dropping a wad of cash at a craft cocktail bar or attending a large-scale whiskey tasting event. But while we miss and mourn the loss of these habits, our woes don’t compare to distilleries’.

On-premise drinking occasions (alcohol consumed at bars, restaurants and hotels) have historically made up just 20 percent of liquor companies’ sales volume. But that 20 percent wedge of the sales pie was exceptionally profitable since it contains high-margin tipplers like liqueurs and other cocktail amendments. So when skilled bartenders aren’t making you and me top-flight cocktails, bottles like Aperol, Campari, St. Germaine, Pama, Domaine de Canton, Grand Marnier, Green Chartreuse and many others aren’t moving. Ultimately, that means reduced profits at spirits companies.

Remember these days? (image copyright The Whiskey Wash)

So despite the good news of huge spikes in off-premise spirits sales (retail liquor stores), those increases haven’t offset losses in on-premise. And according to a story in Wine & Spirits Daily, that 80-20 split no longer exists in the world of COVID 2020. Worse, it likely won’t return soon. IWSR researchers say at-home spirits consumption was already on the increase, and COVID sent it soaring. That, says IWSR, means the opportunity for distilleries now “lies in meeting the immediate needs of the new drinking occasions that will undoubtedly continue to rise as consumers enjoy the comfort and safety of their homes.”

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This suggests a profound cultural shift on the horizon, and I don’t like it. I’m a social drinker who loves sharing libations at bars with friends. I love the people watching that comes with lingering over a drink. Seeing a busy bartender manage customers is ever entertaining, and telling a mixologist, “Just surprise me” with a one-off creation is the mini-omakase experience of that trade.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m like most drinkers who occasionally enjoy a cocktail or pour at home when no one’s home and the place is still. As a whiskey writer trying to record which pours are great and why, having no distractions is helpful. But that’s more about work than fun, and to me, alcohol is far more fun to consume with others. (It’s also safer. Alcoholics commonly isolate when drinking.) I don’t know what about alcohol makes it such a great lever for storytelling, but people do loosen up and reveal a bit more about themselves when encouraged by an old fashioned.

OK, back to business. It’s in vogue to blame any 2020 malady on COVID-19, but IWSR pointed to significant market forces beyond the virus that have lifted at-home alcohol consumption for years.

  • On-premise alcohol prices have risen nearly 3 percent every year for 20 years. That we expect to pay $12-$20 for a good cocktail at a solid restaurant testifies to this. That’s doubtless a high price given the cost of ingredients, but restaurant and bar operators will tell you that high alcoholic drink margins now are needed to offset the soaring costs of food, leases, labor and insurance.
  • With every passing year, DUI laws have become increasingly strict, which doubtless has curbed on-premise drinking.
  • Home entertainment options are better and more plentiful than ever, and the cost of widescreen TVs and other gadgets continues to decline. So, why not watch the game or a movie at home and drink where the booze is already purchased?
  • Food delivery options have increased dramatically, as have alcohol delivery services. Convenience is king in this culture.
  • And, perhaps thanks to COVID-19 as much creative thinkers, online experiences that include drinking are on the rise. I never even imagined co-leading a whiskey and food pairing online for a bourbon society. But that’s what happened in August, and it went surprisingly well—so well, in fact, that I predict such events will become so common that their numbers will rival in-person events. And as other whiskey writers will tell you, distilleries are shipping or hand delivering press samples to us for use in online group tastings of new whiskey releases. The cost of that is but a fraction of what distilleries used to spend flying writers in for a two-day visit. Trust me, I miss those on-location trips.
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Here’s what I predict: An explosion of Food Network-style shows centered on cocktail making, home brewing, wine making and, of course, visiting great places where professionals make all those drinks. (I’m shocked that in the 50 years since Julia Child, Graham Kerr and Jacques Pepin began using TV to teach people to cook that no one has stepped up to be the Cocktail King or Queen. Did I miss the “Good Eats” episode when Alton Brown showed how to make good drinks? I don’t think so.) And now that spirits company ads are returning to TV, why not move into sponsoring shows based on drinks only?

For decades makers of kitchen appliances succeeded in stuffing their wares into studio kitchens and then advertised those products between show segments. Why wouldn’t makers of clear ice machines, bar tools, elegant glasses and the liquids makers themselves sponsor programs that will grow at-home consumption when market trends say they should? I’d watch any such show that would help me improve my meager mixology skills. I know my wife and friends would love me for it!

But I still hope to see the comeback of corner bars, restaurant bars and high-end craft bars. I miss the high level of drinks execution at a craft bar as much as I crave an old fashioned served with a fortifying “shot of the day” at the corner bar. For me, booze will always be best when consumed in a social setting. Trends be damned, I’m ready to get back on-premise drinking.


Steve Coomes

Steve Coomes is an award-winning journalist and book author specializing in whiskey and food. In his 30-year career, he has edited and written for national trade and consumer publications including USA Today, Southern Living, Delta Sky Magazine, Nation’s Restaurant News, Pizza Today, Restaurant Business, Bourbon + and American Whiskey magazine....