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With bars and restaurants closed, boozing at home is booming

As we shelter at home due to COVID-19, we’re getting more ambitious with the drinks we mix—and sharing our creations online.

With bars and restaurants closed, boozing at home is booming
[Animation: courtesy of Punch; Karly Gomez/Unsplash]

Leanne Favre is mixing up a Brooklyn Borough, a tropical twist on the Moscow Mule that uses white rum in place of vodka and adds pineapple and Angostura bitters. Normally, she’d be making it for customers at Leyenda, the Brooklyn bar she worked at before nonessential businesses were shut down in New York during the COVID-19 pandemic. Now she’s live-streaming on Instagram, showing anyone how they can make the drink for themselves during stay-at-home orders across the country and around the world.

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[Screenshot: courtesy of Punch]
This is the second of a planned 50-drink tutorial series called Tip Your Bartender, hosted by Punch, an online magazine focused on drinks and drinking culture. Each stream is a fundraiser for a different closed bar around the country, with viewers encouraged to Venmo money to a fund for idled workers.

All across the internet, mixologists are sharing their recipes and tricks with housebound drink lovers, sometimes in support of a cause, sometimes just to reach out. “You’re seeing not just the [professional] bartenders on social media, but these home bartenders come out of the woodwork and use social as a way to connect to their people,” says Talia Baiocchi, the founder and editor-in-chief of Punch.

“I think we will continue seeing bartender-led content on social platforms, both branded and organic, during this time,” says Tyler Zielinski, a bartender, bar consultant, and journalist. “It fills a creative need for creative individuals like bartenders and also serves consumers who are looking to stay busy at home.”

The rise of the home bar

COVID-19 shutdowns are devastating what’s called the on-premise alcohol industry. Bars are shuttered across the country, and restaurants are limping by on takeout and delivery orders. “We’re down 93% in business,” says Bricia Lopez, co-owner of Guelaguetza, a James Beard Award-winning Mexican Oaxacan restaurant in Los Angeles. “We don’t do sandwiches. We’re not a fast food place,” she says. “We are an experience. We’re a destination spot.”

Guelaguetza is also famous for its wide selection of mezcal, the smoky-flavored cousin of tequila. California has loosened state rules, allowing restaurants to sell alcohol, even cocktails, as part of takeout and delivery orders. But drinking is best as a social experience, says Lopez. In place of guests having three $14 cocktails each during an evening at a packed restaurant bar, a few customers are buying a single bottle of mezcal cocktails for $26.

So drinking culture, like everything else, has moved to the home. What the industry calls “off-premise” alcohol sales—those that don’t take place in bars and restaurants—are soaring. According to data from Nielsen, they were up 55% for the week ending March 21 (versus the same week last year). And the portion purchased online is through the roof: up 243%. Grocery delivery service Instacart reports that the number of orders containing alcohol has grown more than 75% in March.

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While local food and drink establishments are collapsing, many local liquor stores are thriving, according to data from Drizly, an online ordering platform for liquor store deliveries. By the week of March 9, Drizly’s sales had jumped 60% over what the company had forecast before the crisis. In subsequent weeks, sales have been up close to 300% over projections. (Drizly just launched an online dashboard tracking how COVID-19 is affecting alcohol sales around the country.)

Customers are buying more of everything, but especially fixings for cocktails, says Liz Paquette, Drizly’s head of consumer insights. Orders for liqueurs, cordials, schnapps, and mixers are up by 600% to 1,000%. Vermouth is up 1,200%.

Essentially people could cut their budgets in half and still drink more.”

Adam Nelson, Oakland Spirits
“People aren’t able to go out to bars or restaurants. So they’re doing it all at home, and they’re trying new products, and they’re being more creative,” says Absinthia Vermut, a Bay Area beverage entrepreneur. Her company, Nickel Dime Cocktail Syrups, is taking off, with sales up 400%. The syrups are nonalcoholic, allowing Vermut to sell them directly to consumers. (The law requires alcohol sales to go through separate distributors, a source of great frustration to small producers such as Vermut, who also owns an absinthe brand.) Nickel Dime sells directly on its own site as well as on Amazon. Because syrups are considered food, they are among the essential goods whose sales are not restricted by COVID-19 priorities.

This boon is not just a case of long-term customers stocking up for uncertain times. “We are getting about 75% new customers for our syrups,” says Vermut. “People are spreading the word. People are interested in making new cocktails for themselves at home.”

Adam Nelson, co-owner of craft distiller Oakland Spirits, hopes that home bartenders will also upgrade to higher-end liquor in their cocktails, now that they aren’t paying a premium in bars. “Drinks cost $10 apiece when you go out,” says Nelson, in an estimate that’s on the low side, at least here in the Bay Area. “A bottle of my gin sells for $35, and it’s got 12 drinks in it. Essentially people could cut their budgets in half and still drink more.”

There may be some indication of this shift. “In liquor, we have actually seen a 2% jump in share to bottles in the $30-$39.99 range,” says Paquette of Drizly. “This has come pretty directly from bottles in the $10-$29.99 ranges.” Wine, in contrast, has seen a bit of a downgrade, with sales in the $1-$9.99 per bottle category slightly up.

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Wine is fine

A trend to budget vino is good news for e-commerce site Wine Insiders, which claims to be the biggest online wine marketplace in the U.S. Wine Insiders specializes in economical wines priced from $8 to $12 per bottle, and sales volume has risen more than threefold in the COVID-19 era, says Zac Brandenberg, CEO of parent company Drinks, Inc. “We’re seeing on a general daily basis the same sort of numbers we’d see during the Black Friday period,” he says.

The one trend that stands out for Wine Insiders is a spike in sales of Chardonnay, which doesn’t usually take off until summertime. “We would think about Chardonnay as increasing this time of year because there may be more day drinking going on,” says Brandenberg, noting that the light, lower-alcohol white wines are popular in the afternoon.

So not all home drinking is getting more sophisticated. Baiocchi says she sees both extremes online. Some people are posting about making martinis on the rocks that they don’t even bother to stir, for instance.

But she also sees growth in people practicing fancy techniques such as making clarified citrus juice for crystal-clear cocktails. And how-tos have been among the most popular articles on her site, such as “Hack Your Drink: The Magic of ‘Citrus Stock'” and “Five Essential Cocktail Syrups to Make at Home.”

With stay-at-home orders being extended across the country and no sign of bars coming back soon, cocktail-loving Americans will have plenty of time to refine their techniques and enjoy the fruits of that labor.

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About the author

Sean Captain is a Bay Area technology, science, and policy journalist. Follow him on Twitter @seancaptain.

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