There’s no indication that consuming alcohol can ward off COVID-19, but that didn’t prevent Nebraskans from trying that last year.
Purchases of alcoholic beverages in the state soared to a record in 2020. That translated into a 6% increase in tax revenue for the state, to $35.4 million.
With bars and restaurants shut down or open with limited capacity, drinkers turned to mixing their own cocktails or popping their bottles of wine or beer at home. Business at liquor stores boomed, and deliveries shot up, which more than offset the loss of sales at barstools and cafe tables.
“If you’re going to be sitting home either by yourself or with your family, it does get boring. So people figured, we might as well make some drinks,” said Laurie Hellbusch, owner of Spirit World in Omaha’s Aksarben Village.
Hellbusch said retail sales at her shop were up 25% from 2019, and Hobert Rupe, director of the Nebraska Liquor Control Commission, said several liquor stores reported record sales in 2020. For Hellbusch, package liquor, beer and wine sales more than offset a 50% drop in purchases at the store’s sit-down bar and its deli, which closed after the pandemic hit.
That business’ bread and butter — catering events — cratered, as wedding receptions, open houses and business events were canceled en masse. But owner Nicole Bourquin said a fortuitous, pre-coronavirus decision to join an online liquor delivery service, and then to establish her own delivery app, saved the day.
Deliveries boomed from a handful a month to more than 80 a week, she said, as people stayed home because of concerns about venturing out to stores.
“Because of (deliveries), I can honestly say that total sales were up in two of the four quarters this year,” Bourquin said. “There’s no shame in breaking even in a year like 2020.”
The pandemic partaking mirrored a national trend, which has caused some worries about health.
In late September, the Rand Corp., a think tank based in California, released a national survey indicating that the frequency of alcohol consumption had increased by 14% among adults over 30 during the pandemic.
The most startling revelation of the survey was that episodes of binge drinking by women, defined as four or more drinks within a couple of hours, shot up by 41%.
Michael Pollard, a sociologist who lead the study, said that alcohol use is a common coping mechanism for emotional and economic distress and that women typically report higher levels of stress than men.
While large-scale studies of the adverse health effects of coronavirus cocktailing haven’t yet been conducted, Pollard said there are concerns. Generally, he said, alcohol use can depress the immune system, making someone more vulnerable to the virus, and can exacerbate mood disorders.
What were people buying during the pandemic?
The Iowa Alcoholic Beverages Division, which tracks sales from the state-controlled liquor stores, reported that Black Velvet whiskey, Tito’s vodka and Captain Morgan spiced rum were the top sellers in those categories of liquor.
Hellbusch, at Spirit World, said that early in the pandemic, customers tended to buy old favorites like Tito’s and well-known wines. But later on, she said, there were more adventurous purchases.
To spur interest in at-home cocktails, Hellbusch started virtual classes to teach budding but isolated bartenders how to mix specialty drinks. That, she said, translated into sales of those products.
“We’ve seen that people are willing to spend a little more and trade up,” she said.
At Cornhusker Beverage, Bourquin said she was forced to innovate after the catering trade dried up. Initially, deliveries were handled by a national company, which she said narrowed the profit margin for her business. The store has since developed its own delivery app, which Bourguin said has improved revenue.
So will this trend of consuming at home continue when the pandemic is over, or will people return to the bars and restaurants? That’s a big question for the industry, and both Bourquin and Hellbusch expect it to be a slow transition, and a mixed bag.
People are discovering that cocktails mixed at home are much less expensive than those purchased at a lounge, Hellbusch said.
Bourquin said delivery of alcoholic beverages, which is permitted under state law, will probably remain a good portion of her business.
“We live in a convenience world,” she said, adding that she sees a slow return to parties and events.
“Everyone’s at such a different level right now,” she said. “Some are ready today for it to be over. Others are saying, ‘I think we’ll wait until next year.’"
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