Bottoms up: Whiskey, bourbon sales up in 2020 despite pandemic woes

Published 9:48 pm Thursday, January 28, 2021

American whiskey absorbed some setbacks but showed resilience in the face of pandemic-related clampdowns on bars and restaurants as liquor sales benefited from enduring demand for a good stiff drink.

Despite plunging sales from bars and restaurants, the American whiskey sector still rang up increased revenues in 2020. Liquor store and online sales surged. And some restaurants offered new twists for thirsty customers, serving cocktails-to-go in response to pandemic restrictions.

As a result, combined U.S. sales for bourbon, Tennessee whiskey and rye whiskey rose 8.2%, or $327 million, to $4.3 billion in 2020, the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States said Thursday. Domestic volumes rose 7% to 28.4 million cases, with strong demand spanning various price ranges.

The pandemic performance reflected the industry’s durability, the distilled spirits trade group said.

“We often romanticize the past, but when it comes to American whiskey the golden age is today,” said David Ozgo, the council’s chief economist.

Industrywide, overall sales and volumes grew for U.S. spirits suppliers, and the spirits industry increased its share of the total beverage alcohol market, the council said.

But restrictions aimed at slowing the spread of COVID-19 took a toll. The spirits industry’s on-premise sales from U.S. restaurants and bars collapsed by 44% last year, the council said.

An 18% surge in off-premise sales at liquor stores and other retail outlets helped offset those losses, as consumers increasingly mixed their own drinks while cooped up at home.

At Barret Liquors in Louisville, Kentucky, sales surged 30% to 40% last spring as the pandemic took hold, store owner Manoj Uppal said this week. Each spring day resembled a weekend, and the rush at times left him without some brands, he said. But customers unable to find their favorite spirits didn’t leave empty handed. “They ended up buying something else,” he said.