The COVID-19 pandemic that arrived in March brought with it not just masks and hand sanitizer, but a steep increase in liquor consumption.
“We’ve seen about a 30% increase in sales of tequila, whiskey and vodka since March,” said Kevin Penn, owner of Star Spirits on Sixth Avenue Northeast in Decatur. “It’s been pretty broad across the board in those liquors."
Some local retailers are selling out of spirits, extending business hours and hiring more workers to accommodate customer demand.
Janice Haygood, office secretary for Windmill Beverages, which has nine locations in north Alabama including two in Decatur, has seen business increase.
“Our liquor sales are up, and we’re seeing new customers,” she said. “We saw a big jump in whiskey sales as soon as the governor shut down businesses (in March). Sales were up 20%. I guess people were drowning their sorrows.”
Ashley Bard, manager at Carridale Liquor Store on Carridale Road in Southwest Decatur, called the hike in whiskey and vodka sales “tremendous.”
“People are buying larger sizes and coming in more frequently. A lot of people are telling me they are drinking more because they’re stuck at home,” she said. Whiskey sales at her store are up 40% to 50% from pre-pandemic levels, Bard said.
“It’s hard to keep alcohol on the shelves now. When we order, we try to order an extra case or two because of the demand,” she said. “There are some brands that are hard to get. Distilleries shut down, and there’s such a high demand.”
Penn also said supply has been an issue on some brands.
"We’ve had a difficult time getting Hennesy cognac and Paul Masson brandy,” he said.
Bard said financial strain on families is driving the increase in liquor consumption.
“We’re seeing a lot of new faces,” she said. “People are dealing with unemployment. They’ll come in frustrated. Some of them are in fear of losing their homes because of inconsistency of making payments. Some people said they’ve had to move. They’re laid off, hired back and laid off again.”
In fiscal 2020, which ended Sept. 30, local government accounting departments saw an increase in alcohol revenue. Decatur’s liquor sales tax revenue in fiscal 2020 was up 11.06%, from $906,207 in fiscal 2019 to $1,006,438 in fiscal 2020, according to unaudited numbers. Wine sales tax revenue was up 16.74% from $29,734 in fiscal 2019 to $34,713 in fiscal 2020.
“The combination of more time at home and more stress brought on from the COVID-19 pandemic probably contributed to this increase,” said city of Decatur Finance Manager Kyle Demeester. “Also, additional income that was traditionally spent on vacation or entertainment was now more available for people, which would lend an opportunity for additional consumer spending on beer, liquor or wine.”
In Moulton, which began selling alcohol 11 years ago, fiscal 2020 saw the overall alcohol sales tax revenue jump to $250,770, an increase of about 13% from the $221,944 generated in fiscal 2019 for the Lawrence County town of 3,400 residents. The fiscal 2020 total is about 18% more than the $212,165 the town generated in fiscal 2018, according to City Accountant Emily Farris.
Both the liquor and beer/wine components of the alcohol tax revenues showed increases in Moulton. Liquor tax revenue for fiscal 2020 was $102,919, or 17% more than the $87,921 generated in 2019. In fiscal 2020, beer and wine tax revenues were $147,851 for Moulton, Farris said, a 10% increase over fiscal 2019.
Beer sales in Decatur were lagging the liquor and wine revenue numbers with Penn saying his beer sales have been down about 50% during the pandemic.
“COVID-19 has also hurt beer distribution. And people aren’t eating out as much,” he said. “COVID has changed the eating and drinking business. Since people aren’t eating out or can’t eat out, we’re seeing brisk business, but not with beer.”
Haygood said Windmill’s beer sales are up about 10% since the pandemic began, with Michelob and Coors the most popular brands.
Demeester called city beer sales tax revenue “relatively flat.” He said Decatur saw a 2.4% increase in beer sales tax revenue in fiscal 2020 with $931,053 generated compared to $909,265 in fiscal 2019.
Statewide, the Alcohol Beverage Control Board figures also reflect an increase in liquor consumption.
ABC Board Administrator Mac Gipson said fiscal 2020 sales were up more than 12% over the previous year. Despite the temporary closure of 78 ABC stores and a reduction in warehouse staffing due to COVID-19 issues, the agency shipped 3.3 million cases of liquor in fiscal 2020, up 332,022 from the previous year.
He said money distributed by ABC to state and local agencies was $313.6 million in fiscal 2020, up $28 million from the previous year.
The top sellers in order of revenue produced, according to ABC: Hennessy VS cognac, Tito's Handmade vodka, Crown Royal whiskey, Jack Daniel's No. 7 whiskey, Smirnoff vodka, Crown Royal Regal Apple whiskey, Fireball whiskey, Jim Beam bourbon, Jose Cuervo tequila and Aristocrat vodka.
While Penn has extended his hours of operation from 9 a.m. to 1 a.m. daily, and Haygood said her stores have added about 10 to 12 workers, they haven't noticed much of a slowdown in business as the COVID-19 vaccines are being administered across the area.
“I don’t see anything changing anytime soon,” Penn said. “People have fear and depression.”