If it seems like everyone in your social media feed is drinking more right now, they probably are. According to IWSR data shared with VinePair, retail alcohol sales during Covid-19 have hit double-digit growth, mirroring “holiday-type” volume and value spending.
Of course, any current data should be examined with the caveat that on-premise sales have plummeted, and many are replacing those purchases with stay-at-home Quarantinis. There’s also stockpiling to consider, though IWSR figures signal that the bulk of this took place during a two-week period in March, and sales since then have remained strong.
But just as our interactions with the physical world are largely confined to the views from our windows, we should not overlook the subjectivity of social media feeds. Put simply: Not everyone is drinking more right now.
“If anything, I’ve seen this kind of outpouring of, ‘Here are all the ways that I’m taking care of myself,’ and lots of people doing yoga and meditation,” says Sam Thonis, co-owner of Getaway, an alcohol-free bar in Brooklyn. Opened in April 2019, the bar has become a brick-and-mortar signifier of the growing low- and no-alcohol movements.
Prior to Covid-19, these movements had started gaining significant traction, with coverage reaching national media. By the end of last year, publications such as The Washington Post and The New York Times had devoted significant column inches to the popularity of lower-ABV spritz cocktails and hard seltzers, and the growing interest in the “sober-curious” lifestyle. While it was harder to back the “trend” with sales data, low- and no-ABV drinks had by then entered the cultural lexicon.
But like everything else right now, the future of the low and no movements feels delicately poised. Convincing drinkers that it might be a good idea to lower their alcohol consumption is difficult enough at the best of times, let alone in the midst of a global pandemic. And looking forward, there’s the dark cloud of recession looming on the horizon, which is likely to impact consumer spending. That could be a particular challenge for the zero-proof category, whose products have been priced at retail similarly to the boozy libations they were designed to replace. To boot: The non-alcoholic botanical “spirit” Seedlip sells for around $30 for 700 milliliters, while a slightly larger bottle of Bombay Sapphire gin sells for $25. These issues raise the question: What does Covid-19 mean for the future of the nascent low- and no-ABV movements?
Drinking Habits In a Global Pandemic
For Thonis, there’s no question that the zero-proof scene was gaining traction prior to Covid-19. After Getaway opened, it received significant press. While skeptics could argue it seemed like a niche “New York” concept, multiple operators around the country reached out to Thonis and told him they wanted to emulate his model.
Sales, too, seemed to indicate that the city that never sleeps was willing to take the occasional night off from booze. “Before March, when everything changed, the two normal months of 2020 were our best months yet,” he says. “We were on a serious upswing.”
Sadly, those sales have now crashed to nothing. Unlike some New York cocktail bars, Getaway hasn’t pivoted to takeaway or to-go options. And when stay-at-home orders are finally relaxed, Thonis realizes his bar’s offerings might be deemed as a luxury by some. “[Non-alcoholic cocktails] are not human necessities, unlike food and arguably alcohol,” he says.
Lifestyle writer Ruby Warrington has noticed contrasting attitudes on her social media feeds. In 2018, the New-York-based British author wrote a book on alcohol abstinence titled “Sober Curious.” Some have even credited the work with popularizing the no-ABV movement. Warrington also hosts a podcast of the same name and interacts via social media with a community of people who choose not to drink.
Many of those interactions have included people speaking about how glad they are that they don’t drink right now and don’t need to navigate hangovers in the midst of a pandemic. But when she opens her Facebook feed, which has a lot of people from her “pre-sober-curious life” in the U.K., she notices some friends repeating the kind of statements that could double as a quarantine meme, such as “How early is too early to start drinking?” and “Drinking alone doesn’t count in a crisis.”
“It almost feels like there’s a lot of bravado, a ‘let’s drink our way through it’ sort of attitude,” she says. “With my sober-curious goggles on, it does seem like underneath there’s a lot of fear.”
Her evaluation is backed by psychological science. “It makes a lot of sense that people are drinking more during this time: They want instant relief from anxiety, boredom, depression, and just not wanting to feel their feelings — alcohol offers a solution to that,” says Lindsay Hayden, a New York-based licensed mental health counselor who specializes in addiction.
Hayden warns that without the structure and routine of normal life, those who are using only alcohol as a coping mechanism could soon be facing more serious issues. “Not everyone who is relying on alcohol will come out of the pandemic with an alcohol addiction, but it is definitely something people should be watching out for,” she says.
Drinking Habits During a Recession
While the “new normal” of quarantine life is unprecedented to all experiencing it, at least some of what comes after Covid-19 is not without parallel. By many accounts, the world economy is headed into a long and potentially deep recession. The IMF predicts the coronavirus crisis could knock as much as $9 trillion off global GDP over the next two years. If previous recessions are benchmarks, that doesn’t spell good news for the low- and no-ABV movements.
During the eight-month 2001 recession, whose economic impact lasted for several years, alcohol volume sales grew year-over-year, totaling a 4 percent increase between 2001 and 2004, according to IWSR’s chief operating officer, Brandy Rand.
While alcohol sales growth was somewhat flat during the Great Recession of December 2007 to June 2009, that was only because of declining beer sales. “[U]nemployment rate at the end of 2009 was 10 percent, yet there was still an upward consumption trend outside of beer,” Rand explains.
The purchasing habits from both of the most recent recessions indicate that when economic times are tough, consumers turn to the bottle. Amid the uncertainty, and with less cash in their pockets, they also favor higher-ABV beverages to leverage more bang for buck.
Lisa Laird Dunn, executive vice president of Laird & Company, predicts a similar trend this time around. Founded in 1780, her family runs the oldest licensed distillery in America. In its 200-plus-year history, Laird & Co. has survived more than 30 recessions, two world wars, and even Prohibition.
While known for its Applejack, the distillery’s portfolio contains a broad range of products, priced from high- end to value brands. Laird Dunn confirms that the company’s lower-priced value brands typically sell best during a recession and expects to see a repeat of this trend following Covid-19. “I think you’ll find that there will be more price shopping versus just brand shopping,” she says.
But national sales statistics and the experience of recession-defying distilleries paint just part of the picture.
In January 2013, the University of Buffalo published a study on alcohol use during the Great Recession. Polling more than 2 million Americans between 2006 and 2010, the study uncovered notable increases in heavy drinking (3.9 percent) and frequent binge drinking (7.1 percent), but also found a slight increase in abstention from alcohol (0.8 percent). Put more simply: Not everyone decided to drink more. And there’s more than just anecdotal references to prove the same thing is happening right now.
On Thursday, global research firm Wine Intelligence published its first Covid-19-related consumer analysis report. Based on data collected at the end of March and beginning of April, the report found that, on average, wine consumption has remained stable during lockdown. But once again, this trend only tells part of the story.
“We’re seeing an increase in frequency of wine consumption amongst more engaged wine drinkers,” says CEO Lulie Halstead. “So those who were already drinking wine at higher frequencies are increasing that frequency.”
On the flip side, younger drinkers who were just discovering wine are now drinking it much less frequently than before, she adds. While this finding is based on data collected in Australia, Halstead says early examinations of international data appear to show a similar trend in other markets.
Hope For the Low- and No-ABV Movements
During previous recessions, those who opted not to drink were limited to sodas, seltzers, and water. But this time around, the market is already awash with interesting alcohol alternatives. From no-ABV beers to zero-proof spirits, there are a number of non-alcoholic options that taste just like the real thing (or pretty darn close) without the alcohol and with fewer calories. If consumers can get past price concerns, the compelling flavors and low-calorie appeal of these products could help keep the low and no movements humming along.
As one notable example, Scottish brewery BrewDog has reported strong demand for its range of alcohol-free beers this year. Compared to the last four months of 2019, volume sales on its e-commerce platform have surged more than 350 percent between January and April of this year.
“Just last week, we had our strongest day of online sales ever with the launch of our newest NA beer: Ghost Walker,” says CEO Jason Block. Demand from wholesalers has been stronger still, with volume growth reaching quadruple digits during the first four months of 2020.
The thirst for no-ABV spirits appears to be similarly strong. Ritual Zero Proof, a non-alcoholic beverage brand that offers gin, tequila, and whiskey alternatives, sold its entire six-month inventory in just five weeks when it launched in September last year. Despite the current global pandemic, March 2020 sales were up 16 percent over February, and April sales are on track to double that.
“Spirit alternatives like Ritual are today what veggie burgers and almond milk were a few years back: New, easy to knock, and so broadly desired there are now sections in the grocery store dedicated to them,” says founding partner Marcus Sakey. “Almond milk did $5.3 billion in 2018.”
Support from internationally acclaimed bartenders has given these alternatives further credentials. At Bar Kumiko in Chicago, partner and director Julia Momose curated an extensive “Spiritfrees” cocktail menu. The bar is currently offering five of these drinks as part of a temporary to-go menu.
One of the most vocal supporters of low- and no-ABV cocktails has been Derek Brown, owner of Washington D.C.’s Columbia Room. In February, Brown authored a high-profile article on embracing “mindful drinking” and detailing his own complicated relationship with alcohol.
Brown believes zero-proof cocktails can be just as delicious, interesting, and thought-provoking as those with booze. While he’s also noticed an anecdotal increase in alcohol consumption, he doesn’t think that will harm the low and no movements. In fact, Brown believes our current situation might serve as a wake-up call for many. “A lot of people who went into this wondering whether they had a drinking problem will come out of it knowing the answer to that,” he says.
For those who do, there’s never been a broader range of alternatives and support to help change those habits.