When historians look back on 2021, they might consider a handful of momentous events as having defined the year. The inauguration of America’s 46th president, for example; the nation’s withdrawal from Afghanistan after two decades of occupation; one of the world’s largest container ships getting stuck in the Suez Canal, alerting everyone to the term “supply chain”; or further failures to address the world’s climate crisis.
For those focusing solely on the drinks world, seven similarly seismic events stood out this year. From high-profile reckonings with sexual assault in both beer and wine to hard seltzer’s continued, stubborn reluctance to die, these are the moments the defined the drinks industry in 2021.
Craft Beer Reckons With Widespread Sexism, Assault
What started as a request for accounts of sexism ended up rocking America’s craft brewing industry to its core. In early May, after experiencing two separate incidents of sexist comments in one day, Massachusetts-based brewer and production manager Brienne Allan put out a call on Instagram asking for shared experiences. The replies swarmed her inbox, ranging from tales of offensive comments and microaggressions to accounts of physical abuse and violence. The accusations, which Allan continued to share around the clock, implicated some of the nation’s most respected brewers and breweries.
While the highest-profile incident of the year, the reckoning did not stand alone. Earlier in March, the American arm of Scotland’s BrewDog made the news after four employees at the brewery’s Indianapolis taproom had their contracts terminated. Let go on International Women’s Day, the former employees all identified as members of the LGBTQ community, and claimed they were told the decision came as part of a ”change of culture” at the company.
Another internationally recognized craft brewer found itself in the spotlight in the second half of the year as well. In the summer, four former Mikkeller employees, all of whom are women, shared accounts of bullying and harassment at various Mikkeller establishments with Good Beer Hunting. In October, close to 50 craft breweries then dropped out of the annual Mikkeller Beer Celebration Copenhagen (MBCC) festival, in response to the allegations and in solidarity with the victims.
The Court of Master Sommeliers (Again) Falls Short After Sexual Assault Investigation
The U.S. wine industry faced its own sexual misconduct reckoning in 2020, when 21 female sommeliers shared accounts of sexual assault and manipulation by male members of the Court of Master Sommeliers Americas (CMS-A). As many questioned whether the organization could rightly continue, the CMS-A announced an independent, external investigation into the incidents, along with leadership changes, and an intention to be more transparent about its processes.
The wine community, including the victims of the incidents, had to wait until this November to discover the outcome of the investigation. Upon its conclusion, the court expelled six of its members, including Fred Dame, a co-founder of the CMS-A who featured prominently in the popular wine documentary “Somm.”
Many in the industry were left underwhelmed with the investigation’s results and fallout. The CMS-A did not go as far as to share specific findings against the guilty parties. Meanwhile, a further 16 of the total 22 members who were under investigation received no punishment, nor were their names made public.
Liquor Store Lobbying Kills Cocktails-to-Go in New York
In early March 2020, as the pandemic first took hold in the United States, New York became one of the first states to allow cocktails to go, offering a vital lifeline to bars and restaurants. As the year progressed, and the state’s residents became used to enjoying Margs out of coffee cups, it looked like this would be one of the longterm (albeit razor-thin) silver linings of the pandemic. So popular were they with all involved that no one imagined a scenario in which cocktails to go weren’t enacted into permanent law, as they already had been in states like Florida, Georgia, and Texas. That all changed in the middle of this year.
On June 23, the office of then-Gov. Andrew Cuomo lifted the state of emergency declaration in New York, rendering temporary provisions like cocktails to go almost immediately null and void. The news came as a double blow for bar and restaurant owners: Not only were they set to lose a helpful additional revenue stream, just two weeks prior they’d been told the provision would be in place through the July 4 weekend at least. Having stocked up on supplies to meet the holiday demand, bars and restaurants were left sitting on vast stocks of unnecessary to-go containers.
It soon came to light that cocktails to go had died in New York because of intense lobbying from powerful liquor store associations. Bar and restaurant owners and legislators in favor of to-go drinks were unequivocal in their belief that it all came down to money. Meanwhile, liquor store owners offered bizarre and brazen reasons for their opposition, like, “We can’t sell potato salad and a B.L.T.” Angered though on-premise operators were at the time, as 2021 ends with a huge spike in coronavirus cases and the threat of indoor dining shutdowns once again, the true outcome of this decision may yet to be felt.
Hard Seltzer Doesn’t Die
Given the number of headlines proclaiming hard seltzer sales falling flat and bubbles bursting, it seemed like some media outlets were actively waiting for the death of the category. They will have to hold their breath a little longer, however, because Hard seltzer sales continued to grow in 2021 — to the tune of around $800 million — reaching a total of $4.9 billion as of late November.
Most of the headlines describing the premature death arrived in July, following a high-profile incident with Truly Hard Seltzer’s parent company Boston Beer. Overzealous sales projections heading into the year led to underwhelming quarterly earnings for the publicly traded company. Upon reporting, Boston’s stock dropped 26 percent, shaving $2.5 billion off its value in a matter of days. All things told, 2021 actually wasn’t a disaster for Truly Hard Seltzer. The brand family headed into December with 38 percent year-over-year dollar sales growth.
Seems like it’s doing just fine to us.
Travis Scott’s CACTI Hard Seltzer Has a Memorable, Short-lived Ride
Travis Scott became one of the first, and arguably the best-known, celebrities to enter the hard seltzer space when he launched CACTI with AB-InBev in March. The tequila-inspired, agave-spiked seltzer would ultimately enjoy a short and turbulent existence.
The early signs were positive, after stocks sold out within days of its launch, according to AB-InBev. Things soon turned sour, though. The reviews cast the product as a dud, while consumer backlash followed in September, when a class-action lawsuit filed against the brand claimed drinkers had been misled into thinking the seltzer used tequila as its base. (In reality, CACTI contained no distilled spirits, and the agave used in its recipe was purely for sweetening and flavor.)
By the end of the year, sales appeared already to be stalling. Scott also found himself in the headlines for more serious reasons after 10 people died and scores were injured during a concert he was performing at in Houston. Whether related or otherwise, Anheuser-Busch called it a day in mid-December, announcing it was stopping all production and brand development of CACTI.
And Just Like That… the Cosmopolitan and Espresso Martini Make Comebacks
“Sex and the City” fans had to wait until December to enjoy the show’s revival, though they were at least served a twist worthy of any Martini or Old Fashioned. Fittingly, the show’s signature cocktail had already made its own comeback by this point, with the Cosmopolitan becoming an Instagram icon and even receiving a dedicated menu at one of New York’s most famous bars by the summer of 2021. (One can argue that the true genesis of the Cosmo’s comeback came in early 2020, after the Barefoot Contessa’s infamous pandemic cocktail tutorial.) Another dose of nostalgia arrived with the Espresso Martini, which became one of the most talked-about drinks of the year.
Gimmicky Partnerships and Releases Continues
Gimmicky, unexpected collaborations matching drinks brands with unrelated products have proven a surefire method to capture the media’s attention with little effort or risk (arguably). Though not strictly a development of 2021, this year served some of the most extreme examples to date.
Katz’s Deli and Hendrick’s gin teamed up to launch limited-edition gin pickles in September. Grey Poupon’s mustard wine followed in early October, and sold out in just one day. In November, Arby’s teamed up with Minneapolis’s Tattersall Distilling Co. to launch not one but two french-fry-flavored vodkas. Hidden Valley’s RanchNog, Barefoot’s Oreo Thins wine — the list of dubious collabs went on. Though an honorable mention should go to Cardi B, whose vodka-infused Whip Shots brand is, as she says, “unlike any other spirit on the market” and feels decidedly on trend for the superstar.