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Drink it Down: The Liquor Journey

According to estimated data, total alcohol sales have risen about 16%-27% during the onset of 2020’s COVID-19 social distancing efforts in the United States. The Miami Herald says 27%, Consumer data site Nielsen says 22%, and BeverageDaily says 16%.  

None of these sources, however, seemed capable of identifying the groups responsible for that ~20% jump in sales. In other words: Are those who were previously liquor store regulars checking out with 20% more booze? Is there a new group of Americans who are touring the trenches of alcohol-assisted stress relief? Are we seeing two or three people in per day who are loading up, or swaths of people buying a few beers each? Or something completely different? 

After a few days of fruitless web searches, I decided to take the matter, and the question, into my own hands. Armed with a mask, surgical gloves, Lysol wipes, and a pocket notepad, I set off on a short tour of my county’s liquor stores, hoping to better understand which Americans had been pitching those extra bottles. 

My first stop was a larger store that I’d visited once before prior to hosting a party. The store was empty when I entered, and the clerk was happy to talk to me about their sales over the past few months. Before I whipped out the pad and paper, I assured her that this interview, along with everyone else’s, would be totally anonymous. 

The first few questions went as expected – she had noticed somewhat of an increase in patrons as of late and most people seemed to be buying cheap beers (The Miami Herald article mentioned that to be the most popular type of sale during quarantine).  

But when asked if she’d noticed any patterns in the types of patrons coming in, her response was especially concerning. 

“We’ve got a whole new batch. You can tell they don’t go [to liquor stores often], just the way they wander around”, she said, later explaining that by a “new batch”, she meant a new group of regular customers. Customers who “make a stop by every two or three weeks”. 

This ‘new batch’ gives a clearer picture of which Americans are contributing to that 20% hike in alcohol sales. From what this clerk said, it sounded like a number of individuals had originally delved into alcohol as a way to unwind, but as they found themselves relying on it more, had accidently created a stubborn habit.  

Other stores I visited echoed this sentiment. One clerk even got the percentage right – estimating that the increase he saw in customers was “maybe like one-fifth more”.  

The New York Times wrote on this phenomenon at the end of April 2020. Author Corinne Purtill spoke about the disintegration of typical boundaries that would normally prevent someone from opening a drink at any point during the day.  

“At a time when boundaries have all but disappeared — home is the office! school time is work time! pajamas are work clothes! — the clink of ice cubes in a glass or the crack of a can may seem like one of the few ways left to distinguish evening from day, or weekend from week.” 

This sentiment has been jovially echoed by social media influencers as well; chef and author Ina Garten posted to her instagram a video of her preparing a plus-sized cocktail mix, with a comment that reads, “It’s always cocktail hour in a crisis!” 

That’s not to mention the ‘zoom happy hours’ that sprung up towards the onset of quarantine in the United States. They were a compensation – an effort at reclaiming a day of activities cancelled by social distancing.   

I visited four out of the six stores that I had mapped out for this project. I didn’t learn anything strikingly new from stores two or three that I hadn’t learned from the first, but I remember the exact phrase from the shopkeeper in store number four that convinced me to pack up and head home. 

“It’s a different mood. They got the shoulders all tensed up, they’re looking at the ground, they’re walking fast. Or they’re real friendly, and they’re trying to make conversation and laughing a lot.” 

I didn’t want nor need to hear any more. When I set out on this journey, I expected to return with metrics of age ranges, genders, income levels, or mannerisms. Instead, I found that the 20% rise had come from all branches of Americans – from a new collection of people whose lives had been hit so hard by COVID-19 that they turned to booze to fight reality. People who knew what they were doing wasn’t good – for them, or for their lives – and carried a sense of shame and regret that loomed over their shoulders as they walked through the store. 

I’d like to end this piece with a prayer to all those who read it: Stay safe and stay well. You have more friends than you know. Hard times will pass. The sun will shine through. Ask for help. Make a change in your routine. Reach out to someone. 

 Keep your head above water. I’ve seen plenty of people trying to drown their sorrows – I need to see you swim through it. 

Written by Joseph Detrano, CAS Science Writer