Sales of high-end premium and super-premium spirits had one of their best years in four decades.

By Jelisa Castrodale
February 02, 2021
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It's not at all surprising to learn that the pandemic has caused significant changes in consumer behavior, because of long-term restaurant closures, the amount of time we've had to spend in our own homes, and totally readjusting our morning routines.

The pandemic has also changed the way we buy alcohol, as well as what kind of booze we're putting into our (more frequently virtual) shopping carts. According to recently released data from the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States (DISCUS), spirits sales increased by 1.3 percent last year, and now account for 39.1 percent of the "total beverage alcohol market." 

Alcools.
Credit: Philippe TURPIN/Getty Images

One of the biggest sales increases was among the high-end premium and super-premium spirits, where year-over-year sales grew by 7.3 percent and 12.7 percent, respectively—and a nice bottle of liquor was apparently the way that a lot of us tried to treat ourselves last year. "The increase in spirits sales revenue reflects consumers' willingness to spend a little extra on superpremium spirits during the past year since they were not traveling, going on vacations or dining out as often," DISCUS Chief Economist David Ozgo said, according to Beverage Industry Enthusiast. 

Sales of American whiskey rose by 8.2 percent, rye whiskey jumped by 16.9 percent, tequila and mezcal sales were up by 17.4 percent, and Cognac (!) sales increased by 21.3 percent. Single-malt scotch sales fell by 2.1 percent, most likely because of the 25 percent tariff that the previous Presidential administration put on the spirit as part of a non-booze-related trade dispute

Another big winner was the bottled or canned ready-to-drink cocktail category, which saw a 39.1 percent sales increase last year. (DISCUS attributed this to an increase in at-home entertaining, the novelty of newly launched products and our collective desire for convenience.) 

Convenience and being largely locked down in our own homes also caused a significant jump in online alcohol orders. Last summer, market research firm IWSR said that it expected online alcohol sales to jump from $3 billion in 2019 to $5.6 billion in 2020. "Consumers' increasing proclivity for online purchasing has been driven by necessity in recent months, but these purchasing behaviors are here to stay," Guy Wolfe, IWSR's strategic insights manager, said in a statement. 

And Drizly, the online booze delivery service (and the so-called "Amazon for liquor"), said that its sales were up by a jaw-dropping amount last year. "You know especially in the early days when lockdowns started getting put in place, we saw a pretty dramatic increase," Liz Paquette, Drizly's head of consumer insights, told NPR last fall. "As we stand today, we're up around 350 percent [in year-over-year sales]." 

Unfortunately, not all of the numbers are winners: the one area which saw its sales plummet were on-premise sales at restaurants and bars; those were down by 44 percent last year due, again, to lockdowns, capacity restrictions, and on-again, off-again closures.

This year has to be a hard one to forecast, as not even the best analysts can predict what will happen with new virus variants, the ongoing vaccine rollouts, or even timetables for when we'll be back to whatever will pass for "normal" in the future. Until then, be safe, drink responsibly, and try to find ways to support your favorite local bars, breweries, and retailers in the meantime.