CORONAVIRUS

Iowa liquor sales surge in pandemic

'Everybody is under a lot of stress,' grocer says

A variety of spirits from different retailers. (Tribune News Service)
A variety of spirits from different retailers. (Tribune News Service)

Apparently there’s nothing like a stay-at-home pandemic to drive Iowans to drink.

Officials with the Iowa Alcoholic Beverages Division announced Friday that liquor sales in March — the month Iowa confirmed its first cases of the novel coronavirus — jumped 18 percent to $31.9 million. Iowans followed that by buying $28.6 million worth of spirits in April, a 2 percent rise from a year ago.

“Much of the sharp increase in liquor sales in March is believed to be attributable to changes in consumer behavior due to COVID-19,” according to an agency statement. That occurred as Iowa bars and restaurants were ordered on March 17 closed for sit-down service.

“As a result, Iowans appeared to shift to purchasing liquor by the bottle for at-home consumption,” according to the agency.

John’s Grocery in Iowa City felt that shift.

With its store close to the University of Iowa campus, its customer base typically is mostly students who, on a collegiate budget, go for the cheaper brands, But the campus is shut down.

“We have seen a definite switch of the packages and what our customers are buying,” said store manager Doug Alberhasky. “We are obviously not selling hardly any of the real value-priced stuff that would be the staple of the college students. But we’ve definitely seen an uptick in our midrange and especially our higher-end stuff, on liquor particularly. With wine, we’ve got a really nice spread of variety and different price points. Those have been moving fairly well.”

Alberhasky said John’s also has seen a “huge uptick” in the sale of items used to make mixed drinks.

“It’s been really weird, but we’ve pretty much ran the state out of sweet vermouth,” he said. “The amount of people that are mixing their own mixed drinks is pretty phenomenal.”

And sales of varieties of beer produced by local microbreweries “have just exploded,” he said.

Alberhasky said he believes some people treated the early stages of the pandemic like a vacation. But once the reality became apparent, people realized “they probably shouldn’t be drinking on every day that ends with a ‘y.’” he said.

“I think it has a lot to do with just being able to relax, being able to have a nice cocktail and being able to just kind of unwind,” Alberhasky said of the strong alcohol sales. “Everybody is under a lot of stress.”

Iowa’s Alcoholic Beverages Division sells liquor to off-premises retailers such as liquor stores, grocery stores and convenience stores.

But it is unable to track individual purchases by consumers.

State officials did note, however, that sales data for March 16 through April 1 indicated an 82 percent increase in the number of cases of 1.75 liter-sized liquor products the division sells to the retailers compared with the same period in 2019.

Case sales of standard-sized 750 milliliter bottles increased by 51 percent, a surge that caused officials to conclude the sales spike “is believed to be due to increased by-the-bottle purchases by consumers.”

“We can’t be certain that these sales figures demonstrate an increase in personal consumption. Iowans may have simply changed where they are continuing to enjoy their favorite spirits products,” said division administrator Stephen Larson. “Regardless, we encourage all Iowans who choose to consume alcohol to always do so in a moderate and responsible manner.”

After ordering restaurants closed to sit-down service, Gov. Kim Reynolds allowed them to serve to-go drinks to generate revenue.

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As of Friday, restaurants in the 22 counties in Iowa that had been hardest hit by the virus — including Cedar Rapids and Iowa City — are allowed to partially reopen to sit-down customers, but with limits.

Bars, which primarily serve alcohol and not food, still must close.

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