By BRUCE SCHREINER
LOUISVILLE, Ky. (AP) — Bill Thomas sold thousands of bottles of his whiskey inventory in 2020 to keep his famous Washington, DC whiskey bar afloat when the coronavirus shut down much of the economy.
The following year, the whiskey curator known for serving super premium and hard-to-get brands was restocking, even as COVID-19 forced it to accept a world of uncertainty.
“There are more bottles here today than there were when we sold out when the pandemic hit,” Thomas, owner of Jack Rose Dining Saloon, said by phone this week. “We rebuilt everything.
Thomas’ replenished supplies reflect the start of a comeback for an important segment of the spirits industry’s business – on-site sales of U.S. restaurants and bars.
These on-premises sales volumes — representing about a fifth of the U.S. spirits market — grew 53% in 2021, following pandemic-related restaurant and bar closures and restrictions nationwide in 2020, the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States said Thursday. Recovery is not complete. Last year’s on-site sales were still down 14% from pre-pandemic levels in 2019, the council said.
Despite the ongoing challenges of the pandemic, American whiskey producers toasted another year of growth. Combined U.S. sales of bourbon, Tennessee whiskey and rye whiskey rose 6.7%, or $288 million, to $4.6 billion in 2021, the board said. Domestic volumes increased by 4.5% to 29.7 million cases.
Demand for super premium brands, which fetch the highest prices, continued to rise last year, the council said. Super premium volumes grew 15.6% in the bourbon, Tennessee whiskey and rye segment last year, the trade association said.
Across the industry, overall sales and volumes increased for U.S. suppliers of distilled spirits, and the spirits industry again increased its share of the total alcoholic beverage market, the council said.
“Consumers enjoying spirits at home and switching to premium brands, combined with the gradual reopening of bars and restaurants, have resulted in record sales for the spirits industry,” said Chris Swonger, President and Chief board leadership.
Overall supplier sales in the United States increased 12% in 2021 to $35.8 billion, while volumes increased 9.3% to 291.1 million 9-liter cases, the report said. the board in its annual report. Tequila was a key growth driver, accounting for nearly a third of the total increase in spirits revenue, he said. Irish whiskey had a strong 2021, posting volume growth of almost 18%.
In 2020, as the spirits industry suffered from the pandemic-related clampdown on bars and restaurants, sales at liquor stores and other retail outlets surged. These off-premises sales reflected continued demand for a good, stiff drink as consumers increasingly mixed their own beverages at home.
Last year, offsite sales volumes were flat, but still sufficient to increase 19% from 2019, the council said.
While waiting for his bar business to fully recover, Thomas began capitalizing on the pandemic-era trend among consumers to increasingly mix their own drinks at home. He’s converted part of Jack Rose into a bottle shop that includes coveted single-barrel selections for take-out options.
And a pandemic-inspired twist for thirsty diners, in which restaurants serve cocktails to go, continues to take hold. Take-out cocktails are now permanent in 16 states, while 14 other states have extended their measures, the council said. Retailer home delivery laws passed in eight states.
For his company, Thomas summed up 2021 as “the worst roller coaster, ending in wreckage at the end” as the omicron variant caught on at the end of the year. This year remains one of “complete uncertainty” as the threat of COVID-19 persists, he said, but he is optimistic about the long-term outlook as more spirits drinkers turn to whisky.
“We know it’s going to come back,” he said. “We are optimistic. Whiskey is literally bulletproof. The whiskey market is only going up.