A Look Back on Challenging Year for Distilleries

And for a year like 2020… Where does one begin?

The spirits industry — like the American and global economies — has been affected by the pandemic, but in its own unique way. All across the country, the loss of on-premise sales through restaurants and bars has had a devastating effect on distilleries. In Pennsylvania, the story of distillers’ past year is a story best told in three parts.

Here’s an abbreviated review through the eyes of one Pennsylvanian distiller — me!

Early Lockdown

When Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf shut down indoor dining, gyms and other non-essential businesses, the state -run Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board also shut down all of the commonwealth’s state-run stores. Their recently launched online delivery portal also went down.

Have you ever worn a mask through a 10-hour shift in 110F heat?

In order to keep the state-employed union workforce safe during the pandemic, the drastic step of shutting down all on-site and online sales was taken. This seemed a responsible response to a global health pandemic. But Pennsylvania is a strictly-enforced control state, so residents could not buy distilled spirits within the state’s borders.

Except, of course, at your local craft distillery.

It’s only been a decade or so since Pennsylvania distilleries won the right to on-site bottle sales, a concession that has led to the renaissance in craft distillation in the state. During the lockdown, that provision turned into a saving grace, allowing them to stay open an fulfill curbside pickup orders.

During the state store shutdown, ordering craft spirits suddenly became quite en vogue.

Products flew off the shelves. Bourbon in particular, but really anything with booze in it was being purchased online and picked up at the distillery. As essential workers — most stills in the state converted to making hand sanitizer and industrial alcohol, at least nominally, for hospital use — the majority of distillers never stopped clocking in. In fact, it got insanely busy at the distillery.

While the indoor dining and tasting operations of small craft distillers shut down, sites with kitchens could offer meals-to-go as an additional income stream.

PLCB Re-Opening

States began rolling back shut down orders in the spring and summer. But more important to the story of Pennsylvania’s barrel inventory was the reopening of the state-run Fine Wine & Good Spirits locations.

Colleagues at the distillery earlier this summer.

By this time Pennsylvanians’ anxieties about getting their hands on wines and spirits were through the roof. I’d love to see an economist’s supply-and-demand curve created for the pandemic months when the PLCB stores were shut down. There’s nothing like combining panic buying with a full shutdown of availability to boost sales.

It’s easy for a distiller to judge. Not only could we bring home a wide range of spirits and liquors after any shift, nearly a decade of working in the industry has left me with a fully stocked bar. But thousands of my countrymen and women found themselves suddenly working from home or without jobs and in need of some dramatic stress relief.

When neighboring governors have to take the time to outlaw out-of-state sales to anyone with a Pennsylvania ID — in the midst of a global health crisis — it’s a sign things have to change. Clerks at liquor stores along the Ohio, West Virginia, New York and New Jersey frontiers began turning away Pennsylvanians after a crush on their stores made it more difficult to enact social distancing. It was only under this type of pressure did the PLCB strike a bargain with its unions and management to get the stores back open.

As online and in-person sales slowly came back online, on-site distillery sales quickly evaporated.

What Lies Ahead

As of writing this post, Pennsylvania is again in the midst of a shut down of on-premise dining and business owners are bracing for a long, cold winter. Cold temperatures have made the idea of outdoor dining during the holidays an unpleasant, if not outright impossible, idea.

A silver lining might be the easing of some liquor restrictions in Pennsylvania. Two changes that come to mind include making it easier to purchase distilled spirits and wine online and the ability to order to-go curbside cocktails from restaurants. While temporary, it will be interesting to watch how local wineries and distilleries innovate on these fronts to find new revenue streams.

Distilleries had additional challenges during the holiday gift season — a prime selling vehicle for many craft outfits. The reduction of barrel stocks that occurred during the beginning of the pandemic, when state stores were out of commission, also made for slim picking when it came time to find mature casks for single barrel and other specialty offerings. And while the commonwealth did ease some restrictions on online delivery, customers who did not live within driving distance of their favorite craft distillery did have to put a little more effort into their purchase than when ordering presents through Amazon.
It will be interesting to see how distilleries adapt in the new year.

Article by akendeall

Aaron is a whiskey writer, brand ambassador and distiller based in Pittsburgh, Pa., who has been working in the spirits industry since 2013.