The U.S.’s craft distilleries, already reeling from the sting of tariffs, now must contend with the impact of the coronavirus pandemic.
Bars, restaurants and other public venues have shuttered across the country, eliminating a major source of liquor sales. Meanwhile, 87% of craft distillery tasting rooms have closed, according to the American Craft Spirits Association (ASCA).
Yet, it’s not all bad news. Despite widespread losses and layoffs, many craft distilleries are quickly and cleverly pivoting to deal with the evolving situation.
According to the ASCA, more than 75% of craft distilleries plan to produce hand sanitizer in an effort to support the national shortage. Craft distilleries like Durham, NC’s Durham Distillery and Brooklyn, NY’s New York Distilling were nimble early adopters in this effort. Larger entities, including multi-national conglomerates such as Bacardi and Diageo, have followed their lead.
Distilleries are also finding creative ways to connect with consumers via social media, email and other channels.
“We are working on doing the virtual happy hours, and hangouts, and distance brand training, and trying to interact with people in a different way,” says Paul Hletko, founder/distiller of FEW Spirits in Evanston, IL. “I think we’re all trying to find ways to interact, now that our primary avenues—on premise, and retailers—are either closed, or full of bargain shoppers.”
Karen Hoskin, founder/owner of Montanya Distillers in Crested Butte, CO, says the rum distillery’s weekly newsletter, Life Distilled, has been a great way to connect with customers and other supporters. And The Better Man Distilling Co. in Patchogue, NY hosts a virtual cocktail contest.
Many distilleries have amplified their footprints on ecommerce sites and are exploring delivery options as well. Those with bar operations are offering curbside pickup and/or home delivery of prebatched cocktails or kits to make drinks at home.
The Better Man, which started production in August last year, doesn’t yet have a tasting room. “Luckily I’m a very creative thinker,” says Abby Gruppuso, head of operations for the distillery.
She’s put together attention-getting promos like a “virtual bar crawl” in collaboration with area restaurants. Over the course of four hours, participants receive one delivery per hour, each including a drink and an appetizer from the restaurant. Another offering, a Friday happy hour package, includes a food and drink delivery along with a live-stream performance by a local band.
The Better Man is also putting together a “virtual farmers market.” The distillery’s website will list products from various local food vendors, in addition to the distillery’s own products for easy online grocery shopping. “Then at a designated time, they will drive by the distillery and we will have all of their items packed in a bag for them to take home,” Gruppuso explains.
Small efforts matter, says Nikki Huckstadt McLain, owner of Royal Foundry Craft Spirits, Edina, MN. She promoted sales for national gin and tonic day on April 9 and gin-filled Easter baskets for adults. “It doesn’t seem like much, but it helps pay some minor bills,” she says.
Although distilleries are hurting, some still are finding ways to give back their communities, particularly the hard-hit hospitality industry. Norden Aquavit says it will donate all profits from online orders through April 18 to the United States Bartenders Guild’s Emergency Assistance Program, and Blackened American Whiskey will do the same through May 1.
Austin-based Garrison Brothers released a special, eight-year-old Bourbon, Laguna Madre, exclusively for people who donate $1,000 or more to Team Rubicon, a veteran-led disaster response organization. With just over 2,000 bottles available, the initiative aims to raise around $2 million dollars.
While interim initiatives sustain segments of the industry, craft distilleries also aim to look beyond the Covid-19 crisis.
“It seems like every single thing is in flux,” says Hoskin. “My number one priority right now is to guide Montanya through this storm with all of our staff and strategy intact. Every week, our whole staff meets by video to check in, and it is such a boost to see everyone’s faces and to laugh together.
“I want the company and our incredible team to come out on the other side strong, resilient, and proud. It’s not easy, but we’re doing our best every day to make this happen.”