For one day — make that one afternoon — in March during the coronavirus shutdown, alcohol sales spiked across Denver.
Argonaut Wine & Liquor on East Colfax reported a 300% increase in bottles going out the door on March 23, while the River North winery Infinite Monkey Theorem made $1,200 on wine alone in just an hour.
Before Denver Mayor Michael Hancock reversed a March 23 order that would have closed liquor stores alongside non-essential businesses for the duration of the shutdown, drinkers indiscriminately raced to stock up on any and all booze, thinking they wouldn’t be able to buy their favorite beverages for a while.
A local entrepreneur capitalized on the rush after the fact: “I survived the Denver Prohibition, March 23, 2020, 3 p.m.-5 p.m” reads a T-shirt for sale (with 150 reviews) from independent online retailer Redbubble.
“If Mayor Hancock could do that every couple of weeks… that would be great for sales,” joked Tim Myers, who re-stocked his canned beer fridge at Strange Craft Beer Company three times that day.
Aside from mass panic, there was one other downside.
“The challenge to having a big sales day like that,” Myers said, “the next five days, sales were really light because everybody had their beer already.”
While March 23 was a boon for most alcohol retailers in Denver, the rest of the month and the shutdown as a whole have created mixed results, owners say, with many independent producers still struggling to survive.
Small and large liquor stores in Colorado have fared best of all, seeing a steady uptick in alcohol sales, maybe 12% to 18% on average, estimates Jeanne McEvoy with the Colorado Licensed Beverage Association, which represents around 1,600 liquor stores around the state.
Colorado is not alone. Across the United States, the uptick in alcohol sales reached 55% in March, according to Nielsen data. Off-premise spirits sales for the week ending March 21 were 75% higher than the previous year, Nielsen reported, while wine sales saw a 66% increase and beer sales a 34% year-over-year jump.
At the 57-year-old Joy Wine & Spirits on Denver’s 6th Avenue, sales aren’t anywhere near the national average, according to owner Carolyn Joy, but they are “definitely robust and definitely up, no doubt about that,” she said. “I know all my employees feel really fortunate to have jobs and be busy and help people and make people happy.”
Argonaut co-owner Josh Robinson wouldn’t give specific numbers, either, but he said he’s seen “a noticeable uptick, for sure.” With the increase, Robinson has been able to hire 15 to 20 laid-off bar and restaurant workers who already have a knowledge of his products.
He said some of the bestsellers this past month have been big booze brands — Tito’s fans, for example, are stocking up on vodka — and Everclear, at 120-proof or higher, has sold out, since people are reportedly attempting to make at-home sanitizers (spoiler: don’t do it).
Infinite Monkey Theorem, too, has sold 50% more wine online in all since the shutdown started, with single-serve wine cans going fast, according to Nicki McTague, IMT’s vice president.
That online boom resembles sales seen usually just around the holidays, she said. “So March looked a lot like December for us. But we’re fearful of April and what April looks like, just because we now have no restaurants open.”
Online sales don’t make up for an 85% drop in taproom sales, previously the business’ “bread and butter,” McTague clarified. And she worries about the effects of other diminished in-person sales at restaurants, events and festivals.
For a company that relies on keeping a physical presence in its community (IMT is based in Denver with another taproom in Austin), “we don’t have any brand recognition other than social media right now,” McTague said. “And we’re all being bombarded these days with everything online.”
Infinite Monkey is doing what it can to compete — offering weekly specials, free swag with purchases and, hopefully soon, individual frosés (frozen rosés) to-go when customers come to the tasting room to pick up their wine orders.
Strange Craft’s Myers says he’s sustained just over 60% of his pre-shutdown beer sales with similar measures.
A 5-year-old Strange Craft “mug club” provides around 100 members with discounts on beer growler fill-ups and other rewards. And Myers started canning his beer for the first time (though he used to bottle it) to accommodate customer preference.
He was only able to do so because Golden cannery Codi Manufacturing offered to can for Strange Craft and other small breweries for free, since taproom-based business has been all but obliterated. Strange Craft then collaborated with Argonaut on a special-release “Strange Times” canned beer, to get their microbrews out in front of a larger audience.
Earlier this week, Myers said he and other members of the Colorado Brewers Guild sat on a call with Gov. Jared Polis, voicing their concerns.
One request they had for the government: “If there’s going to be another huge announcement (like on March 23), please just give us a head’s up so that we can plan for it,” Myers said.
But his larger takeaway from the conversation came as no surprise, though it was sobering: Their businesses could be closed “easily until the end of May,” Myers said, “and then even after that, we can’t cram 100 people inside a tasting room, all waiting to have a pint.
“We’re going to have a whole new world when this is over.”
Subscribe to our new food newsletter, Stuffed, to get Denver food and drink news sent straight to your inbox.