Dramatic headlines in recent weeks declaring liquor shortages in places like Vermont, North Carolina, Michigan and elsewhere may have set some drinkers on edge. While such dire proclamations aren't entirely inaccurate — some well-known bottles are temporarily absent from bar and liquor store shelves in some states — those craving a cocktail need not panic because there are still plenty of good spirits to please even the pickiest palates.
But for die-hard fans of particular brands, finding a new favorite dram could mean purchasing something different while accepting their favorite champagne, tequila or cognac may be unavailable for a while.
After a year like no other, beleaguered bars and restaurants, as well as liquor stores, which generally fared better during the pandemic, are grappling with shortages of a litany of popular spirits, wine and beer. Some of those shortages began at the start of the pandemic in spring 2020, fueled in part by the voracious thirst of locked-down drinkers and production slowdowns at facilities of all sizes.
The amount of supply improved a bit over the summer before shortages again accelerated during the fall and holiday seasons. Now the lack of certain alcohol brands is back in the spotlight as a slate of factors — from global supply chain issues to surging demand as drinkers go back to bars — means some of the most beloved bottles (and cans) have disappeared from shelves.
Salon spoke with bar and liquor store owners, spirits buyers and officials — and a couple local distilleries — in half a dozen states grappling with ongoing and unpredictable shortages for insights on what's causing this, how it's affecting businesses and what it means for drinkers.
Not having enough of certain spirits has "definitely been difficult," says Jackie DeLoach, owner at Hattie's Tap & Tavern in Charlotte, North Carolina.
North Carolina is a control state, meaning it controls the sale of alcohol through the state's Alcoholic Beverage Control Commission. According to DeLoach, sometimes she's had to wait weeks to get an order, which is potentially due to a lack of truck drivers to ship liquor from the state warehouse in Raleigh to Charlotte.
DeLoach has the option of requesting liquor from different stores but that's sent her scrambling to as many five a week. "You can't get [certain products] right now so it's been pretty difficult to try to figure out if we can get alcohol for any given week," DeLoach says.
She's just trying to offer alternatives in the meantime.
According to DeLoach, the availability of certain spirits has fluctuated. Initially, peach schnapps were tough to come by, then — after being fully stocked for weeks — tequila was untouchable. Hennessy cognac and Bulleit whiskey have been elusive, but now Malibu coconut-flavored liqueur is basically unattainable.
Thankfully, Hattie's prides itself on a "massive variety of craft beer and whiskey," which, fortunately for customers looking to support small, local brewers and distillers, hasn't been quite as difficult to stock compared to some major spirits brands like Tito's and Jameson. "I don't think local craft beer had an issue at all," DeLoach says. "I've had a more difficult time when it came to champagnes and wines."
DeLoach recognizes there will probably be shortages of certain top-selling spirits and brands for a while, which poses challenges amid increased demand as more people hit the bar this summer.
"We've gone day by day for the past year and a half and you kind of get used to it," she says. "It's not comfortable, but we do everything we can to make sure that we can stay there and keep our patrons happy. There's always something that can get thrown at you, but in this industry, you learn to adapt."
She just hopes customers understand that the actual availability of spirits is largely out of bar owners' hands, at this point — which is important to keep in mind as officials in North Carolina say shortages could last a while.
Want more great food writing and recipes? Subscribe to Salon Food's newsletter.
"Broadly speaking, there have been strains on the global supply chains of a variety of products throughout the entire pandemic, and not just here," North Carolina Alcoholic Beverage Control Commission spokesperson Austin McCall tells Salon. "The retail demand for spirituous liquor has remained high even as more bars and restaurants have opened in recent months, straining supply even further."
In the meantime, the commission is "constantly working and communicating with suppliers to ensure they keep products in stock, as well as with the local ABC boards to help find solutions to specific product issues they may have," McCall adds.
One challenge that has presented itself is the limited availability of raw materials across "multiple categories and industries" due to the pandemic, according to a joint statement from the North Carolina Spirits Association and Mecklenburg County ABC Board, which operates liquor stores in the county.
"For the spirituous liquor industry, glass and key raw material ingredients for plastic closures are the main drivers of constraint," according to the statement. "Multiple suppliers are escalating alternative options as quickly as possible to address this challenge. Compounding conditions, the industry has experienced a significant decline in number of drivers."
According to the statement, this comes at a time when easing restrictions has resulted in "an explosive comeback" in bars and restaurants while liquor sales continue to outpace prior years.
"The increased demand on both sides contributes to the current conditions," it says.
Even if the return to drinking and eating out may be exacerbating shortages across the country, some restaurants are feeling less impact than others.
"Fortunately, we are not experiencing any setbacks from liquor shortages," says Emily Ransom, marketing and creative director at noodle sensation Ima, which has three locations in Detroit offering a variety of celebrated udon dishes along with ample beer and sake choices.
According to Ransom, Ima hasn't adjusted their cocktail menu (which is only available at one of their three properties), while beer and sake availability has always fluctuated, even pre-pandemic. This reality points to a semantic distinction that's being made by Michigan Liquor Control Commission (MLCC) public information Jeannie Vogel.
"There is no 'liquor shortage,'" Vogel says. "However, there are some specific liquor products that are out of stock — along with several other consumer products [such as] lumber, aluminum, homes, furniture, cars, hand sanitizer [and] baking products — that have been difficult to find or obtain during the COVID-19 pandemic and continuing into 2021."
Liquor shortages owe to several contributing factors including port and transit delays, a glass shortage, aluminum can shortage, aging requirements, increased demand and shifting trends — rising popularity of tequila, cognac, bourbon and ready-to-drink cocktails — since the start of the pandemic, according to the MLCC.
"We are aware of these shortages and working to get the products available as soon as possible," Vogel says. In the meantime, the MLCC has "almost 13,000 alcoholic liquor products available — more than double the number of liquor products offered in other states that similarly oversee the sale of alcohol," she adds.
With major liquor brands out of stock, store owners in Michigan and elsewhere are looking for ways to work around it, but that's a struggle. "The entire supply chain is extended and disrupted," says Bikram Singh, owner of Norfolk Wine & Spirits in Norfolk, Massachusetts.
Some of this can be attributed to global issues: From glass bottles stuck at a port in China, to transporters charging as much as $25,000 extra for expediting a shipment, to a 100% increase in the cost of packaging materials for some suppliers.
Distilleries are feeling the impact of this as well.
"We are seeing many global supply chain challenges ranging from steel supply (for barrel making) to key packaging materials (glass), all the way through the supply chain to issues with shipping container availability and timing for finished good case transportation," Brown-Forman spokeswoman Elizabeth Conway tells Salon.
She continues: "We have deployed our risk mitigation strategies to deal with the constraints, and while there are some short-term disruptions, we do not anticipate any widespread or long-term issues that would impact consumers being able to enjoy our brands for a significant period of time."
Norwalk Wine & Spirits faces its own unique challenges due to the nature of the store.
"We specialize in single barrels and specialty products, which often are bottled on a contract basis," Singh explains. "In other words, the supplier doesn't own and operate a bottling facility. This has created a bottleneck at some of these facilities and severely increased the time it takes to bring the product to market."
Some product releases have been delayed by six months or longer.
"The other issue we've faced is product releases," Singh adds. "Typically, when a product is released nationwide, it's available in most states simultaneously. But we've experienced product rollouts that span months due to a multitude of issues that include transportation, logistics and even personnel."
In most cases, Singh has been able to offer alternatives, allowing customers to explore other options, however, they are often forced to limit how many bottles a single customer may purchase. Additionally, anticipated supply issues have prompted Singh to eliminate many of the educational tastings that previously were "a major part of the experience" at his boutique store. Pricing, at least, has remained steady for the most part, although Singh says he's putting fewer products on sale due to limited availability.
"It is certainly disappointing for us, and for the consumer, to come to a store and not be able to purchase what they were expecting [as far as] product, style and size," Singh says.
In some cases, they're willing to compromise and try something different, "but not everyone is that understanding."
According to Horseneck Wine & Spirits owner Greg Rubin, these fluctuations affects small liquor stores differently than bigger box stores.
"An unfortunate symptom of all this is some people will shop at larger stores that are able to buy deeper than we can," Rubin says. "We're not buying pallets of Casamigos — we're buying cases of it. The big box stores are most likely buying pallets so when things run out, we're going to run out before they will."
However, according to The Urban Grape's chief marketing officer Hadley Douglas, smaller stores have unique advantages.
"Post-COVID, there are of course supply chain issues that need to get worked out, but they don't necessarily impact a store like ours, because we don't carry 'brands' per se, so we can always just switch out to another producer," she explains.
Also, focusing on smaller producers means it's easier to be flexible.
"We are used to adjusting," Douglas says.
Yet larger stores in major cities like Astor Wines & Spirits in New York have their own advantages. According to wine buyer Lorena Ascencios, Astor "is very adaptable just because we're dynamic."
"If Veuve Clicquot runs out, that's not an issue [because] I've got 80 other champagnes you can buy from us," she says. "If something sells out, I just buy another brand, and then we just have to message that to the client."
While some drinkers are stubborn in their habits, Ascencios insists there are great wines they're missing out on. "There's going to be people who must stick with their brand, and they're going to find out that they can't find it elsewhere," she says. "But our expertise is selling you something different that you haven't heard of, because we think those products over-deliver."
Bar and liquor store owners, spirits buyers and officials agree — it's not clear when the current shortages could end. "I don't see any light at the end of the tunnel right now," Ascencios says, adding that she anticipates certain shortages to last at least through the end of 2021.
In the meantime, drinkers have an opportunity to open their palates to what's available, and as Bergin sees it, there's an upside.
"It gets people to try something they haven't tried before," he says. "Some people like change, some might not, but at least they're trying something different than what they always have. I think that helps some of the smaller producers and lesser-known brands. It gets people to try their product, and they pick up a new customer."
This also presents an opportunity for consumers to try local brands and distilleries, many of whom were devastated by the pandemic and continue to struggle in the face of economic and logistical challenges major spirits companies may be better equipped to tackle. According to Wendy Knight, the deputy commissioner at Vermont's Department of Liquor and Lottery, "Vermont distillers have plenty of supply."
"Of our 2000-plus products, only about 10% are currently out of stock because of supplier issues," she says. "We're encouraging consumers to visit Vermont distilleries because they're not likely to have global supply chain issues and most of them are reporting no inventory issues."
For instance, there's no shortage of Mad River Distillers' whiskey, brandy and rum, says Mimi Buttenheim, president of the Warren, Vermont-based distillery. "Sales in general are up from the pandemic and the rebound has been great as restaurants reopen," she says.
She believes that "people are taking a second look at the local product" while better-known big names are missing. This may be tied to the fact that people wanted to support local during the pandemic, she says, which is continuing on post-pandemic.
"Locals and second homeowners alike … cared about local cheese, produce and meat," Buttenheim says.
Now, they care more about local spirits, too. People notice Mad River's silver Rum 44, for example, because it's made from scratch in Vermont. This may appeal to some consumers more than bigger brands.
"I would love them to drink it and purchase it on its merit," Buttenheim says. "But if they discover it because something they normally look for is out of stock, so be it."
This sentiment is echoed by Ryan Christiansen, the president and head distiller at Caledonia Spirits in Montpelier. While some bigger liquor brands are absent from shelves, Christiansen says it's more important than ever to support small distilleries — but also take stock.
"I think it's a really important time to evaluate the lessons learned from the pandemic and the importance of restaurants and distilleries in our community," he says. "These are important ways we create jobs, support agriculture, put food on the table."
He continues: "The pandemic showed us just how fragile that can be. Now is the time to go out and support your local restaurant because they've been struggling. To not buy the big brand but to look at the important brand in the backyard and say, this is something that I want to save, because it's part of the fabric of my community."
Read more by this author
- New York's bars, restaurants and distillers say they're suffering from the abrupt end of to-go cocktails
- For liquor stores, sales surged during the pandemic. What will happen when drinkers go back to bars?
- Ravaged by the pandemic, bars and restaurants face a reckoning — and a chance to revamp the industry
- How will bars survive in a post-pandemic world?