During the Pandemic, Americans Are Drinking “Super Premium” Spirits

High-end tipples spurred a surprising increase in alcohol sales in 2020

whiskey in a glass
High-end spirits drove an overall increase in booze sales in 2020.
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In a year that decimated the hospitality and on-premise business, the sale of spirits was surprisingly resilient.

According to the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States (DISCUS), total beverage alcohol sales by volume grew 3% in 2020, and spirits gained market share over beer and wine with sales rising 1.3 points (to 39.1%) — the 11th straight year of market gains in that category.

Most interestingly, we’re drinking the good stuff, as “super-premium” spirits (think high-end, less mass-market) represented 40% of revenue growth. “The increase in spirits sales revenue reflects consumers’ willingness to spend a little extra on super-premium spirits during the past year since they were not traveling, going on vacations or dining out as often,” said DISCUS Chief Economist David Ozgo at the council’s annual economic briefing. “It also reflected consumers’ desire to bring that special restaurant and bar experience they were missing into their homes.”

And what we’re drinking most is American whiskey, which saw sales rise by 8.2% to $4.3 billion in sales. But other categories, including tequila/mezcal, Cognac and pre-mixed/ready-to-drink products, actually saw bigger gains percentage-wise (RTD sales were up a whopping 39.1%).

Now the bad news: Off-premise sales (e.g., liquor stores) were up 18%, but on-premise sales were down 44% and sales at global travel retail outlets “dropped to nearly zero.” Overall, bars and restaurants saw a net loss of 2.3 million jobs in 2020. As well, 36% of craft distilleries reported a total revenue decline of 25% (or more) last year.

“Tariffs and the pandemic left a wake of destruction in the hospitality industry in 2020,” DISCUS President and CEO Chris Swonger noted. “Permanently enacting marketplace modernizations introduced in response to COVID-19, from online delivery to cocktails-to-go, will aid in the recovery of restaurants, bars and craft distilleries.”


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