Cask on College, which sells premium alcohol products, saw an increase in sales in 2020. Photo: Pete Rosos
Berkeley’s Cask, which sells premium alcohol products, saw an increase in sales in 2020. Photo: Pete Rosos
Berkeley’s Cask, which sells premium alcohol products, saw an increase in sales in 2020. Photo: Pete Rosos

In early April 2020, when the pandemic and associated lockdown already seemed to be dragging on, masked people began lining up in front of a window on College Avenue near Alcatraz in Berkeley. Paper bags filled with French wines, American bourbons and craft beer were being handed out to waiting customers.

The booze delivery system implemented by Cask, which calls itself an artisanal beverage purveyor, had Prohibition-era vibes that charmed customers, who were excited to patronize the bottle shop after it had been closed for the first two weeks of the pandemic. The line at Cask also seemed to suggest that locals, who could no longer drink at restaurants and bars, were turning to retail stores to get their buzz.

A study from the RAND Corporation released fall 2020 showed that binge drinking had spiked for many Americans at the very beginning of the COVID-19 lockdowns; Nielsen reported a 54% increase in national alcohol sales for the week ending March 21, 2020. Liquor industry group IWSR reports that while alcohol sales were projected to be down by 8% worldwide in 2020, they were projected to rise by 2% in the United States and Canada, with business trending from restaurants and bars to e-commerce sales, and ready-to-drink alcohol products seeing the most traction. The New York Times reported that while it’s unclear if people are drinking more at home, overall retail alcohol sales have gone up, and consumers are shifting to buying more premium beer, wine and spirits at stores.

With all that data in mind, we wondered how the pandemic has affected local liquor specialty shops, and whether they were actually seeing an increase in business.

A wall of whiskey at the College Avenue location of Cask.
A wall of whiskey at Cask, which is known for its selection of the brown spirit. Photo: Pete Rosos

A demand for specialty booze

Cask does appear to have benefited from people drinking more — and more specialty and high-end liquors — at home during the pandemic. Brian Sheehy of Future Bars, which has owned Cask on College Avenue since 2017, said, “When we first opened two weeks after the shutdown, customers were delighted we were open. We sent out word on social media and the first day we opened we had a line.”

Future Bars revamped the Cask website for online purchases, so customers were able to order online and pick up in person, cutting down on personal interaction. By the end of April, the entire store was open for in-person shopping. With restaurants and bars being closed, Cask experienced a boost in sales.

“Our sales at this particular store are up 25% over 2019,” said Sheehy. Cask is known for its whiskey collection but has expanded its wine collection, filling in the area that used to be a taproom before in-person dining was closed down.

But Sheehy did say it has been a “brutal year for business in general.” His group also owns a number of bars in San Francisco and the East Bay (including Tupper & Reed in downtown Berkeley), which have been closed for the duration of the lockdown.

The closed up tasting room at Cask on College. Photo: Pete Rosos
The closed up tasting room at Cask in Berkeley now holds the store’s expanded wine collection. Photo: Pete Rosos
The closed up tasting room at Cask in Berkeley now holds the store’s expanded wine collection. Photo: Pete Rosos

Alcohol is still selling, but sales can be uneven

Umami Mart sits in between Temescal and Piedmont Avenue, where it sells Japanese homewares alongside spirits, craft beers and sake. The shop moved in May 2019 from Old Oakland to its current location, which houses a small, on-premise bar. While its tasting area has been closed since March, Umami Mart has been able to attract customers with its wide selection of Japanese beverages. Still, co-owner Kayoko Akabori noted a spike in alcohol sales in the early pandemic days was followed by a lull.

“We saw a surge in liquor sales from April to June, then it started to go down,” she said. “We were really able to pull through these rough times thanks to our community and Sake and Shochu Gumi members,” referring to Umami Mart’s monthly sake and shochu club membership programs, which Akabori credits for keeping the business going.

Umami Mart in Temescal sells Japanese homewares and alcoholic beverages, like sake, craft beers and spirits. Photo: Sarah Han

Meanwhile, the family-owned Ledger’s Liquors in Berkeley saw a similar sales trajectory.

“We’re busy, for sure,” said Austin Ledger, great-grandson of Ed Ledger, who founded the store in 1935. “In the first week or two [of the pandemic], there was a pretty good pickup of business but that didn’t last long.”

Austin Ledger, 24 and part owner of Ledger’s Liquors. Photo: Pete Rosos
Austin Ledger, 24 and part-owner of Ledger’s Liquors. The store is in its fourth generation of family ownership. Photo: Pete Rosos

He didn’t have exact numbers, but Ledger said that sales in 2020 were slightly down from the previous year, and that while customers are still buying alcohol, they are more price-conscious these days. Ledger said that the pandemic has also created some unexpected supply chain issues, including an aluminum shortage. He can no longer get his hands on Diet Dr Pepper Cherry (beloved by one longtime customer) and local breweries are having a hard time finding cans. That said, local brews from Oakland’s Original Pattern, Livermore’s Eight Bridges and Alameda’s Faction Brewing are still selling briskly. And, although high-proof spirits were really popular in spring 2020 (people were using it to make homemade hand sanitizer), there’s less call for 153-proof liquor these days.

Unlike a normal year, there was no huge bump in sales at Ledger’s over Christmas and New Year’s. “Even with the holidays picking up, people were a little more conscious of their buying,” Ledger said. “It was good but not as good as a classic holiday year.”

Alkali Rye owners Jessica Moncada Konte and Kori Chen. Photo: Pete Rosos 

Drinkers are seeking something new to imbibe

Oakland’s Alkali Rye, which offers both hard and soft drinks, opened shop during the pandemic. Co-owner Jessica Moncada Konte said, “We paused for a few months [after remodeling the space in January 2020] and when it seemed like this was the new normal, we thought OK, it’s time to open. This has always been our normal now.”

Alkali Rye customers, who come for the shop’s range of drinks created by underrepresented groups — including Black, Indigenous, people of color, women and queer producers — tend to mostly come from the Grand Lake neighborhood, but sales from across California spiked after the store launched an online shop in late fall 2020.

Konte, who co-owns the store with Kori Chen, said Alkali Rye wasn’t meant to be the pair’s sole source of income. But the pandemic had other plans.

“It’s been hard. I got laid off in March. The store was not intended to support us so early, but right now we’re kind of making it work throughs savings and living frugally,” she said. Still, the fledgling store is supporting both of them, a feat during a public health crisis.

Along with alcohol, Alkali Rye sells coffees, teas and other nonalcoholic drinks. Photo: Pete Rosos

So are East Bay residents part of the nationwide trend of drinking more during the pandemic? Konte offered one perspective. “I think that people have regulated a while back,” she said. “The first three months, there was a lot of time at home. I feel like people have kind of adjusted.”

Konte said that that the most popular items tend to be the drinks the owners themselves are excited about. “There’s an agave liqueur that I’m really into that’s made with roasted pineapple and ancho chilies,” she said. “And these really beautiful and fragrant rums that are owned by a Haitian collective.”

And Chen added, “I think people are always drinking and so I think that it has been interesting for us to see the sales of nonalcoholic offerings going up.”

Cask, 3185 College Ave. (at Alcatraz Avenue), Berkeley; Umami Mart, 4027 Broadway (near 40th Street), Oakland; Ledger’s Liquors, 1399 Universty Ave. (at Acton Street), Berkeley; Alkali Rye, 3256 Grand Ave. (between Mandana Boulevard and Lake Park Avenue)

Elise Proulx is a freelance writer and director of communications and marketing at UC Berkeley's School of Public Health. She lives in Berkeley with her husband, teenage son, dog, four cats, four chickens...