Amid COVID Restrictions, Pennsylvania’s Craft Distillers Are Selling Like Crazy. But Is It Enough?

A line forms outside Wigle Whiskey in Pennsylvania. Courtesy Photo.

Liquor has always notoriously been considered recession proof, but the easily transmitted coronavirus has turned 2020’s health and economic nightmare into an issue even for the drinking industry, closing bars and forcing patrons to remain home. 

Despite the lack of watering holes, home drinking is considered to be rising steadily to balance the scales. But in Pennsylvania, even supplying your home bar has been difficult—unless you live near a distillery.

Pennsylvania’s state-run liquor agency, the PLCB, has arguably been first in the nation for ineffective response to social distancing concerns. The PLCB closed all state liquor stores on March 16, and has mostly frustrated customers with a cryptic system for online ordering for curbside pickup. 

Whiskey author and expert Lew Bryson, who lives in Pennsylvania, has expressed frustration before. The Coronavirus pandemic is his game seven. Bryson isn’t shy about admitting that most Pennsylvanians simply cross a border to buy what they need. “That’s exactly what they’re doing in my neck of the woods, but we always do that,” he explains. “I’ve done book signings at liquor stores in New Jersey and Delaware, and every time I’ve been there, the parking lots have a lot of PA plates, sometimes a third of the cars in the lot are from PA.”

Lew Bryson’s Whiskey Master Class.

“People have also been ordering from sites that would ship to PA,” says Bryson, “but the PLCB has been shutting them down as they find them.”

The one ray of liquor light, however, has been that as the state has essentially halted its own sales, distilleries who are licensed to sell their own products onsite and by shipping or delivery, have been selling like crazy. “The other thing [consumers] are doing, which is awesome,” explains Bryson, “ is discovering that PA distillers, wineries, brewers, cider makers and meaderies are all open for take-out! Some PA distillers are actually running out of stuff.”

“We are swamped with orders,” says Philip Jensen, distiller for Big Spring Spirits in Bellefont, PA. Big Spring has been doing shipping, and has likewise been selling bottled cocktails, for some time now. “The list started around 1,500… we are now well over 8000. We are sending out about 70 packages a day via UPS.”

He says the increase represents “A lot of new customers. And lots of new followers on FB and Instagram. We are hoping folks will continue once the PLCB opens back up.”

The empty bar at Big Springs Spirits in Bellefonte, PA. Photo provided.

Roger Garthwaite, co-owner of Barrel 21 in State College, also owns Otto’s Pub and Brewery. He’s seeing a reverse of the norm. “The majority of our food take out has been from our loyal, long-term customers,” says Garthwaite. “We have seen many more new faces buying spirits. We see an opportunity to grow the delivery of beer and spirits and are looking into options.”

Distillers say they are moving a lot of products that don’t typically see high volume, including unaged spirits. 

Jensen says Big Spring Spirits is selling “tons of vodka, way more than normal. Gin, too.” He attributes this to new customers. “The regulars buy up our cream bourbon like crazy. It was easily our best seller and now it lags behind vodka and gin.” Garthwaite sees the same demand, saying that production from their small vodka still has had trouble keeping up with demand at Barrel 21. 

The popular items, meanwhile, are selling out quickly. “A couple niche products are sold out,” Jensen explains, “as we haven’t had time to make and empty barrels in order to keep up with demand for the top selling products. We sold our normal batch size of our American whiskey in less than 10 days; Normally that would last 10-12 weeks.”

Most distillers are also making hand sanitizer.

The team at Wigle Whiskey poses with a freshly distilled barrel of hand sanitizer – enough for local first responders to use for a week. Photo from Wigle Whiskey on Facebook.

“Things have been busy from a number of perspectives,” explains Wigle Whiskey cofounder Alexander Grelli. “Primarily, it’s been shifting from an on-site, high touch environment with consumers in terms of education and experience to a very much e-commerce driven business—something that we have never really focused too heavily on, but in the current state of times it’s our only option.”

While the new customers and new business avenues are welcome, most distillers are quick to caution that this hasn’t been a windfall. “It’s definitely a reduction in business,” explains Herman Mihalich, founder of Dad’s Hat. “We’re the second largest rye whiskey in the state, we’re in several hundred state stores, and not being able to sell through that channel has certainly taken a big bite out of us.”

Dad’s Hat isn’t centrally located, so curbside hasn’t really been an option as it has for other distilleries. But Mihalich says the shipping has worked pretty well. “We’re pretty happy with that.”

As the PLCB begins to regain control of their sales program and re-open some stores around the state, distilleries are expecting these numbers to decline. The question is whether other sales will rebound to balance.

Wigle is hoping that higher early on sales will offset declines for the next few months. “We haven’t crunched all the numbers, but {social distancing restrictions} likely increased the sales for the month of March, and what we’re trying to figure out is how to anticipate a decline when state stores are much more open, but restaurants and tasting rooms are still avoided.”

A larger, looming problem for growing distillers has been the future of satellite tasting rooms. In the state of Pennsylvania, distilleries are allowed to open off-premise tasting locations, where they can sell bottles and cocktails. Mihalich says Dad’s Hat decided to go forward with opening one right before the crisis hit, “so those are on hold, and we’re hoping to revive those when appropriate, because obviously that’s an on-premise business that requires customers to come in.”

So if you’re a whiskey fan who likes having new and unique bottles, and you’re living or quarantining in Pennsylvania, help out the local distilleries: buy some bourbon from them.

G. Clay Whittaker
Clay is Editor at Large of The Bourbon Review. He has written about whiskey, food, drink, and culture for Esquire, Playboy, Men's Journal, Popular Science, Southern Living, Maxim, among others.