COVID-19 has battered the entire whisky industry but perhaps no one is struggling quite like the thousands of craft distillers in the U.S. The pandemic has shuttered tasting rooms and disrupted distribution, cutting off crucial revenue streams, prompting staff cuts, and potentially putting some on the brink of permanent closure. While most large companies forecast little impact from the current crisis—even as they suspend operations or shift production capacity to making hand sanitizer—some smaller distillers foresee whiskey supply shortages down the road, or worse.
An April survey of over 150 distilleries by the American Craft Spirits Association (ACSA) reveals that sales are down for almost 85% of respondents, as a majority have closed tasting rooms, laid off or furloughed employees, and are depleting remaining inventory as they allocate most of their production to hand sanitizer. Another survey, by the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States and American Distilling Institute, shows that, across 118 distillery respondents, 43% of staff have been furloughed or laid off. Yet the pandemic doesn’t have to spell doom, ACSA CEO Margie Lehrman says. “Solid, common-sense solutions”—like restaurants selling to-go cocktails, and more states allowing direct-to-consumer shipping—could allow drinkers to continue enjoying craft whiskey during lockdown. “For many of the craft distilleries that are actually able to benefit from one of these methods, I’m optimistic that they will come out on the other side of this with a strong ability to continue to produce,” she adds. “There are others, however, that don’t have the capacity at this point to do anything more than produce hand sanitizer and not even think about the next step.”