What we drink in a crisis

Tea, tequila, claret, gin… Alice Lascelles finds out what the world’s been glugging

Image: Martin Parr/Magnum Photos

When the going gets tough, the tough drink… more. That seems to be the case if the past few weeks are anything to go by, at least. Alcohol may be an “unhelpful coping strategy” during times of stress, according to the WHO. But that apparently hasn’t deterred people from hitting the bottle a little harder during their time in quarantine.

When Donald Trump declared a national emergency in the second week of March, spirits sales in the US jumped 26.4 per cent. The biggest spikes were in sales of gin and tequila, but there was double-digit growth in every main spirits category except brandy, curiously. The Bureau National Interprofessionnel du Cognac might want to look into that.

With the bar scene in lockdown, New Yorkers have also been embracing cocktails “to go”. The Greenwich Village hot-spot Dante – voted World’s Best Bar last year – says it’s been doing brisk business in bottled classics-with-a-twist: Negronis, Old Fashioneds and Martinis. “Stirred, spirit-forward drinks have been increasingly popular,” says owner Linden Pride.

In Gaungzhou, China, Hope & Sesame – another bar on the World’s Best list – has been tiding itself over during shutdown by selling takeaway cocktails in the kind of branded, peel-back cans in which you’d normally expect to find tuna. Bestsellers include a coconut Old Fashioned made with salted pandan syrup and cardamom bitters, and Spicy Not Spicy, a tropical sour made with chilli-infused rum and yellow Chartreuse.

Italians have always been hard-wired to eat and drink local. But lately, that spirit of regional pride has morphed into something more akin to a sense of national duty. “Supporting wineries and local enotecas is on everyone’s mind,” says a friend currently quarantined in Florence. 

In the UK, where new figures released show alcohol sales up 22 per cent, people have been panic-buying wine. “Our customers have cleared us out of our own-label Extra Ordinary Claret,” says Berry Bros & Rudd, which recently enjoyed its busiest day of online sales, ever. The Wine Society may have temporarily ceased trading to protect staff – much to many members’ despair – but the Majestic website recently crashed under the weight of traffic. At the same time, merchants big and small have responded to the status quo by offering live-streamed tastings and courses and masterclasses.

In uncertain times, people turn to what they know – which means Old World regions such as Bordeaux, Burgundy and Tuscany have been doing particularly well. English and Welsh wineries, however, have been hit hard, since many of them depend on restaurants and tourism for sales.  

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Gin sales, not surprisingly, are booming across the UK. Around where I live in north London, you can’t get Schweppes tonic for love nor money. Sales of restorative hot drinks are also up, according to Waitrose. Shoppers have been bulk-buying coffee beans and builders’ tea, as well as more soothing infusions such as chamomile tea and lemon and ginger. Anything to either pep them up or help them sleep.

Not every country classes the sale of alcohol as “essential business”: South Africa and Nuuk, the capital of Greenland, responded to the Covid outbreak by banning sales of alcohol outright. In northern France, the department of Aisne was forced to reverse a similar ban after a backlash in the local community.

Some people are always stockpiling wine, even when there isn’t a crisis. But that’s known as “building a cellar”. “All the friends I’m talking to are drinking their wine cellar dry,” reports a contact in Provence. “When the confinement started, I opened some of my best bottles, as if the world was going to end. I might as well drink them first.” And if you can’t move, improve: the home-cellar company Spiral Cellars tells me March was its busiest month for enquiries since 2012.

My own experience of drinking in isolation has been up and down. There have been times over the past few weeks – usually at the end of a day of particularly testing home-schooling – when I would, quite frankly, be content with a glass of anti-freeze. But there are other days, when being cut off has made the experience of opening a bottle of wine all the more poignant. I find myself standing there, looking at the label and thinking about the year and the vineyard and the people that made it. All those things that now seem so far, far away. And I feel a lump come into my throat.

Wine has always been a sort of message-in-a-bottle. But it’s only in isolation I’ve really come to appreciate that. 

Alice Lascelles is Fortnum & Mason Drinks Writer of the Year 2019. @alicelascelles

This story was originally posted on 20 April 2020.

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