The pandemic lockdowns have inspired Canadians to take up a host of hobbies to help pass the time sans social gatherings: some have chosen to bake bread, and some have chosen to taste booze.
Despite the rise of sourdough, many will look back and remember this as the era of the at-home happy hour.
“Our three internal brands have all seen, especially at the beginning of the pandemic, a huge increase,” says Marisa Renaud, manager of partnerships for independent brands at BlackSquare, a Calgary-based platform for eCommerce alcohol sales.
“Lots of growth with people unable to visit breweries and pubs in person.”
The company operates three alcohol subscription services: Canada Craft Club for craft beers, Wine Collective for international wines and Kwaf, for small-batch Ontario wines.
“There is a lot of gifting for family and friends for different occasions, virtual get-togethers for birthdays and things like that,” she says. “And we saw quite a few groups do it as a way of connecting as their monthly social together. They would all order the same craft beer and get together and talk about it online.”
Corporate clients booked virtual wine and craft beer tastings, guided by winemakers or brew masters, as a means to stay connected with clients and employees.
“That’s something we did internally, ourselves, staying connected on a monthly basis on our team, and we found it to be really beneficial, so we extended it out to other companies as well,” she says.
Ms. Renaud estimates delivery and event sales were up more than 30 per cent over the last year.
A study by Sunnybrook and University of Toronto researchers found alcohol sales by the Liquor Control Board of Ontario (LCBO) totalled $5.5-billion from July 1, 2019, to June 30, 2020, of which $1.9-billion was from March to June 2020. In the same period the year prior, sales totalled $5.2-billion, with $1.6-billion of that from March to June.
The jump was highest at the onset of the pandemic, with sales of $462-million in March 2020 compared to $335-million in March 2019, a 38-per-cent increase, according to the study published in July.
Like toilet paper and flour, there was a noticeable increase in stockpiling in the early months of the pandemic. But unlike toilet paper and flour, supplies did not run out.
Although public health officials have expressed concerns about the overconsumption of alcohol, part of the increase is also due to the closure of restaurants and bars while liquor sales outlets remained open.
The LCBO launched a series of online events when the pandemic lockdown curbed the Crown agency’s in-person tastings.
“LCBO’s Virtual Event series was developed in response to the pandemic as a way to maintain engagement with our customers,” says Vanda Provato, chief marketing and digital officer. “It offered a new and engaging way for customers to learn about our products, the latest trends, and practical serving and pairing tips, all from the comfort of their home.”
The organization has hosted more than 45 events so far, the most popular their Portugal: Wines of the Sun event. Up to 300 customers watch live and typically there are 1,000 views a week of the recording following an event. In total, there have been 70,000 customer views of the virtual series, which range from a hot list of Ontario craft beers to vegan wine pairings.
It’s been so successful that the virtual events will continue, she says.
“When it is safe to do, we plan to relaunch in-person tasting experiences and events, and we intend to keep our successful virtual events programming,” she says.
When forced to close the doors of their Toronto cocktail bar, the team at BarChef quickly started virtual mixology workshops to replace their popular cocktail catering and team-building events.
“We have been hosting 20 to 60 virtual events per month for clients like Google, Sephora, TD, CIBC, Salesforce Deloitte [and others],” says
Karlina Hackett, director of events, sales, and marketing. “They are a great activity to keep teams engaged while working virtually.”
While online sales and virtual tastings have grown in popularity, customers were quick to embrace real-life revelry as soon as lockdown restrictions lifted.
At the lakefront Konzelmann Estate Winery, in Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ont., tours and tastings have been selling out in advance and the winery is already booking into October and November.
“They were very excited to come back, very excited to just sit in a public space with other people and safely enjoy our wines,” says Andrew Niven, director of marketing. “And it’s great to see people back. Walking by our tasting rooms and seeing them empty for the past year and a half, because we haven’t been allowed to even pour wine, and now seeing people in there enjoying it again, that to me is magic.”
The winery had a strong year last year, despite the drop in restaurant sales and winery traffic. Their online and wine club sales jumped about 300 per cent, he says.
Yet when lockdown measures lifted in April and May, it was a repeat of the panic-buying phase early in the pandemic. Customers crashed the doors.
“There’s definitely the demand for it,” Mr. Niven says. “If I were to forecast it, it seems like it’s going to be a good fall and winter as well.”