I'm just going to come out and say it, 2020 was hard. It was hard mentally, physically, and emotionally. It was so hard in fact that our drinks followed suit and became hard as well. This was the year of alcoholic coconut water, kombucha, tea, and pressed juice. It was the year we took a break from sober curiosity and everyone from Corona to Budweiser ran after the dream of hard seltzer. In a year when businesses around the world struggled, the alcohol industry soared. According to Drizly's 2020 Consumer Report, alcohol sales were up 1,089% this year, and we saw more new types of alcohol than ever before.
Personally, alcohol has played a big role in my year. Yes, I taste and write about alcohol for a living, but it also brought me a kind of joy I desperately needed. Besides marrying my wife over Zoom, discovering Troop's Bourbon Smash (which is arguably the best canned cocktail in the world, imho) was the highlight of my year. It brought a smile to my face in the same way discovering a new restaurant might have in previous years. When there was nowhere to go but our kitchens and our living rooms, innovation in the alcohol space felt refreshing. This year also brought a new range to ready-to-drink (RTD) alcohol. On one end, there are the craft cans, like Troop, Onda, Cutwater Spirits, and Fick's, and on the other hand, there's peppermint pattie Bud Light seltzer, Truly Extra Hard, and the very smashable Loverboy hard tea. Somewhere jumbled in the middle is the infusion of alcohol in every drink imaginable, coconut water (Crook & Marker) to pressed juice (Pulp Culture) to spiked still water (NOCA, and yes this is just uncarbonated hard seltzer).
Maybe I should be embarrassed that taking my first sip of Troop's Bourbon Smash was such a notable high point in my year, but this is 2020 so I'm distinctly not embarrassed. A small canned cocktail company based in California, Troop launched in October, in the middle of a pandemic, with a line of three full-strength high-quality canned cocktails. When I first tasted the Bourbon Smash (my personal favorite of the three, though there is also a gin drink and a rum mojito), I felt transported. I didn't feel stuck in my small Brooklyn apartment, I felt like I was inside of an actual restaurant with an actual mixologist making actual drinks. After eight months of being stuck inside (and unable to go to restaurants for health safety), I felt a giddiness I had all but forgotten about. Troop's Bourbon Smash made me remember a part of myself that I love — the social, goes-to-bars-and-tries-new-drinks part of me.
Now, I'm not one for regularly waxing poetic about ready-to-drink alcohol, but in a year when everything was hard, giving myself permission to be giddy about a canned cocktail felt like a gift. And this excitement over alcohol has become a regular occurrence in many people's lives. Social psychologist Dr. Devon Price has seen this both in her research and in her own life — survey data has shown a 14% increase in overall alcohol consumption during the COVID-19 pandemic in the U.S. "Our research has shown that single people who live alone are more likely to drink more often and more regularly," Dr. Price explains. "Anecdotally, I used to come home from work and have a glass of wine once or twice a week. Now, I finish work, I'm already home, so I might as well make myself a margarita."
Dr. Price also points out that while discovering new alcohol or becoming an at-home mixologist can be a fun new quarantine hobby, those with a predisposition to alcohol use disorders have felt the weight of the pandemic. "Psychologically, people use alcohol for relief from anxiety, depression, and stress. And people are bored," she says. "Plus, we're all at home. Alcohol disorders usually come to a head when it begins to interfere with your life, but if you're home all the time, there's no one telling you you're messing up. If you're not going into work or anywhere else, it can become a problem."
Dr. Price explains that while the disease of alcoholism is a serious issue, those with the disease are in the minority. For the most part, people are drinking more because they are, in general, being more lenient with themselves, "They're saying, 'Screw it, this is a pandemic. Why wouldn't I have a cocktail?'"
While the difficulties of 2020 led to a collective increase in alcohol consumption, the silver lining of this year is that this facilitated the absolutely groundbreaking innovations we saw in the alcohol industry. While unemployment soared, small RTD and spirit businesses were allowed the space to flourish, explore, and grow. Loverboy, a hard tea from Summer House stars Kyle Cooke and Amanda Batula, saw sales skyrocket during the pandemic. "Our sales grew 200-400% every single month this year," Cooke explains. "We became the #5 hard seltzer in our markets and sold out of our product every month from April to December." In fact, the demand spiked so high, Cooke and Batula had to find a new distributor to keep up with demand.
As this unprecedented year comes to a close, I find myself reflecting on how truly hard it has been. From being stuck inside to forgetting what real social interaction feels like, to the steep increase in both the size and variety of my Drizly orders — it is safe to say 2020 was the hardest year yet. While 2021 may bring new challenges in the form of social anxiety and the reintroduction of drinking in restaurants, for now, I will be ringing in the new year safely from home with a can of hard seltzer in hand.