Alcohol Use in the Time of the Pandemic

contaminated cocktail

contaminated cocktail

Do you ever feel like you need to escape? Perhaps to take a few moments to clear your mind of all things to do with a certain virus, shelter-in-place orders, or empty grocery store shelves? Well, we’ve got you covered. Let’s hop into our imaginary time machine and travel back to the mid-1630s when the Dutch fell helplessly and hopelessly in love with…tulips. Yes, tulips – come on, step inside, there’s no time to waste.

In his book Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds Scottish journalist Charles Mackay chronicles what came to be known as Holland’s period of ‘tulipomania’ wherein the flower – for a few short years – became the hottest commodity in the land. To satisfy its meteoric rise in popularity, ‘[n]obles, citizens, farmers, mechanics, sea-men, footmen, maid-servants, even chimney-sweeps and old clothes-women, dabbled in tulips. People of all grades converted their property into cash, and invested it in flowers. Houses and lands were offered for sale at ruinously low prices, or assigned in payment of bargains made at the tulip-mart.’(1) According to an article by Dan Piepenbring in The Paris Review, ‘speculators began to trade in what were essentially tulip futures’ and, along with cash sales, buyers also bartered an astonishing list of items for a single root of the Viceroy, a rare species of the plant. Included in the tally of acceptable exchanges were a ‘silver drinking cup,’ ‘four tuns of beer,’ and a ‘complete bed’ – are we starting to see a theme here? A further option, ‘one thousand lbs. of cheese,’ led us to wonder how exactly that payment would be arranged, possibly – one assumes – with the help of the ‘four fat oxen’ which were also acceptable. In short, Piepenbring notes, Mackay’s cautionary tale of tulipomania exposes the tumult and delirium that can ensue in a period of ‘unchecked speculation and financial fecklessness—usually as an analog to our own.’(2)

Now let’s fast forward to the present day. First it was bathroom tissue. Then it was bottled water.  Now, however, it seems that alcohol is the new tulip bulb, metaphorically speaking, with folks filling carts, car trunks, and spare rooms with cases of beer and bottles of liquor. Around the country, stores are reporting a significant uptick in alcohol sales as customers confront the reality of social distancing – or distant socializing as it has, perhaps more positively, also been dubbed – and enforced isolation. And with bars, restaurants, and clubs shuttered in many states, it seems almost inevitable that consumers will stockpile the ingredients for their favorite concoctions, often buying in bulk in the face of an unknown retail future. Another example of the race of conspicuous consumption, this presumably short-lived frenzy has seen states with previously strict laws on alcohol retail allowing sales online or by phone, with some even offering curbside pickup.

Moreover, in permissive California, locus of one of the earliest state-wide shelter-in-place mandates, San Francisco has seen a monumental increase in demand for Saucey, an app-based service that delivers beer, wine, and hard liquor directly to a customer’s door. Think mid-week pizza delivery and you’ve got the general idea. In a SF Weekly article, it was revealed that since March 19th 2020 when California’s governor, Gavin Newsom, first announced the shelter-in-place order ‘Saucey experienced an unprecedented spike in users on their alcohol delivery platform, with a 300% increase in area sales compared to a standard Thursday.’(3) But while embracing the tech, San Franciscans are also wary of delivery services as a vector for COVID-19 transmission leading the company to implement ‘enhanced safety measures in delivery procedures, including no-contact delivery, no-contact ID scanning, and the elimination of signatures upon receipt of delivery.’(4) In short, Californians’ impulse to ‘safely’ drink away the time in semi-quarantine is satisfied, once again, by high tech and an app.

All of which is well and good for those living in a Saucey-served area (currently Chicago, Dallas, New York City, and Washington DC, in addition to most metropolitan areas of California) but what about those outside of the company’s catchment area? What about those, say, in China…

According to an article published by National Public Radio (NPR), a specific group of Chinese liquor aficionados are being offered a perhaps unlikely ‘reward’ for their service in the fight to contain COVID-19.

Unlike their counterparts in Zhejiang province, some 1443 medical staff from Guizhou province who are on the frontline of combatting the spread of the virus have been offered the opportunity to purchase ‘up to six bottles of the nation’s most sought-after liquor — a locally produced, 106 proof Maotai liquor called Feitian — at 1,499 yuan ($210) per bottle.’ Back in November last year, we highlighted to problem of potentially contaminated Moutai in our article ‘Could Methanol Lurk in your Favorite Cocktail? Bootleg Booze & Toxic Tipples’ which, even under the best of circumstances, is described as having a flavor profile ‘somewhere between kerosene and paint stripper.’(6) And being given a ‘gift’ that requires payment must leave an altogether different level of bad taste in a recipient’s mouth.

On social media, the Guizhou Liquor Exchange which trades in this ‘national liquor’ has been roundly condemned for the move.

On Weibo, China’s Twitter-like platform, commenters expressed outrage: ‘They [Guizhou Liquor Exchange] are shameless […] It’s just a couple bottles of liquor. Can’t they just give for free?’ with another adding ‘This is how you treat our heroes?’(7) Moreover, given that the 2019 per capita disposable income for a Guizhou resident was just 20,397 yuan ($2,870) it does beg the question: How could the medical personnel even afford to accept their ‘reward’? On the other hand, for those fortunate enough to have the means to do so, the re-sale of a single bottle of Freitan ‘could fetch from 2,000 yuan ($280) to 300,000 yuan ($42,200), depending on the year it was made and market demand’ so in a sense this could be seen as a windfall for the medics, albeit a rather curious one.(8)

And finally, some customers on this side of the Pacific have taken an interest in hard liquor for altogether different reasons. According to the Frederick News-Post of Frederick, MD sales of Everclear, a rectified grain spirit bottled at up to 95% alcohol by volume (ABV), have shot up as hopeful consumers use it to craft their own hand sanitizer. While isopropyl alcohol is the main ingredient in commercial hand sanitizer, many other sources of ‘alcohol’ are not sufficiently strong to be used in its place – a fact that might potentially escape the notice of the at-home compounder. According to Food and Drug Administration (FDA) guidelines just released in the face of COVID-19, to be effective hand sanitizer should be composed of ‘at least 60 percent alcohol (also referred to as ethanol or ethyl alcohol.’(9) In addition to being of questionable  efficacy, the FDA also points to the possible danger of home-made solutions: ‘We are also aware of reports that some consumers are producing hand sanitizers for personal use; the Agency lacks information on the methods being used to prepare such products and whether they are safe for use on human skin.’(10)

But given empty shelves in the pharmacies and grocery stores, what are the options for on-the-go hand cleaning?

Fortunately there may be a light at the end of the tunnel. At this time the FDA has announced that it ‘does not intend to take action against compounders that prepare alcohol-based hand sanitizers for consumer use and for use as health care personnel hand rubs for the duration of the public health emergency.’(11) This means that just as some automotive manufacturers are re-tooling their systems to engineer ventilators, some spirits distilleries are pivoting to produce ethanol-based sanitizing solutions. According to an article in Town & Country, for commercial distillers the process is relatively simple, given that it mimics existing operations: ‘In order to shift production to hand sanitizer, distillers have to denature the ethanol they would otherwise have used to make spirits, a process that makes the alcohol undrinkable. It is then blended with hydrogen peroxide and glycerin according to a recipe provided by the FDA.’(12) (This recipe is available here.) Moreover, with the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau announcing a waiver on ‘certain provisions around distilled spirits regulations to allow distilleries that typically produce drinking alcohol to pivot to the production of ethanol-based hand sanitizers,’ the jobs of distillery employees – which would otherwise be deemed non-essential – are safeguarded. More light in a long tunnel, perhaps.

In the face of COVID-19 fears and realities, it behooves us to remember that, although currently rampant, this pandemic will ultimately end and life will return to some degree of normality. A tangential issue, however, is what exactly that ‘new normal’ will look like. What kind of collective social system will emerge from this pandemic chaos, and how will we, as individuals, be changed? We can look to China for instances of doubtful institutional responses and equally for the compassion of individuals. At home, we can witness some consumers’ hoarding behaviors and the uptick in both alcohol and firearms sales on the one hand and yet also see the courage of our front-line healthcare workers on the other. We can shutter our metaphorical (or actual) doors in the face of the situation or we can pivot, re-tool, and create something new. What’s certain is that while we can’t choose the circumstances, we can definitely choose our reactions.

How are you managing during this crisis? We are here and listening to our community. Connect with us by commenting below…


  2. ibid
  4. ibid
  8. ibid
  10. ibid
  11. ibid

For some Quarantini recipes, check out Town & Country Magazine.

With thanks to Dr. A. Cavanagh of the University of Leeds, UK, for bringing this to our attention.