Don’t pass the Dutch: Off-licence customers ‘spoiling themselves’ during pandemic

A shot outside of Fagan’s off-licence by Colm McGuirk

Along with Jeff Bezos, Cavan GAA, and plexiglass salespeople, off-licences can be counted among the ‘winners’ of the past 12 months.

Although pub and nightclub closures meant that alcohol consumption fell in Ireland during 2020, the inevitable switch to home boozing ensured it didn’t fall by much.

A staff member in O’Briens at Hart’s Corner tells us “it’s been manic, really busy. Fridays are like Christmas Eve every weekend.”

Her colleague remembers their spacious stock room as nearly too jammed to enter in December, though it’s not just in quantity that buying patterns have changed.

“People are treating themselves to better quality,” she continues. “At the weekend, people are spoiling themselves and paying maybe €20 for a nice bottle of wine, or a bottle of bubbly or something. Maybe going the extra mile or two because obviously they can’t go to the pub, they can’t go out for meals. Instead of buying their regular bottle of whiskey, people are splashing out the extra 10, 20, 30 euro, or maybe even more,” she explains.

A worker in Carolan’s Corner on the North Circular Road details even more extravagant spending.

Carolan’s Corner on North Circular Road. Photo by Colm McGuirk

“Green Spot, Yellow Spot and Midleton [whiskeys] – they’re more popular now,” she says. The latter sells in Carolan’s for €350.

“We’re selling more top whiskeys than we’ve ever done,” she says.

Down the road in Drumcondra, Tom O’Connor of McGrath’s has recorded “a huge uptake in wine. It has gone through the roof,” he says.

“It was experimentation at first but I’d say now nearly two out of every three customers that are buying beer will go with craft beers”

Tom O’Connor

Beer drinkers might have noticed of late an extra shelf or two in their local off-licence devoted to pricier craft beers. Has the pandemic accelerated their creep into mainstream tastes? O’Connor’s experience would suggest so.

“When the first lockdown happened,” he says, “people were looking for more variety. That’s why we started getting them in. And it was experimentation at first but I’d say now nearly two out of every three customers that are buying beer will go with craft beers, and will spend more in the off-licence than they used to spend. I would think mainly because they’re not drinking in pubs, so they’ve got more income to buy better beers.”

McGrath’s in Drumcondra. Photo by Colm McGuirk

Among the leaders in the Irish craft beer market are O’Hara’s of Carlow, and its chief executive Seamus O’Hara has a similar take to O’Connor.

He tells The City, “My impression over the lockdown has been that people are maybe a bit more adventurous and trying different beers and getting into craft beer – mixing and matching and talking to their friends on Zoom or whatever.”

While larger companies like O’Hara’s have had to take the hit on lost pub and festival sales, for some smaller breweries it’s been all positive in business terms.

“We’re doing better than we would have been before the pandemic,” says Seamus McMahon of Brehon Brewhouse in Co Monaghan, who used 2020’s lockdowns to rebrand and expand their product range. “We have sold a lot more beer. Domestically and internationally as well. We’ve put a lot of beer into England, and [business] has been holding up pretty well since the lockdown.”

 “There’s an old man who only drank Guinness his whole life. Now he’s always asking for recommendations for new stuff”

Brehon’s bottom line has been enhanced by exports, but complications relating to imports may have inadvertently helped out Irish breweries too. Back in O’Brien’s, The City is told that they’ve “found it hard to get stock in, specifically from places like America or Germany, but certainly the Irish stuff has come through. We’ve had a lot more Irish craft beer coming in.”

The expanded selection has broken lifetime habits for some. We’re told of an older regular customer who “only drank Guinness his whole life. I’ve seen him every week and now he’s always asking for recommendations for new stuff.”

Lucas Gomes, who works in Fagan’s in Phibsborough, points out a more dispiriting consequence of the enforced change of routine for some older customers.

“There’s one fella in his 80s who comes here, and he always asks me when we’re going to get back to normal, because it’s bad to be sitting at home drinking, wanting to chat. He was saying it’s strange because now he drinks much more than he used to in the pubs.

“I think [some of the older customers] are more lonely,” Gomes continues. “There is one guy who comes here three or four times a day. So, instead of buying everything together, he comes in the morning and then at one or two o’clock and again in the evening. He always stands here and talks about the day, the news… It’s an opportunity to have a good chat.”

Another grim aspect that shouldn’t be ignored here is the reported increase in alcohol misuse during the pandemic, which at its worst can manifest itself in domestic abuse. Tanya Ward, chief executive of the Children’s Rights Alliance, told the Irish Independent in January “it can get very toxic at home, as people have lost jobs because of Covid and are struggling with mental health and every day is a grind, so we are concerned.

“It has definitely been an issue that has hugely come up. If people are drinking harmfully every day, that impacts their ability to parent their children… and it can sometimes result in them being violent.”

Drinks Ireland has predicted that the current emphasis on quality over quantity will outlive the pandemic.

We’ll have to wait for the ‘last orders’ bell to ring again to find out.

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