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CONCORD — Not even an annual one-month abstinence initiative could slow the pandemic-spiked flow of alcohol in New Hampshire, to the benefit of the state’s coffers and the concern of substance abuse prevention groups.

“Dry January” was drowned out by an an “around the world” sale on wines in state liquor stores, which helped generate $9 million in profit last month, 18% over forecast.

Retail sales since last July 1, the start of the budget year, are up $11.8 million, or 4.8%, officials said. Profits from wine alone are up 9.7%.

In January, the state netted $6.5 million, more than double its $3.2 million profit of a year ago. It transferred $2.5 million to the alcohol treatment and prevention fund, as required by law.

State Liquor Commission Chairman Joseph Mollica said the sharp revenue uptick is the result of many factors, including people buying more expensive products and mixing their drinks at home and a large number of people moving to New Hampshire to live full-time in their second homes.

During the pandemic, the liquor commission rolled out a curbside pickup program that allows patrons to place an order by phone and have their box or bag of alcohol waiting for them outside the store.

They started with 10 store locations. They plan to expand it to 14 this month and have up to 20 stores in the program by June, Mollica said.

“People really like this option. They feel if they don’t have to go into the store, they reduce any risk,” Mollica said.

Advocates concerned

Kate Frey, vice president of advocacy for New Futures, said anti-substance abuse groups such as hers have been closely watching this trend and are concerned.

“Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, New Hampshire’s alcohol sales have increased as much as five percent from 2019,” she said.

“These rising numbers mirror national trends, and they are great cause for concern. Data shows that alcohol consumption has increased among many subsets of the population, including women, African Americans, and people with children,” Frey said.

“It’s too soon,” Frey said, “to tell how the pandemic will impact long-term rates of alcohol use, but as we continue to battle our ongoing addiction crisis, it’s critically important that we ensure adequate funding and access to prevention, treatment and recovery services to meet the needs of our state.”

Alcohol Change UK, the British nonprofit that popularized Dry January, said it expected 6.5 million people would abstain last month, compared to 3.9 million who did in 2020.

When it launched in 2013, only 4,000 signed a pledge to not drink for the month.

Nearly 29% of adults said they drank more in 2020 than previously, with 26% reporting they were drinking earlier in the day and 31% more often, according to Alcohol Change.

In 2018, a Royal Free Hospital study found taking just one month off from alcohol lowered blood pressure and cholesterol, reduced diabetes risks and reduced the level of cancer-related proteins in the blood.

Premiums lead sales

The New Hampshire revenue growth also is a result of sales improvement among struggling restaurants, Mollica said.

At the height of the pandemic, alcohol sales were off by 50%, Mollica said. Now they are closer to 25% lower than normal.

“It’s great to see them starting to recover,” Mollica said.

Sales of wine and beer at grocery stores and convenience stores have seen an increase of almost 11.5% since last July, compared to the previous year.

Just before the pandemic, Mollica said consumers were buying “more premium” brands of liquor and wine. That trend has only accelerated since last March.

For example, sales of Champagne and sparkling wines were up 14.7% this January compared to the same month last year.

Mollica said “ultra-luxury” wine, bottles selling for $35 or more, have experienced sales growth of 24.4% versus last year.

Sales of “super luxury” wine, bottles costing $25 or more, grew by 25%.

“They certainly are enjoying the high-priced items and tied in with the sale we had that drove the consumers to them,” Mollica said.

“We are seeing the same with spirits,” Mollica said. “People aren’t going to that bottom shelf and buying a no-name vodka, tequila or Scotch. Or fewer people are than used to.”

State caters to market
 

As one of the state’s largest real estate owners, the liquor commission closely watches the market.

Seven under-performing stores have been closed, replaced with higher-traffic locations, including a new one on Gold Street in Manchester and another at the Epsom traffic circle.

Final plans are in the works to open new stores in New London, Claremont and Littleton, along with a refurbished store in Gorham.

A hot real estate market here has to be playing a part in the sales boost, Mollica said.

“You can’t buy a home in the North Country, and anything that goes on (the market) gets picked up right away, often at more-than-asking prices,” Mollica said.

“So many are working remotely wherever they are from, and we are seeing that enhanced traffic in our stores from people who used to be up here for just the summer or fall but are now up here year-round.”

Liquor Commission spokesman E.J. Powers said the state’s first New Hampshire Mocktail Month was very popular, with more than 30 restaurants offering non-alcohol alternative drinks in a partnership with Brown-Forman and Old Forester bourbon.

”We want to promote the responsible sale and to also offer these other non-alcohol options, it was a wildly successful program,” Powers said.

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