Montana Booze Sales Rise as Dow Dives

By Beacon Staff

MISSOULA – If it seems as though people are drinking more alcohol these days, you aren’t imagining things.

Liquor sales in 2008 are significantly higher across Montana than they were in 2007 and 2006, according to figures provided by the Montana Department of Revenue Liquor Control Division.

The state’s liquor warehouse sales have increased by about 14 percent since last year, shipping out 64,143 cases of liquor as of October 2008 compared to 56,381 cases in October 2007, said Cynthia Piearson, public information officer for the Montana Department of Revenue.

There’s no one reason that fully explains the trend, but many professionals in the booze business have their own theories.

“I don’t know if it’s tied directly to the shaky economy,” said Mark Thomsen, a manager at Worden’s Market, a downtown Missoula specialty store that sells wine and beer. “But people want to eat and want to drink. It makes them feel better.

“It’s salve on the wound,” he said. “People want to feel like they have a reward at the end of the day.”

There’s no hard evidence that says Montanans are turning to booze because of the economic downturn, but there’s no denying the liquor business appears to be recession-proof.

In Missoula, local distributors report about a 10 percent to 15 percent increase in sales, with vodka being the liquor of choice.

Business is bustling at Krisco Liquor on Reserve Street, a wholesale retailer.

“It’s hard to gauge right now if it’s because the holidays are coming on or if there is an overall increase in business,” said owner Jacque Thomas. Whatever the reason, Thomas said her business is working at a brisk pace, with most of her efforts devoted to helping stock new Missoula restaurants and bars, and restocking those that are opening after remodeling.

The increased demand for adult beverages has been a boon for Watkins-Shepard, a Missoula-based national trucking company.

In recent years the company has specialized in hauling furniture and carpet, but with the downturn in the economy, those contracts have greatly decreased, said Jim Lewis, director of truck load operations at Watkins-Shepard.

What would have been a giant fiscal hole in their business, however, has been filled by the liquor, beer and wine industries.

“We are seeing a shift in the trend, too,” Lewis said. “We haul for Miller and Anheuser-Busch, and we have seen those load volumes increase into Montana. We also are shipping specialty beers and boutique wines out of California and the West Coast.

“We are definitely seeing a steady increase in that business.”

At Grizzly Liquor in downtown Missoula, a robust lunch hour crowd last week reflected the climbing sales trends.

Hardly a moment went by without a customer walking through the door.

Season to season, year to year, liquor sales are generally pretty reliable and don’t experience wild swings, said Doug Zimmerman, owner of Grizzly Liquor.

“Usually the liquor business hangs on and stays the same,” he said. “We don’t really get hit by the wave in the economy.”

Most of the downtown shoppers came for a bottle a vodka. A few bought whiskey, and the rest bought a little bit of everything — sherry, rum, bourbon, and sweet liqueurs.

Nearly all the customers explained they were stocking their shelves for the upcoming holiday season.

After choosing a bottle of Bailey’s Irish Cream and a bottle of whiskey, Halvor Kamrud of Choteau explained his purchases were event driven.

“It’s the holidays, it’s Cat-Griz weekend and it’s hunting season,” Kamrud said, smiling cheerfully. “‘Tis the season.”