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Where to get the best wine, spirits and beer during lockdown

One of the most well-documented early effects of the public lockdown has been an increase in alcohol sales. In the UK, £356.5m was spent on booze in the week when the lockdown was announced, a rise of 67 per cent on the previous week, according to Nielsen.

London wine merchant Roberson, whose bricks-and-mortar premises closed five years ago to much doom and gloom from oenophiles, has been among those to see online business skyrocket. Commercial director Simon Huntington described trade as “absolutely unprecedented”, adding that sales in the last week of March were up 500 per cent on the same week last year, and 1,000 per cent on a month ago – double the previous record, which was set at Christmas.

The Wine Society, Berry Bros and Naked Wines were among those merchants who had to decline new orders while they worked out how to cope with demand.

In similar fashion, Vivino registered its highest ever daily sales total last month. The popular wine-rating app, which also provides retail links for consumers to shop, is a democratic source of inspiration for those still finding their feet in the often intimidating world of wine. It has long claimed that the wine merchants have been slow to harness the full potential of e-commerce, but with drinkers sheltered at home, online retailers are now targeting a captive audience in increasingly innovative ways. And right now, thanks to a more accessible approach, consumers are enjoying more choice than ever before.

Virtual tastings, online masterclasses and IGTV winemaker interviews are all helping bring a complex subject to a previously wary audience now forced to do more shopping online. As a result, merchants who may previously have lost out to the convenience of supermarkets are reaping the rewards – even those who don’t normally sell direct to consumers.

Take London outfit Berkmann, which normally supplies the capital’s restaurant trade. With that route to market blocked, it has, for the first time in its 56-year history, opened up its cellar to consumers. Its Help 4 Hospitality initiative will raise money for displaced ‘on-trade’ employees, but also offer previously unattainable wines to consumers stuck at home. Some 12.5 per cent of its sales will go to The Drinks Trust’s emergency Covid-19 fund and Hospitality Action.

Similarly, Armit Wines is donating £10 to The Drinks Trust’s Covid-19 fund on every order placed for delivery through its website and, as a thank you, it includes a free bottle of wine with every purchase. "Our online orders have massively increased," says managing director Brett Fleming. "March saw our highest turnover for internet sales for over a year – we’re operating at levels similar to Christmas."

As well as new entrance to the booze delivery space, most wine retailers are continuing to deliver – for a comprehensive list of retailers delivering wine in the UK, check out this resource from wine-writing doyenne Jancis Robinson.

The loss of restaurant trade has had a huge effect on some drinks businesses, however. London-based urban winery Renegade sells the vast majority of its wines to pubs and restaurants, with the remainder largely sold at ‘cellar door’, a facility that is now closed. The business, which brings in grapes from vineyards across Europe to make the wine in east London, has had to pivot to taking private customers orders for delivery via DHL, with no minimum order. For anyone looking for something a bit different, it’s a worthy source of varied, characterful wines.

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The same could be said for central London restaurant St John, which, devoid of its loyal clientele, is still selling a range of bag-in-box wines for delivery. Vinoteca, with several mothballed wine bistros across the capital, is continuing its retail business, and is a fine source of less predictable fare.

Spirits, beer and wine retailer 31Dover saw a 400 per cent sales surge on the evening of the lockdown announcement, and has made drinks previously only available in the restaurant trade available to consumers. Among them is Noam beer, which was only founded in 2015 and is normally supped by high-end customers of The Chiltern Firehouse and The Connaught.

When it comes to spirits, there are also rare treasures to be found away from the standard Bell’s and Gordon’s fare. Some distillers are selling direct to consumers, among them Sipsmith, whose Sipping Society makes for a fine introduction to gin’s varied botannicals.

There has also been increased interest in pre-bottled cocktails, bitters and vermouth, according to Master of Malt’s Jason Hockman, who puts the trend down to people trying to upscale their drinking experience at home.

As its name suggests, Master of Malt is a spirits specialist, but it has seen consumer demand shift towards beer during the lockdown, taking the place of six of its 10 best-selling products. For those of similar taste, Honest Brew, which offers monthly subscription boxes of offbeat exclusives from craft brewers around the world, is also worth a look – its Discovery Cases take such themes as IPA, dark beer and Best of British.

Beer 52 is another outlet specialising in craft beers, which puts together a new-customer package of eight beers, a snack and its magazine, Ferment, for your enjoyment. Beer 52 is also, marvellously, now running CyberFest, an online beer festival (billed as a world first), due to run on April 18. Get orders in before the 13th for 12 beers and a festival glass for live streams and Q&As with brewers, with the aim of imbibing to support breweries during Covid-19.

Being WIRED, we could hardly miss out Siren Craft's Futurist IPA, a gluten-free beer with aromas of fruit, pine and vanilla. Available in a 5L mini keg – very handy – beer orders over £6 are free delivery from this brand that started in 2013 and by 2018 had picked up a Supreme Champion Beer of Britain award from CAMRA. Or perhaps try its newest offering, an IPA named Lumina, also available in keg form.

And then there’s the big daddy of the craft beer scene – Brewdog. As well as a huge selection of beers for delivery (currently on a three-day delay due to demand), the brand is in the process of opening an ‘online bar’, featuring live tastings with its founders and other experts, homebrewing masterclasses, virtual pub quizzes and music and comedy. Well, without the pub to head for, it sounds better than a Zoom meeting.

Guy Woodward is content director of Club Oenologique magazine

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This article was originally published by WIRED UK

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