Lockdown cocktails have taken off but regional distilleries can't wait to welcome patrons back

By National Regional Affairs Reporter Eliza Borrello
Critters Distillery in Woolgoolga has served up virtual cocktail masterclasses. (Supplied: Critters Distillery)

While you might have enjoyed cocktails at home during lockdown, regional distillers like Chris Fraser are hoping you'll be back at their doors when things open up. 

Australia's lockdown love affair with alcohol shows up in budget data that shows the federal government collected a whopping $4.4 billion in excise and customs duties on spirits and other alcoholic beverages in the 2020-21 financial year.

But Mr Fraser's business at Woolgoolga, on the NSW mid-north coast, hasn't been drowning in rivers of lockdown cocktail-induced gold.

"Less people coming through the doors initially means, obviously, there's less revenue in the business," the Critters Distillery co-founder said.

Early in the pandemic Critters switched to producing hand sanitizer and more recently has been running virtual cocktail classes to supplement lost revenue.

"We hold Zoom classes," he said.

"If you purchase a ticket we send you out a pack that has all the necessary ingredients, or nearly all the necessary ingredients, for you to make these cocktails at home.

"You then dial into a Zoom meeting where our bar staff and our creative drinks director will actually run through virtually how to make those cocktails."

A cocktail masterclass at Critters Distillers. (Supplied: Critters Distillery, Elize Strydom)

Takeaway cocktails popular in Sydney

Further south, in Sydney, Mosman Rowers Club general manager Sam Curtis said it had clawed back some lost revenue from the lockdown cocktail boom.

The club, on "quite a lovely walking track", saw an opportunity to serve ready-made takeaway cocktails to locals in lockdown and passing walkers.

"We just went with six sort of classics — Margarita being the most popular — and we figured there's an appetite for people just getting out of the house in the afternoon," he said.

"It actually really started with the depths of winter, where you think no-one else is going outside but we had a mulled wine that went absolutely bananas and, you know, sold out two weeks in a row and had lines going down the driveway overnight, through just word of mouth."

"We encourage take-home because that's, you know, in line with the restrictions but we do see quite a mixture of people grabbing and going home, but also then using it on the walking track."

Sam Curtis says Mosman Rowers Club tapped into an appetite by people to escape lockdown in the afternoon. (ABC News: David Claughton)

Mr Curtis said he was looking forward to being able to welcome patrons inside soon.

Likewise, while Woolgoolga is lockdown-free at the moment, Mr Fraser can't wait to see tourists from further afield once lockdowns lift.

"Woolgoolga is a beautiful little coastal town and it (usually) has a thriving and a bustling tourism industry," he said.

"I think all of the retail and hospitality outlets here in Woolgoolga and probably across all regional New South Wales, I think they're all really looking forward to getting out of lockdowns and having a holiday period where we actually can have guests and customers come back and visit.

"That's part of why we do what we do."

Critters Distillery owners Chris and Nicola Fraser can't wait to welcome visitors back to Woolgoolga. (Supplied: Critters Distillery, Elize Strydom)

He noted some of the federal government's alcohol tax bonanza came from the sale of imported products and hopes the end of lockdowns will see more support for local businesses.

"We have some of the best drinks and best spirits in the world and they've been awarded internationally all around the world," he said.

"So I think if you can support your local craft distillery or brewer, certainly jump on board and purchase from them before you go and look overseas."

While the overall increase in alcohol sales during the pandemic may be seen as reason to celebrate for retailers, Caterina Giorgi, chief executive of the Foundation for Alcohol, Research and Education's (FARE), said several alcohol helplines saw sweeping surges in demand at the height of the pandemic.

"We saw calls go from 500 to more than 1,100 and that's a huge increase," she said of the Alcohol and Other Drugs (AOD) hotline.

"We're starting to hear from AOD services that they're seeing more people going to access their supports and wait lists are getting really long."

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