Drinks to-go, for good?

Lawmakers consider extending carry-out alcohol sales from restaurants


Restaurants across the country lost about $120 billion in the early months of the pandemic — March to May 2021. In turn, states and local governments loosened laws in attempts to help them recoup some of those losses and make ends meet as the pandemic wore on throughout the year.

Boulder County, of course, did its part — municipalities closed down main corridors and allowed restaurants to expand outdoor dining options into the street. They also, with supportive guidance from the state, allowed restaurants to sell alcohol to-go. Nationwide, similar guidelines varied. Although some states had allowed some form of alcohol sales for carryout pre-pandemic, many, like Colorado, added on the ability to distribute single-serve cocktails in 2020.

It was a literal lifesaver for many restaurants. (Plus, it’s been kind of cool for us consumers.) Cocktails alone represented about 10% of restaurants’ to-go sales in the last year, according to Pew Charitable Trusts.

“It has been really important to restaurants during this crisis,” Mike Whatley, National Restaurant Association vice president of state and local affairs, told Pew. “Typically, alcohol, especially cocktails, is one of your highest margins. When you’re relying more on takeout and delivery, if you’re missing cocktails to-go you’re missing that revenue stream.”

But as soon as the benefits became evident, concerns crept in about the long-term availability of this option. Only three states and the District of Columbia have permanently approved alcohol to-go sales from restaurants. Now, Colorado lawmakers are considering a bill that would extend the current allowances for five more years.

Alternatively, if lawmakers don’t pass House Bill 21-1027, to-go alcohol sales would end in July.

In lockstep with the expanded service options, restaurateurs innovated to provide unique offerings. Many restaurants over the last year have provided half-price or otherwise discounted wine bottles from their wine lists, others have thrown in free pints of beer with purchases of dinner. Some created unique cocktails and cocktail kits made for at-home enjoyment.

Big Red F, which operates several restaurants in Boulder County, categorized its pivots as “in-house liquor stores.” At West End Tavern, it launched West End Liqours, and at Lola Coastal Mexican, The Little Tequilla Shop.

The benefits to consumers, as Big Red F sees it, is that restaurants have forged connections with distributors to keep interesting options flowing to their operations. You can peruse the aisle of a liquor store, or, you can check out options at a local restaurant that are curated by a group of bartenders, bar managers and chefs that often source rarer finds than retail alcohol stores.

For instance, if you’re a bourbon fan, you might have to wait until distilleries release coveted batches and then, no kidding, track down the truck and stand in line at 8 a.m. to get your hands on something like George T. Stagg or Pappy Van Winkle. Because West End Tavern has bottles on its shelf, you can instead order from them, whenever (assuming they haven’t run out of it). Plus, you have the option to try spirits, wines and more at local restaurants before you commit to a bottle.

You’ll pay a premium for all this, and you always could’ve stopped in to a restaurant to try something before going to the liquor store to buy it, so there’s a fair amount of marketing involved. But the boost in convenience is substantial, and it helps restaurants survive.

“We’ll continue to sell to-go alcohol as long as we can from West End Liquors and The Little Tequila Shop,” says Big Red F COO Audrey Quistorff. “It’s an additional revenue stream for our restaurants that’s very important as we continue to rebound from the pandemic.”